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Ravens Held Back by Offensive Philosophy (Part 1)

Lamar Jackson and John Harbaugh
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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The Ravens season came to a disappointing end in Week 17. Many of us had mentally moved onto the offseason weeks ago, and I have been looking forward and thinking about what changes could be made. In this first of a three-part series of articles I plan on doing, I want to first focus on coaching and overall philosophy.

The purpose of this series to take a broad scope look at the organization and examine what the team philosophy seems to be with respect to building a team and how to win football games. I will also take a look at each position group, discuss what they could/should do with pending free agents, and other roster moves.

What should be the focus this offseason? Who should be brought back? Who should be extended? Who should they let walk?

Despite the injuries and COVID issues, the 2021 Ravens played well, and played hard. Guys have been coached up, the team stayed in games they had no business staying in, and they had a chance to win a lot of games this year. Credit goes to coaching for this, as well as scouting, draft, etc. I have stated that I think the Ravens will be losing some coaches off of their staff this offseason, and this is a big reason why.

John Harbaugh’s average W-L record since 2008 is 10.6-5.4.  He’s taken his team to the playoffs nine times in his first 14 years.  They have four division titles, two AFC title game appearances and one Super Bowl title. How many teams in the NFL have that resume for the past 14 years? Outside of New England, anyone? Green Bay? Pittsburgh? The answer is: not many.

So, why are we hearing whispers from fans of wanting Harbaugh gone? The team is always competitive, they win a lot, they get to the playoffs on a consistent basis and it’s an overall well-run organization with great continuity.

Is all of that enough though? Are fans being fair expecting more? All of that success is great but only four division titles means a lot of road playoff games. The Ravens have only played four home playoff games under Harbaugh. Could they have another title if they were hosting some of these key playoff games? It certainly couldn’t have hurt. They have only won two playoff games since winning the Super Bowl in 2013.

To put that in perspective, they have as many playoff wins as Jacksonville and only one more than Cleveland in that same time frame.

Maybe you think its expecting too much to want more playoff wins and division titles. Maybe I am being greedy. But why is it OK for Chiefs fans to feel this way? Why is it OK for New England, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh fans?

I think the Ravens belong in the conversation with the best teams in the league and, as fans, we should be expecting more.

As fans, we have been left wanting more for almost a decade now, especially these past four seasons. All that’s left on Lamar Jackson‘s rookie contract is the fifth-year option. In the first four (very cheap) years of Lamar’s deal, all the Ravens have to show for it is one playoff win and one division title.

And let’s be clear about something: the single greatest commodity in sports is a star QB’s rookie deal. To have very little to no cap money committed to the most important position in sports is something every team wishes it had. The Ravens had it. And, unfortunately, it feels like they have completely squandered it.

That’s not all their fault. There has certainly been some bad luck involved, especially with injuries this year and COVID last year, but the end results are what they are. Things happen that are out of your control, but I wonder, if they tweaked their team philosophies, would they have been better off?

Since Harbaugh has been the coach, there have been a lot of consistencies. In the past 14 seasons, the Ravens defense has been, on average, a top 10 defense in many of the major defensive categories. They average 8th in total defense, 9th in pass defense, 9th in rush defense and 8th in points allowed. They have had a team philosophy of stopping the run being the first and main priority and, in many years, they have been at or near the top of the league in that stat.

This philosophy has come at a price: the pass rush isn’t as good as maybe it could be. A big reason for that, is that you have multiple interior lineman who don’t push pockets and get into the backfield and get sacks. Baltimore has guys that are more space eaters, take up multiple blockers, etc.…Brandon Williams is a perfect example of that. Because of this, it largely leaves you with guys off the edge to get sacks or, in recent years, the need for heavy blitzing. This has come at a cost against some of the better QBs in the league. Because of the lack of pass rush against some of the elite teams/QBs, the Ravens have allowed those guys to pick them apart at times and score too much to overcome.

The teams that are able to generate pressure with their front-four and then drop seven back have been more successful, more often, vs those types of QBs.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the Ravens won their share of big games playing this way, but it does largely limit their ceiling against the best. It gives them a smaller margin for error. It wins a lot of games because there are only so many elite level QBs.

But when they come up against the best, they are limited.

They also rely on man coverage to go with the blitzing. When they are healthy, that can work. They have some very good man-to-man cornerbacks. As we saw this year, when they aren’t as healthy and have some of the back-end issues, such as breakdowns in communication, they give up far too many big plays.

I think blitz-man is fairly smart strategy overall but like anything else, it’s not without its issues.

One often forgotten but certainly important aspect of the game, in which the Ravens routinely excel, is special teams. They always boast one of the better special teams units in the league. Harbaugh is as-advertised in this regard. I do think they need to move on from Sam Koch though. I think he is slipping a little bit and they can save a few million on the cap if they cut him.

So, two-thirds of the team is, generally speaking, in the top third of the league (if not higher) every year. And while I would like to see the defense get someone on the inside this offseason that can push the pocket and get sacks, I do feel that their overall philosophies on defense and special teams are sound. I think they are trying to fix the pass rush and I feel they are starting to get some players in place to do that.

I have a lot of faith and confidence that they will get back to being an elite defense as they get healthier and younger, and I think that will be the case as soon as the 2022 season.

I am not writing this series to question whether or not Eric DeCosta is the right man for the job, because I think he’s great and had an overall superb offseason. I am not even questioning whether Harbaugh should still be the head coach. I think the players respect him and play hard for him and I think the ability to manage egos is still the #1 job of any pro coach, and he does well with that.

But I do think the organization has to re-think some things. Specifically, how to change the offense.

Parts two and three will focus on the offense, which is the area of this team that I feel has consistently held them back, no matter who the QB has been. I feel that their organizational philosophy on offense has held them back just enough to lose games when they matter the most on any kind of a consistent basis, especially in the playoffs.

What can they change and what do the offensive position groups look like heading into the offseason?

My answers in the coming days.

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