The 2018 Browns’ matchup against the Baltimore Ravens was a highly-anticipated week 17 showdown. The Browns’ playoff hopes had already been extinguished, but the Ravens were playing to win the AFC North: win and they were in, lose and the Pittsburgh Steelers would claim the division title and a playoff appearance. Everyone tuned in to the primetime affair, including the Steelers, who stayed out on Heinz Field after their game to watch with their playoff hopes in the balance.
The game was an exciting back-and-forth, with the Browns’ comeback hopes crushed late in the 4th quarter on a Baker Mayfield interception. While the 2018 Browns might not have had much at stake, this week 17 matchup offered a great insight into the post-Joe Flacco era Ravens and what their offense might look like with rookie Lamar Jackson at the helm.
Running, a lot of Running
Jackson took the starting QB job from Flacco after 9 games, starting the final 7 games for the Ravens. In those final 7 games, the Ravens ran the ball more than anyone–and it wasn’t even close:
The Jackson-led Ravens had a full 10% higher run% than the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL leader in run% over the entire 2018 season. That 10% gap is more than the gap between the Seahawks and the Saints, who were 9th in the league in run%.
The Ravens ran so much because it fit their roster, especially once Flacco gave way to Jackson. Not only did Jackson give the Ravens a mobile QB capable of helping the run game, he gave them an electrifying weapon who is capable of doing ridiculous things like this:
While the change from the immobile Flacco to a guy with Jackson’s elite suddenness and speed is obvious, there were other players who helped the Ravens’ rushing attack as well.
The next most obvious group is the Ravens’ tight ends. Former GM and TE Ozzie Newsome was never shy about drafting players that played his position, and in 2018 Maxx Williams, Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews, and Nick Boyle all played significant roles at TE for the Ravens. They used these TEs as mobile blockers who could go in motion, pull, or fit in multiple places as blockers. Additionally, the TEs were able to be split out as slot receivers as well. The net result of this was the Ravens could generate a multitude of looks despite running only a handful of actual running plays.
Lastly, WR/RB Ty Montgomery played a minor role for the Ravens as a player who (like the TEs) was versatile and could go in motion, block, play as a slot WR or pass-catcher, but was also a threat to run the ball as well, although he was not used as much as the TEs.
Though Montgomery, Newsome, and Williams are gone from the 2019 Ravens, Boyle, Hurst, and Andrews remain. And the addition of first round pick WR Marquise Brown gives the Ravens a speedy weapon who could be involved in the running game as an RPO option, a ballcarrier, or a decoy.
When reviewing the game, I was not surprised to find that the Ravens’ running game consisted of the same base plays that the entire rest of the NFL runs, with a few new/en vogue concepts that the rest of the NFL also ran in 2018. The main plays the Ravens used last year are as follows:
Power or Power O is your classic gap-blocked run. The goal is to create a lot of force at the point of attack and to pry a gap open for the back.
Playside linemen block down, away from the playside of the run. A FB kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage, while the backside guard pulls and leads the back through the hole. The backside tackle makes sure there is no penetration while the guard pulls, then hinges out to stop backside pursuit.
Counter is extremely similar to Power. If it is run with only one lineman pulling, it’s exactly the same (frontside down blocks, backside guard pulls, backside tackle hinges) except the order of the FB and pulling guard is reversed: the guard kicks out the end man while the FB lead blocks through the hole. Typically, on the snap the RB and FB will take a step away from the eventual side of the run. This provides misdirection and also helps set up the timing of the play.
Counter can also be run with two pulling linemen (backside tackle and backside guard). This creates a massive gap that good defensive linemen can exploit, or it tasks a FB with blocking players like Myles Garrett or JJ Watt. NFL teams tend not to run this version as much for that reason, but the Ravens did.
Most NFL teams run some form of outside zone, a play that aims to get the defense moving side to side. Linemen all work to the playside of the run, attempting to reach defenders playside of them and seal them off to the inside. If they can’t reach the defender, they run him to the sideline.
Linemen will solo block, double team a defensive lineman up to the second level, or leak immediately to the second level for a LB/S depending on their specific assignment. Some teams really commit to this play and base their entire offensive system around it, but most teams rely on it as just one tool in their arsenal. The Ravens obviously used it as just one component of what they do.
Inside Zone/”Slice” Split Zone
Inside Zone looks very much like Outside Zone on the snap, with each lineman stepping playside in unison and no pullers. Inside Zone also uses very similar rules to determine double teams up to the second level. However, Inside Zone is a more downhill, physical play than Outside Zone. Instead of attempting to reach and seal defenders, blockers on Inside Zone look to knock defenders back, or potentially punish them for over-pursuing (e.g. if the defense saw the O line’s movement and thought it was Outside Zone).
Variations of Inside Zone are often used to cut back runs against a defense that is over-pursuing or anticipating the Outside Zone run. Offenses will also use various tactics on the backside of the play which can help create cutback lanes, and one such tactic is the “Slice” block, or what some refer to as “Split Zone.”
The Slice block is typically a TE, FB, or other mobile blocker who cuts back against the grain behind the line (in green above). His job is to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage on the backside of the run, and because his block and the rest of the blocks go in opposite directions, this often times creates effective cutback lanes for the runner.
Draw plays are often considered a constraint play for passes, but they are no doubt an effective run play for the Ravens. On Draw, the offensive line pass sets to invite pass rushers up the field. The offense uses the defense’s momentum against them, and has the RB sneak out with the ball.
Duo is hot right now.
Duo was probably the Browns’ favorite run play last year, but the Ravens used it as well. Duo looks a lot like Inside Zone, but is more accurately described as “Power without a pull.” As the name might imply, the offensive line looks to get as many double-teams as possible. Just like Power, a TE or back typically kicks out the end man on the line, while the TE and rest of the linemen down block with double teams up to backers.
There are some defensive fronts and offensive formations or motions that cause the play to look slightly different than Power, but much of the time it’s literally blocked the same as the Power run only with the backside guard not pulling.
Window Dressing and Reads
If the above sounds relatively normal, that’s because it is. These base run plays are utilized by every NFL team and make up the vast majority of run plays in the league.
What really set the Ravens apart down the stretch last year was Jackson and the way the coaching staff constructed their offense around him. He provided a playmaking threat with his legs that opened up new dimensions for the Ravens that other teams simply do not have. And with their multitude of TEs, the Ravens were able to spread the field, use motion and the threat of Jackson’s legs to create confusion, hesitation, and wide open running lanes.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be breaking down individual runs from the week 17 showdown, as well as highlighting a few of the Browns’ responses. In the meantime, here’s some Mic’d Up Hype for the rivalry: