OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are zigging while everyone else zags entering December.
In a season in which Seattle is the only NFL team running the ball more often than not (50.58 percent), Baltimore has run on 96 of its 144 plays — exactly two-thirds — over the last two games, resulting in wins over Cincinnati and Oakland to improve to 6-5 and move back into the No. 6 spot in the AFC. The Ravens had rushed just 36.15 percent of the time prior to their Week 10 bye when it was revealed veteran quarterback Joe Flacco would miss action with a hip injury. The dramatic shift in style figures to continue this week in Atlanta with Flacco officially doubtful after only returning to practice on a limited basis Thursday and rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson preparing to make his third straight start.
Over the last two weeks, the Ravens have increased their usage of the pistol formation and heavy sets featuring two running backs and two tight ends, which aren’t featured all that frequently in today’s NFL. Jackson’s remarkable mobility has put pressure on opposing defenses to account for two potential ball carriers in zone-read looks and run-pass options. That’s helped Jackson and rookie running back Gus Edwards rush for a combined 423 yards over the last two weeks. The entire Baltimore offense didn’t rush for that many yards over the final four games — three of them losses — before the bye.
The unconventional approach in a pass-happy league has led many to ask whether it’s sustainable as the Ravens try to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2014. It won’t be easy as John Harbaugh’s team plays three of its next four games on the road and the three away opponents — the Falcons, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers — possess offenses ranking in the top six in total yards per game and the top 11 in points per game.
Critics have fairly noted that the Bengals and Raiders have surrendered the most rushing yards in the NFL this year, but the Falcons and Chiefs rank even worse in yards per carry allowed. That’s why many believe the Ravens should stick with Jackson and their newfound approach in an effort to exploit bad run defenses and control the time of possession to limit the possessions for those explosive offenses. Over the last two weeks, the Ravens have possessed the ball more than 72 minutes compared to under 48 minutes for their opponents, an advantage the league’s top-ranked scoring defense certainly has appreciated.
However, the impressive rushing totals and big advantage in time of possession haven’t yet resulted in the offense scoring a tremendous number of points. Entering Week 11, the Ravens were averaging 23.7 points per game and scored 24 against the Bengals, who sport the worst defense in the league and have surrendered 34 or more in each of their other four contests since mid-October. Baltimore scored 34 points in last week’s win over Oakland, but that total was aided by Cyrus Jones’ punt return for a touchdown and Terrell Suggs’ fumble return for a score, which a team isn’t getting every week.
The two offensive touchdowns per game over the last two weeks would rank 26th in the NFL for the season and lags behind the 2.67 per contest registered from Weeks 1-9. Ideally, the run-heavy attack leads to longer drives to keep the opposing offense off the field, but that also means fewer possessions for yourself, making red-zone efficiency that much more important. The Ravens have scored touchdowns on only four of their eight trips inside the 20 over the last two games after entering Week 11 tied for ninth in the NFL at 66.7 percent.
That 50-percent mark was able to cut it playing bad teams at home, but it won’t on the road against teams with top 10-caliber offenses. Relying too much on field goals with fewer overall possessions simply won’t add up.
“I have to do better, we have to do better, all of those things, but yes, it’s big,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg about red-zone efficiency. “We’ve put a little focus on that, just a little bit here, and we will do so [Thursday] and [Friday] as well on that part of the game. … It’s so important, especially if you don’t have all that many possessions. It becomes even more heightened.”
Unlike next week’s trip to Kansas City that will be a tall order no matter who’s at quarterback, Sunday should represent a reasonable challenge for the Ravens in Jackson’s first road start. Though the Falcons are coming off extended rest, they’ve also lost three straight games in which they’ve failed to score 20 points even once. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn does have experience game-planning for a similar style of quarterback after the former Seattle defensive coordinator went up against San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick multiple times in the NFC West, but his current defense is allowing a brutal 5.1 yards per rushing attempt and 27.9 points per game while ranking 30th in the red zone (73.2 percent).
At the same time, the Falcons still possess an offense more dangerous than either of Baltimore’s last two opponents and have averaged 400 yards and 25.5 points per game this season. Ravens players and coaches are realistic about Atlanta’s ability to move the ball between the 20s, but a defense with superb numbers in most other categories ranks an underwhelming 22nd in red-zone touchdown percentage.
There are no guarantees with a rookie quarterback making his first road start as Jackson will face challenges not experienced in his home stadium. The Ravens must not only run the ball effectively to control the clock, but they must finish off those long drives with touchdowns to back up a defense that hasn’t created many turnovers or collected many sacks over the last five games. In turn, that defense must buckle down inside the 20 more than it has against better offenses this season.
“Just like I’ve told our [defensive backs], there are going to be some plays made,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “It’s just how are we going to handle the series of events?”
For the revamped Ravens feeling new life entering December, their playoff hopes could begin and end with how they fare inside the red zone on both sides of the ball.