Like the desert Jackrabbit’s long ears that dissipate the broiling heat, or the owl’s hollow bones that allows them to float in silence, Greg Roman running the Baltimore Ravens’ offense makes perfect sense. Some things fit clean and square, pure and perfect. This is one of those things.
If you don’t know who Greg Roman is, you know who Greg Roman is. He was the offensive coordinator who helped architect the San Francisco 49ers’ heavy backfield, power run offense from 2011 to 2014, while you were listening to Because The Internet, waiting for Walter White to die, afraid and confused about what to do for the rest of your life. From 2011 to 2014, with Alex Smith giving way to Colin Kaepernick in 2012, the 49ers had a top five rush offense in 2012 and 2014 and a fringe top ten one in 2013.
After Jim Harbaugh took off to Michigan following a 8-8 finish in 2014, Roman went to Buffalo, where he produced another great run-heavy offense with a mobile quarterback, bringing that same power running fire along with him. The Bills ranked first in yards per carry, and second and then first in rush offense DVOA in his two seasons there. Overall, the Bills had a top ten offense with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback and LeSean McCoy at running back. The Bills would have been better than mediocre if Rex Ryan didn’t ruin their defense by switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4. They would have been Super Bowl contenders.
After Ryan was fired, Roman was out of a job. He hooked up with another Harbaugh. His first two Baltimore years were a lacuna. He was the tight ends coach. He was the assistant head coach. It was a semester abroad. Then petulant Joe Flacco went from standing as a wide receiver with his hands on his hips to standing on the sideline, and Baltimore’s entire offense was handed over to Lamar Jackson.
Roman took over as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator this past offseason. After a summer spent molding an offense around Jackson, the Ravens have improved from 4.5 yards a carry (15th) to 5.5 (1st), improved a rush offense DVOA of -1.9% (10th) to 20.3% (1st), and are flirting with all-time great rushing offense status. Jackson is up from 4.7 yards an attempt and a rush offense DVOA of -27.2%, which is less efficient than Philip Rivers, to 6.6 yards per attempt and a rushing offense DVOA of 17%. Jackson has already exceeded Kaepernick’s best rushing season.
Their passing game has also substantially improved. They’ve jumped from 6.1 net yards an attempt (23rd) to 7.1 (7th). Their passing offense DVOA has gone from 15.7% (17th) to 29.1% (9th). Total. Combined. They’re leading the NFL with 33.3 points a game. The Ravens are a surreal Super Bowl contender because of their offense, not because of their defense.
It’s a perfect marriage of scheme and player, and the Ravens are a contender because of it. Roman has taken everything he’s learned over those years and expanded upon it into an unstoppable force. It starts with the zone read and then flies out to infinity from there.
This is it in its simplest form, but even then, nothing is all that simple when the Ravens run the ball. They’re blocking this like an inside zone play with Jackson in the pistol. With a man in the ‘A’ gap left guard Bradley Bozeman (#77) and center Matt Skura (#68) have an ‘Ace’ block to inside linebacker Mark Barron (#26). Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (#79) climbs up to the other inside linebacker Devin Bush (#55). The back side blocks big on big. Man blocks. No need to punish. Do just enough. Bud Dupree (#48) is the read defender.
The Ravens motion Nick Boyle (#86), which pulls the safety away from the keep. Bush and Barron react to the strong double team in front of them, giving Stanley an easier second level block. When Lamar Jackson (#8) holds the hand-off at the mesh point, Dupree turns to the line of scrimmage and chases down. He sits in the gap. Jackson keeps.
He cuts inside of Willie Snead’s block on the slot corner. From there, he sprints wide, running away from everyone, and slides out of bounds to avoid the hit. Despite having 106 carries already, Jackson isn’t consistently hit. He jukes away from contact and spins around to find safety out of bounds.
Each piece of the play is integral. It’s an entire ecosystem. The double teams that move the line of scrimmage. The motion that creates extra space. The hand-off that forces the linebacker to think. The alley block that creates a seam for Jackson. Nothing is wasted. Each piece plays its part.
This is the same play against the Steelers’ nickel defense on 1st and 10. This time the motion pulls both inside linebackers along with Boyle, leading to easy first level blocks that don’t even require second level contact, which creates a hole off the edge for Jackson. Dupree doesn’t turn this time. He stays square. Two steps is too many to be able to break outside and chase Jackson down. Jackson cuts outside of Snead’s block. He runs untouched and sniffs the goal line.
Two plays later. 2nd and goal from the 4 yard line. Same play. Except this time, Snead’s motion comes from the other direction, pulling the slot corner away from the first read, and tight end red zone threat Mark Andrews is on the line of scrimmage against the Steelers’ goal line defense. It’s an atypical goal line defense. Pittsburgh is wide on the edges. They have a safety in the box and only two down interior linemen.
The Ravens create two brutal and strong double teams because of the defensive alignment. In a vacuum, the Ravens have a great offensive line, and situations like these are easy conversions. Each double drives the line of scrimmage and picks up the second level. When Dupree remains still, it’s game over. Mark Ingram (#21) follows Stanley for an easy touchdown.
The same play call. The read is the same. Each time yields a successful result. Sweltering. And this is as bland as the Ravens’ zone read offense gets.
Roman has expanded upon this play by attaching a read to numerous run plays. Baltimore will run power-read, counter-read, duo-read, lead-read. The Ravens are running read options off nearly every run play imaginable.
Baltimore was marvelous running a variety of power plays against the Seahawks. This time it’s second and nine. The Seahawks are in their nickel defense. With a rush offense DVOA of 20.3%, the Ravens are one of the rare teams who aren’t wasting time running in situations like these. A read-counter run picks up an easy 14 on what should be a passing down.
Motions are ubiquitous in this offense. Boyle motions from the slot behind the formation. He pulls to the alley defender and ignores the read defender Poona Ford (#97). The play side double team pushes the first level to the play side linebacker. The center blocks down so the backside guard Marshal Yanda (#73) pulls clean and fresh pressed. The backside tackle Orlando Brown Jr. (#78) hinges from the inside gap out.
The motion pulls Boyle closer to his block, and it also puts the linebacker in motion, running off balance, reading on the move. Defenders are never comfortable. Ford sits. He doesn’t understand he’s the read defender. He assumes the Ravens are trapping him, and he plays it as such. Jackson has an easy decision to make. He hands it off.
The play side double passes the stunt off perfectly. Bozeman (#77) flushes the defensive tackle inside. Stanley (#79) clasps onto the second level. Boyle crushes the alley defender Mychal Kendricks (#56). Yanda’s block hides behind Stanley’s seven yards up field, and Gus Edwards (#35) skips into the open field.
It’s another read-counter play. This one is wrinkly, though. Gross. Jadeveon Clowney (#90) is the read. Rather than pull the motion blocker, or the typical backside guard and tackle combination, the Ravens kick out the play side defensive end with the center Skura and pull the left tackle Stanley to the first defender he sees in the hole. This works well because of how light the box is. There’s plenty of space. The pullers have plenty of time to get where they need to go. The play side double team is supposed to get to the backside linebacker.
Clowney is too wide and apprehensive to have an impact. Jackson hands it off. Boyle shows and goes to the linebacker. Skura (#68) gets his head on the inside shoulder and negates the end. The double teams fails to get to the linebacker. This leads to Stanley blocking him instead of a safety and it prevents Jackson from trotting into the end zone.
They changed things up against the Patriots. They used a variety of heavy backfield formations, full houses, and off-set pistols. Lead was the staple of their offense. It worked almost too well. They ran the ball 41 times for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns against New England. They had a rush offense DVOA of 31.3%.
The Ravens are in an off-set left pistol formation. They have their fullback, Patrick Ricard, line up as a tight end right. He motions to a tight end left. Hayden Hurst (#81) motions from the slot to the backfield. The Ravens go from 2-1-2 personnel to 3-1-1. They have nine blockers matched up against the Patriots’ seven box defenders. Fullbacks are tight ends. Tight ends are fullbacks.
The backside blocks big on big. It leads to three clean blocks once Ja’Whaun Bentley (#51) fits the gap. The playside ‘ace’ between Skura and Yanda climbs up to the inside linebacker. The defensive end is the read.
Now, if the end sits instead of crashes, and Jackson hands it off, it will be up to the back to read the linebackers. If the unblocked Elandon Roberts (#51) fits the play side ‘A’ gap, Edwards will cut back the opposite direction. This is skewing and stretching the numbers as far as you possibly can. The fabric binding reality is about to collapse here.
On the play side, both Brown and Hurst are pulling wide to block alley defenders. Boyle is the lead blocker, following the hole to pick up the first unblocked defender for Jackson. The Patriots put three defenders in the play side ‘A’ gap and get crushed for it. This is a backfield formation typical to what you’d see once your time travel machine arrives in San Francisco 2012, but the play design isn’t. Things change for the better. Roman’s scheme has evolved.
This is another variation of lead-read from a full house backfield. The lead blocker is Boyle (#86) from the backfield, but here he’s blocking for the back instead of for Jackson. Hurst (#81) and Stanley block for Jackson’s keep. The play side defensive end is the read. From there, they block lead. Two strong double teams. Leave the play side linebacker unblocked for Doyle. It’s first and ten and the Pats stack the box with eight.
The end widens out. He reacts to Hurst’s pull and Stanley clobbering past him to the outside linebacker. Jackson is handing the ball off. The Ravens have eight blockers compared to the Patriots’ seven defenders.
