Over the last few weeks, the conversations have turned from how far will Lamar Jackson and the Ravens go this season towards conversations regarding how long this offense can sustain itself with Jackson running the ball as much as he does.
Considering the emphasis the organization has on analytics with Jackson’s youth (22-years old) and their ability to further improve the roster around him in the coming years, I think this team could be successful for a long-time.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Over the couple years, it’s become apparent through publicly available analytics, like those on Sharp Football, that understanding how to utilize personnel correctly to create match-up advantages is beneficial for an offense. Coaches have known this for years, but now we see the data regarding how specific personnel lead to specific advantages either passing or running.
For example, teams use 11-personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers), 60% of the time during the 2019 NFL season. It’s become the base personnel in the modern times, which feels much different than the 21-personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs), I-formation football I grew up watching in the 1990s with Daryl Johnston, Emmitt Smith, and the Dallas Cowboys. The defense’s response is teams using nickel personnel almost 61% of the time in 2018. Teams used Dime personnel 13% of the time, so there are at least five defensive backs on the field about 74% of the time.
From 2008 to 2015, there was an increase in nickel defense from 43.4% to 63.4%, making it the NFL’s base defense. The idea of 4-3 and 3-4 defense has become antiquated in recent years as the new “base” defense has at least five defensive backs, typically four rushers, plus two linebackers who can seem to become more suited for defending the pass, rather than the run, with each passing year.
The evolution towards 11-personnel and nickel defense being the base offense and defensive personnel in the NFL is a story that’s paradigm shifting moment was likely the Patriots 18-1 season in 2007. Wes Welker revolutionized the slot receiver position with 112 catches for 1175 yards and eight touchdowns.
Randy Moss stretched the field vertically with 98 receptions for 1493 yards and 23 touchdowns, breaking Jerry Rice’s record of 22 set in 1987. He helped create the space underneath that Welker took advantage of.
Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney combined for 82 catches for 1146 yards and eight touchdowns themselves as the third and fourth options in the offense.
Teams then copied that Patriots model in the NFL, while college teams were already executing on spread concepts and only more excited by the Patriots success. As a high school senior in 2007 who played slot receiver, I had countless coaches come through telling me how I was going to be their Wes Welker.
This is how ideas spread in football. Someone creative who understands the game’s principles at their core creates something that exploits the current base model in the sport. Others copy that. It becomes a new norm. The creative, Belichick in this case, then moves on to adjust to the new norm that he influenced, others copied, and he’s now going to find a new way to take advantage of.
Similarly, others will attempt to copy what the Ravens are doing now, which may create a similar paradigm shift in the NFL. Be the one creating the paradigm shift and you’re the one who takes advantage of defenses that have been constructed to stop a different norm.
In 2007, no one had the defensive chess piece to deal with Wes Welker getting thrown on the board with his ability to run option routes off of linebackers who had no business trying to cover his quickness. By 2010, Belichick had Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as a chess piece that responded to his opponent’s response to his 2007 offense.
The league has continued along this 11-personnel path with some offenses being built around Welker type slot receivers, others being built around Larry Fitzgeralds. Slot cornerbacks may be more in the mold of the Welker type of slot receivers, so putting a Fitzgerald or Mohamed Sanu in the slot becomes a mismatch.
Some go for the prototypical #1 outside in the Randy Moss mold, while others find the Marquise Brown style speedster they hope can take the top of the defense and creates a mismatch on the outside that some cornerbacks just simply can’t overcome due to a lack of horsepower.
Conversations surrounding personnel, and the use of analytics in determining the best personnel to take advantage of opposing defenses, are based in the overarching concepts like: What are the chess pieces? What are the chess moves? And, why do you make these moves?
Chess pieces are first invested in either on the free agent market or drafted by the team’s front office, then they must be properly utilized on the field by the coaching staff. There must be complete synergy between the front office and coaching staff in having an understanding of what’s necessary from a talent and skill perspective for the coaches to do what they intend to do on the field. Building a roster that can be successful on the field with the level of strategy required to win a Super Bowl is a multi-year process to set up. Teams must be planning ahead with their opponents in mind, building strategies that take advantage of weaknesses in the on field product they might be building.
In 2018, the Ravens drafted Hayden Hurst in the first round and Mark Andrews in the third. In 2019, they re-signed Nick Boyle, a fifth round pick from 2015. They consciously invested in three tight ends, something few teams do. And you would think Boyle would be the third tight end in this pecking order, but he has the most offensive snaps through 13 weeks at 67%. Andrews has played 46%, and Hurst has played in 40%.
Heading into Week 14’s win against the Bills, while the league averaged 60% of offensive snaps out of 11-personnel, the Ravens averaged just 46%, which leaves only the 49ers (41%), Cardinals (36%), and Vikings (21%) playing less.
Below is a table of the players that make up each personnel grouping. The number that isn’t mentioned is the number of wide receivers. The number must add up to five of course:
Personnel RB TE WR
11 1 1 3
12 1 2 2
21 2 1 2
10 1 0 4
13 1 3 0
22 2 2 0
20 2 0 3
The 49ers are outliers with 24% of snaps from 21-personnel against a league average of 8%.
Being that Kliff Kingsbury came up under Mike Leach’s Air Raid spread principles whose “passing extremism” has helped spur the modern NFL movement towards the 11-personnel that we’re discussing here, Kingsbury plays 10-personnel on 36% of snaps against a league average of 3%. Their 272 snaps out of 10 account for 37% of the NFL’s 736 snaps out of 10 this season.
