Running it back: Ravens' offensive identity, pass rush disrupts the Browns, Marlon Brown and more

September 16, 2013|By Matt Vensel

The Ravens are just two games into their grueling 16-game regular season, and while they are still trying to figure out what their identity will be on offense, it’s becoming pretty clear what they hope that identity will be.

The Ravens have ran 158 offensive plays in their two games, not the most in the NFL but enough to get a respectful nod from Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Joe Flacco has attempted 95 passes, the most of any quarterback in the league entering tonight’s game. And by my count coordinator Jim Caldwell has used three-receiver sets on more than 55 percent of the plays, which is about 12 percent more than a season ago.

Some of those numbers are inflated because the Ravens fell behind by a few scores in their Week 1 loss to the Denver Broncos, but still, they came out throwing early and often against the Broncos and also yesterday in their 14-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens are putting their faith in the rocket right arm of their $120.6 million man despite injuries and inconsistent play at the wide receiver and tight end positions.

So far, the numbers have been big but the results inconsistent.

Against the Broncos, Flacco played well enough in the first half to keep the Ravens in the game with Peyton Manning. But a critical drop by tight end Dallas Clark before halftime probably took four points off the board, and after a string of untimely three-and-outs to start the second half, the Ravens fell behind and had to throw nearly every down to try and catch up. Flacco threw for 362 yards, but averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt, nearly half as much as Manning.

The offense was shut out in the first half against the Browns, but you can’t pin that on Flacco. He threw a pair of accurate deep passes that could have -- and probably should have -- been caught by his wide receivers for touchdowns and twice moved the Ravens into field-goal position.

In the second half, his wide receivers started to make plays for him. He completed 10 of his 12 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown after halftime and the Ravens were 7-for-9 on third down, a few of the conversions coming on passes in third-and-medium situations. Flacco finished the afternoon with 211 yards and a touchdown on 22-for-33 passing.

The offense’s personnel usage was also indicative of the pass-first trend. The Ravens used their 21 personnel -- two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers -- often on the first three drives with some success, but for the second straight game they ended up using their 11 personnel -- one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers -- most.

By my count, the Ravens have used 11 personnel on 90 of their 158 offensive plays, including 30 plays against the Browns. Their second-most popular group is the 21 personnel, which they have used on 38 plays, including 27 against the Browns. They have used two tight ends at the same time on 28 plays, not including their goal-line heavy set.

Given the injury to starting wide receiver Jacoby Jones and the relative newness of Brandon Stokley and Marlon Brown to the offense, it seemed the Ravens might rely on the running game more with All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, brought back after the injury to tight end Dennis Pitta, plowing running lanes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce with his facemask.

But the revolution has long been underway, and it doesn’t appear they plan on bringing it to a halt now, not after two games in which the running game was mostly non-existent. They won a Super Bowl by spreading defenses out, speeding up to the line of scrimmage and slinging the ball all over the field with Flacco. That’s what they hope their identity can be.

One thing that I learned

The pass rush might be even better than we first suspected. In the loss to the Broncos, the Ravens sacked Manning -- whose quick trigger finger makes him tougher to bring down than athletic freaks like Michael Vick and Colin Kaepernick -- three times and hit him a few other times. Against the Browns, the Ravens swarmed quarterback Brandon Weeden before he left the game with a thumb injury late in the fourth quarter. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees threw some clever blitzes at him, but the Ravens also were able to generate good pressure when they sent a standard four-man rush. They sacked Weeden five times and hit him seven other times, including a hard, legal hit by rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. On one blitz, which was a microcosm of the defense’s performance, four or five Ravens crashed through the offensive line and converged on Weeden, burying him in a half-ton pig pile. Inside linebackers Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown were credited with half sacks, but it could have been split between a few Ravens, including Elvis Dumervil and Haloti Ngata. The Ravens have eight sacks through two games, including two apiece for Suggs and Dumervil. At this rate, the Ravens could lead the NFL in sacks at season’s end.

Handing out game balls

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