The blocking is perfect. The defensive end can’t come through Boyle to play the ball. Ingram has an easy path for the first down until a nice open field tackle ends this play.
It’s another variation at the goal line. The Ravens are once again reading the backside end, but are in an off-set right pistol formation. The house is emptier. You used to be my baby. Jackson has two lead blocks available. He has Boyle leading off the tackle to the second level if the end crashes. He has Justice Hill (#43) leading up through the hole if he keeps it. The end sits. Jackson sells the zone read before cutting back through the hole. Unbelievable. Fascinating. Things never seen before.
The foundation is the same. Keep one defender unblocked to even or gain a numbers advantage. Once the defender makes his decision, do the opposite. But from there it has sprouted into a hydra of heads, limbs, and tails; formations, reads, and blocking schemes like the tree of life. Three different defenses. The same foundation. Three different ways to utilize it to win football games.
It doesn’t end there. No. Far from it. The Ravens are a great running team even when the zone read number skewing is gone. Even if the Ravens had a traditional pocket quarterback, they’d still have a successful rushing attack. Now, it wouldn’t be an all-time great one, but it would still be a successful one that could pick up positive yards and run successful plays whenever they need it.
There’s no read here. None. It’s a simple outside zone right play from an off-set right pistol backfield formation. Yanda does a perfect job taking a deep angle to reach the nose tackle Danny Shelton (#71) (this block is so special it could be an article of its own), and Boyle climbs from a disadvantage to reach Dont’a Hightower (#54). Ingram’s vision is panoramic. He finds the hole between Yanda’s reach and Skura’s second level block. 1st and 10. 53 yards.
There’s no read here. It’s outside zone right. T.J. Watt (#90) is concerned with Jackson keeping it. He gets slightly deeper rather than play flat and straight along the line of scrimmage. This is all Edwards needs to cut back and keep the offense breathing on 2nd and 6.
There’s no read here either. This is outside zone right with the back playing lead blocker. The Patriots try to crash the play with a run blitz. Baltimore picks it up. Zero penetration. A wilderness trail. Kyle Van Noy (#53) saves the touchdown by chasing down Jackson all the way from the backside of the formation.
There’s no read here. It’s 4th and 2. The Ravens have ten blockers. They pull three blockers to the play side. Jackson cuts it up where the ‘B’ gap used to be to score.
There’s no read here. 3rd and 8. In their own red zone. The Ravens ran the longest developing draw play ever devised. They have a ‘lucky’ call, sliding their offensive line from the center to the left tackle one gap to the left. The right side blocks big on big, man on man, mano y mano, it’s up to you. The back peeks and holds for an interior blitzer. No one comes. He climbs up and latches onto Bobby Wagner’s (#54) inside shoulder. Jackson loses him and almost runs forever.
All this running and pulling can be a mask to create windows in the play action passing game. To really run play action, you have to pull blockers. Baltimore motions Snead over, as seen against Pittsburgh, and pulls Yanda wide. Boyle fakes outside before adjusting inside to clean Clowney out. Jackson flows from the pocket and finds Miles Boykin along the hash after the Seahawks don’t pass him off correctly in Cover Three.
This time they pull Bozeman (#77) against Seattle. The fake yanks K.J. Wright (#50) down into the box just enough. This gives the tight end, Mark Andrews (#89), lined up in the slot a head start. Jackson puts the ball right over the back of Wright’s skull.
They occasionally utilize read pass options as well. Jackson can give it to Edwards, throw the screen wide, or keep it himself. Crash. 3 on 2 outside. Jackson turns the corner and is cleaned up by the safety.
Sometimes, there’s pressure. Sometimes, there’s no one open. On these occasions, Jackson can take off and run, teleporting in and out of tackle attempts in a blast of smoke.
Sure, there are ways to stop these plays. You can crash the pullers, have an absurd edge defender who can defend both the back and the quarterback at the same time, bring an extra safety down in the box and put as many defenders around the line of scrimmage as possible, or flood the same gap with multiple defenders.
It will work on occasion. But these decisions are guesses. Pick the wrong direction and it amplifies the damage. The best and proper way to hinder the Ravens’ rushing attack, since stopping is out of the question, is to get penetration with the first level to constrict the space they have to operate. Then, from there, tackle well on top of it.
This has been impossible to pull off. Baltimore’s offensive line doesn’t miss first level blocks. The line is great on its own. Everything else piled on top of it accentuates the success. The Ravens haven’t played a great run defense yet. That changes this week when they host the Texans.
But no one has come close to stopping Roman’s magnus opus, the offensive line’s crunching, the commendable secondary blocking, and Jackson’s transcendence with defensive performance alone.