Kingsbury’s decreased use of 11-personnel is less about analytics and more about what he believes in. They’ve passed 76% of the time for 6.3 yards per attempt, while the league average is 7.1 per attempt, which is less yards per attempt than what NFL teams are averaging out of 13-personnel.
With only about a fifth of snaps going to a personnel the league uses three-fifths of the time, Minnesota has a few outliers using 12 on 34% of snaps, 21 24% of the time, 22 on 11% of snaps, and 13 on 9% of snaps.
Baltimore has played 12-personnel on 18% of snaps, which is actually below the league average of 19%. This is the league’s second most popular personnel as teams understand that passing out of 12 can be advantageous if you have an athletic second tight end who defenses struggle to find a second man viable defender for after that TE1. Passing on 64% of the 145 snaps they’ve run out of 12 has led to the team averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt, the league average is passing on 47% of snaps out of the formation with 7.8 yards per attempt. Their dynamic rushing offense has averaged 6.2 yards per carry and a 71% successful play rate, which blows away league averages for 4.1 and 53%.
Out of 21-personnel, which they run around the league average of 8%, the Ravens are averaging 6.7 yards per carry and 8.7 yards per attempt with the success leading to the team re-signing reserve defensive tackle and lead fullback Patrick Ricard to a two-year extension just last month.
What’s especially unique to them has been the use of 22 on 15% of snaps and 13 on 7%. League averages for these personnels are 4% and 3%, respectively. Utilizing their three tight ends with 13-personnel has led to incredible success in the passing game with an average of 12.6 yards per attempt, five touchdowns, and a 142.3 passer rating on 26 pass attempts.
A play that stuck out to me as an example of the kind of mismatch creating game the Ravens are playing came against the Bengals in Week 10. On the first drive, out of 32 personnel on the goal line, Mark Andrews ran a simple short out over the goal line to score. He was covered by linebacker, LaRoy Reynolds, who didn’t stand a chance. That’s to be expected at the goal line.
Later in the game, in the more unique scenario of 13 personnel on 2nd and 9 from the Bengals 17-yard line, Andrews scored another touchdown. Jackson motioned Hurst across the formation with his defender, safety Shawn Williams, following him across the formation, signifying man-to-man defense. This alerted Jackson that Andrews had Bengals outside linebacker Preston Brown covering him, which was a complete and total mismatch, leading to Jackson hitting a wide-open Andrews for a touchdown.
Brown would be released by the Bengals following the game, only to be re-signed by the Raiders. The latest Pro Football Focus ranking has him as the 80th best linebacker out of 88 qualifying players with a failing grade in coverage of 52.0.
In 2019, their tight ends are producing something that defenses can’t cover, a complete mismatch, and the team is only going to get stronger and more versatile around Jackson over the next couple of years. Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin will be better in year two, Willie Snead will be back, and, with the roster in good standing across the offense and defense, wide receiver can be a position that’s further improved in the draft or free agency with over $50 million in projected cap space.
Analytics people are perceived as anti-running the football because they want it done much less and only in the right situations as they understanding running the football effectively is still a necessity within the sport.
From an Expected Points Added perspective, passing is much more efficient. According to Eric Eager of PFF, with the boost of Jackson running the football, the Ravens are averaging “an unbelievable 0.07 expected points added per run play, which was more than all buy 11 teams were generating throwing the football (the Ravens are also first there).” In the PFF era, there have only been 28 of 448 teams (6.25%) in 14 years to produce a positive EPA on run plays for a full season.
Jackson is leading the league in yards per rush attempt and, according to Eager, is generating over 0.12 EPA per run play on designed runs and 0.85 EPA on non-sack scrambles. Data also suggests that a mobile quarterback has the ability to positively improve running back efficiency. Mark Ingram is having a career year with 5.0 yards per carry and 0.11 EPA per attempt, while Gus Edwards is at 5.1 and 0.11 as well.
What the Ravens have produced is an offense that goes against the reality of the modern NFL that defenses are trying to stop, while still maintaining high levels of efficiency and a league leading EPA per pass attempt. Putting three tight ends on the field is not something anyone has made themselves efficient at defending, it’s not something front offices consider a necessity in a league where 11-personnel is so prevalent. Going big to deal with three tight ends also takes some athleticism off the field for the defense, which Jackson can expose with his legs.
A question that I’m unsure if teams can answer is: how do teams plan on stopping what the Ravens propose as an offense AND be prepared for the modern NFL? Not only is the scheme unique, but there are already multiple ways for them to evolve with each week to create new issues for each opponent to deal with.
This is the point of what the Ravens are doing, it’s all about mismatches, and having a quarterback like Lamar Jackson is the biggest mismatch of all. It’s one they will use to try to exploit defenses for the next decade and the Ravens will continue to make the chess moves that make an offense led by Jackson even more impossible to defend.
Some may say they’ve never seen a mobile quarterback like a Michael Vick have a sustained run of team success, but Lamar Jackson isn’t Vick, he’s a much better passer. And this Ravens organization is a decade ahead of those Vick teams in terms of understanding how to run the most efficient offense with this skill set. Vick also entered a league that tried to fit him into the offense’s of the time, rather than creating a unique system with a unique roster that fit what he could do.
This is year two of what will be a very successful run with all signs pointing to the Super Bowl. Lamar Jackson is a huge reason for that, but the Ravens are in this position because they also had a clear vision of the system they were building with the players they were going to put there.
Zack Moore is a former college football player at the University of Rhode Island. He received his MBA from Rutgers Business School and has written for Over The Cap since 2014. He is the author of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, which offers insight into how teams use data and analytics to create sustainable, competitive teams through the salary cap that are capable of competing for championships. Zack’s research has appeared on various platforms including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and the NFL Network.