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When Philosophy & Personnel Don’t Match – The 2021 Ravens

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I’ve long been a Greg Roman truther.

In an era where teams have adjusted to offense-friendly rules by aligning with three- and four-receiver sets, and defenses have in kind responded with smaller, faster units who can play both north and south, and east and west, I’ve felt that Roman and his bullying ways were the perfect “zag” to everyone else’s “zig.”

That magical 2019 season showcased all the good that a Roman offense can be — combining a line stacked with prime Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda and the powerful Orlando Brown Jr., with physical runners, a lightning-quick quarterback and a three-headed monster at tight end that could morph into having an advantage no matter what personnel the opposing defense presented. The offense kept defenses on their heels, and it appeared that the ceiling was practically infinite once the team was able to add some quality receivers who could equally terrorize opponents downfield and along the perimeters, as well as attack in the box and up the seams.

But there’s been a disconnect with the construction of the team along the way, and some blame can be scattered across different levels of the organization — like breadcrumbs forming a trail to failure.

Look, injuries and COVID decimated this team this season. It’s silly to overlook that and just point at the “next man up” philosophy when several position groups became represented by the “next man after the next man after that next man.”

Cut the impact of injuries to this team by 25 percent and they are preparing for a playoff game this weekend. Cut it by half and you’re looking at a team that would have most likely given the Bengals a legitimate run at the division, and been a favorite in a relatively-weak AFC.

But they weren’t going to win it all this season. Not with one very basic disconnect.

The Problem

If we’re being honest here – and we are trying to be just that – prime Stanley was not on this year’s roster. You can assign blame for the miscalculation of his health entering this season however you’d like, but the fact is that the anchor of the offensive line — one of the best in the entire league — was not himself in his sole cameo appearance in the season’s opener, and disappeared after that to try to get his health back on track. Yanda is riding a bicycle through cornfields in Iowa. Brown Jr. is protecting the blind side of one Patrick Mahomes.

A Roman offense requires an offensive line that can impose its will, and what was left of the Ravens line this season was not that unit. Alejandro Villanueva by all accounts is a stand-up guy and a hard worker, but he was severely overmatched, both in space and trying to go downhill. There were several people who gave right tackle a valiant effort, particularly Patrick Mekari, but they never found any traction there, either. Newcomer Kevin Zeitler provided a veteran presence at right guard, and Bradley Bozeman played pretty well at center, but there were no earth-movers. The line was not the strength it needed to be for Roman’s offense to excel.

And that three-headed monster at tight end? Mark Andrews has blossomed into a truly elite talent at the position, and was the MVP of this year’s team. But there was no Hayden Hurst to provide another receiving option, and Nick Boyle was battling health concerns for a second straight season that didn’t allow him to be as productive as he has been in the past. Patrick Ricard, the pancake-providing, earth-moving fullback/tight end, was very good before injuries curtailed his season, but he was no longer there at the end to dish out what the Ravens needed to make the offense work.

And, oh yeah, the star of that 2019 offense, MVP Lamar Jackson? He ran into the first prolonged slump of his career, and struggled with COVID and injuries at different points of the season, including the start of the team’s late-season collapse.

Those guys that made Roman’s offense hum in that 2019 regular season? Not there anymore. And what happened next — or didn’t happen — is what ultimately sank this team.

Not a  Solution

The team did upgrade its receiving room. Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman, James Proche, Devin Duvernay and Sammy Watkins make up a solid-to-better-than-average receiver corps, especially when paired with Andrews. I think we can all agree some positive work was done there.

That being said…

That offensive line, as we mentioned, is deteriorated from 2019, the tight-end room is not as strong of a unit and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards (a perceived strength before the season began) were lost before opening kickoff. In short, personnel changed.

But the offense did not. At least, not nearly enough.

An objective look at the offense told you quite clearly that the pass-catchers were the strength of the team. Therefore, the offense should have been built more to accentuate that strength.

Look, Eric Tomlinson is a nice blocker at tight end, but he’s not Boyle, at protecting or receiving. He wasn’t going to be a factor in keeping defenses off balance, or moving the chains. The play-action game often only led to mobile quarterbacks turning their backs to pass-rushers, often negating that mobility and resulting in negative plays that put them behind down and distance.

Instead of focusing their offensive game plans on spreading out defenses, taking extra pass-rushers away from the line of scrimmage and getting talented receivers into routes, they continuously tried to cram a square peg into a round hole and go about their business like they had their 2019 roster on the field.

The Blame Game

Does Roman deserve some of the blame here? In my eyes, yes. He could have adjusted better to his real-life personnel instead of holding on to ghosts of the past, and run stacks or spread formations to get guys into space quickly, before the offensive line got steamrolled. Before quarterbacks were often moved off their launch point prematurely, forced to improvise or pull grass out of their facemasks while teammates pulled their jerseys back over their shoulder pads.

Jackson could have slowed down a little on the “hero ball” that seemed to seep into his mind as things regressed this season, and patiently taken those opportunities that did present themselves, instead of trying to generate the big play out of nothing too often.

John Harbaugh, as the top dog of the team, could have put down his foot and demanded a different style of play.

And Eric DeCosta could have focused more of his efforts on revamping the offensive line, particularly after the trade of Brown to the Chiefs. Zeitler? Good signing, right off the bat.

Villanueva? Come on. We all knew that one was a stretch from the beginning.

A swing tackle? Also painfully missing this year, unless you truly believe in Mekari. For the record, I value him more as a chess piece in case of an emergency — not an integral part of the rotation.

What’s Next?

The team has to decide what direction they are going to head going into the 2022 season. If they are hitching the proverbial wagon to Roman, then do so. Add linemen. Really good linemen. Add to the tight end room. Bring back Ricard and plan to bludgeon people into oblivion, while looking for splash plays out of the receivers and move-the-chains stuff from Andrews.

To me, Roman has not shown an ability, or willingness, to change a whole lot about his offensive philosophies. If you’re going with him, give him what he needs.

If not, and you are looking at the current makeup of your roster, it is important to find a coordinator who can get the best out of the talent on hand. Spread things out. Exploit speed. Get Dobbins and Edwards running into smaller, less-congested fronts next season.

The Ravens have some great pieces, particularly when healthy, but they are going to lose quite a few familiar faces next season — that’s the reality of having top-end talent and a salary cap, and operating under the institutional philosophy of competing every year instead of aiming for “a window.”

But they will need to bring in the right pieces, and make sure they are suiting up for a system that bests takes advantage of their strengths. Or it’s going to be another difficult January next year.

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