Baltimore Ravens coordinator Greg Roman said he thinks about tweaking the NFL’s highest-scoring offense once a minute every day.
Unfortunately for Roman, he’s hasn't been able to see any of his ideas play out with reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson running and throwing passes around the field.
The coronavirus pandemic caused the NFL to shut down team facilities for months and cancel all organized training activities this spring. The Ravens lost out on 13 practices that could have been used to add, or at least try out, wrinkles to an attack that will have a bull’s-eye on its back after averaging 33.2 points per game last season.
"We haven’t had the luxury of the OTAs and whatnot, to really kind of test-run certain things, so we have to be really judicious with how we use that time in training camp to experiment,” Roman said. "I think experimenting this year is going to be very selective.”
In Jackson’s first full season as starting quarterback, the Ravens backed up their claim they would “revolutionize” the league with their creative brand of offense. Baltimore kept defenders confused with the amount of pre-snap motions and fake handoffs, all of which led to Jackson leading the NFL in touchdown passes and the Ravens setting the league’s single-season rushing record.
This year, the Ravens have five games against defenses that finished in the top 10, but they understand everyone will be watching film to find out ways to slow down Jackson and this offense. This is the time of year when Baltimore would use those 26 hours of practice to stay ahead of defenses by tinkering with different formations, route combinations and blocking schemes.
Now, the Ravens will arrive at training camp in late July just trying to get their own players up to speed with their system when they take the field for the first time in six months.
"Especially in a season like this, you don’t want to get too far off the rails,” Roman said. “You have to kind of stay on the rails and be selective with what you want to do differently.”
Repeating scoring success is tough under normal circumstances. Over the past two decades, just four teams (the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos) averaged more than 30 points in consecutive seasons. The last team to do so was Denver (2012-14), with Peyton Manning at quarterback.
The Ravens raised the bar last season with their record-setting offense. Jackson became the first player in NFL history to produce more than 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a single season. Baltimore broke a 41-year-old league record by rushing for 3,296 yards. The Ravens set franchise marks for touchdowns (64), points (531), net yards (6,521), first downs (286) and fewest turnovers (15).
It would appear that Baltimore is set to repeat those types of fireworks, considering the offense returns all but one starter (Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda retired).
But, with the offseason being unlike any other, Roman believes expectations might have to be tempered.
"This year might be an interesting year as far as stats and records," Roman said. "Maybe it’s not a stats-and-records year around the league, just because of the nature of how things are right now. We’ll see; we just don’t know. The important thing is that we keep moving towards playing winning football.”
One of the biggest reasons the Ravens finished with a league-best 14-2 record last season was Jackson’s development as a passer. He made major strides with his consistency, going from a 58.2% completion rate in 2018 to 66.1% last season.
This offseason, the Ravens are emphasizing Jackson's throwing to different areas of the field. Coach John Harbaugh mentioned a variety of routes -- the outs, comebacks, deep curls and deep stop routes along the sideline -- are open because defenses over commit to stop the run.
On passes outside the numbers last season, Jackson ranked third in completion rate (68.2%) but 27th in yards per attempt (6.41).
"These are all types of routes that we have time to throw, a lot of times,” Harbaugh said. "Lamar has good numbers throwing the ball like this, but that’s an area we want to really see if we can make people defend those parts of the field, even more than they have in the past, and just try to create more problems and put them in more conflicts, even than we did last year.”
The Ravens expect Jackson to grow as a passer each year but are cognizant of not limiting the other areas of his game. Even though Baltimore won’t be able to change as many parts of its offense as it would like to do, the team knows it holds the advantage on defenses because it’s difficult to prepare for Jackson’s speed, athleticism and elusiveness. There were so many instances last seasons when defenders were in the right spot against Jackson only to watch him escape to deliver a touchdown pass or break free for a long run.
"There’s a magic to his style and how he plays,” Roman said. "We always want to focus that creativity and that energy into winning football, and winning football decisions on the field -- accuracy, timing, vision, all those things. As part of his development, chase to being great and chase to improve, you’re working on all these things all the time."