The word "bad" should not be used to describe the Ravens offense in 2020, given that the team is 6-2 and has scored over 30 or more points in five of the eight contests. Yet, this year's version has still not caught up to the 2019 performance that set the NFL on fire.
That has many wondering what is missing for the unit. Lamar Jackson, the 2019 MVP, is still there, as is a majority of the supporting cast. So, what's different? During an interview with Rich Eisen on Wednesday, Jackson noted that defenders have been calling out Baltimore's plays before they happen, making it seems as if the offense has become more predictable.
It's something that former NFL quarterback and current NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms has noticed as well.
“The Ravens offense is not as creative as it was last year. Not even in the run game," Simms said on Thursday. "I don’t know why. I don’t feel like there’s as many different formations, the movements not quite the same way.”
For an offense that was so innovative just a season ago, it's hard to imagine how opposing players now know what's coming at the line of scrimmage. How could this have happened? Simms and NBC Sports' Mike Florio tried to sort through the factors at play.
To begin, Simms believes that the 2019 version of the offense put the league on notice. John Harbaugh, Greg Roman and company had the unit maneuvering in a way that not many had seen before. Of course, that means teams are going to focus in on preventing that from happening again.
“The first thing is this. Hey, the offense last year took the NFL by storm. It took the NFL by storm," Simms said. "What do people do when that happens? They all study it.”
Every team will take the time to study the tape, and the ones that are scheduled to face Baltimore in 2020 will only up the preparation. In addition, as so often happens in the league, Simms has seen other offenses begin to take what the Ravens did and try to add it into their own scheme. That gives defenses an opportunity to see the plays up close before even getting on the same field.
Potentially more than anything, the league catching up to Baltimore's offense could result in others being able to know what's coming. As both Simms and Florio mentioned, having defenders call out plays is not something that is uncommon. They study film in order to be better prepared on Sunday, and with the Ravens having unveiled something new in 2019, even more homework is being done.
That, however, may not be the only reason for the offense potentially being more predictable. While Florio hasn't identified a specific example with the Ravens, he believes the unit could be showing their hand too early, giving the defense a tell.
“Part of it is alignment. Part of it is all it takes is one guy to be giving that message based on how he lines up for a pass play, how he lines up for a run play," Florio said. "That’s what offenses need to be studying in their own film, they need to be looking for the same things that the defense look for.”
The analyst brought up the example of Randy Moss early in his career. On plays where the wide receiver was involved, he would sprint to his position. On others, he would walk. What Baltimore is doing, if they are doing anything, isn't that obvious. But, any slight difference and pattern can be picked up by the defense.
Beyond the question of why the offense has taken a dip in the predicament of how the Ravens will handle it. For Florio and Simms, a major concern with defenders calling plays is how it will impact the mindset of Jackson. As a young quarterback who had everything go his way in 2019, it can be hard to adapt to new adversity.
“I can’t help but wonder if defenses think that that rattles him a little bit to hear that," Florio said.
“I think the reason he’s bringing it up is cause he’s probably hearing it more this year," Simms said. "He’s probably a little astounded by it at times.”
These factors will all be evaluated in terms of where Baltimore goes from here, but as mentioned earlier, it's not like nothing is working for the group. The passing game needs to jump from its No. 31 position in the league, but the run offense is still first in the NFL. Parts of the Ravens scheme are still running smoothly.
Simms notes that is because a defender predicting a play is only half the battle. They still have to stop it from progressing, and throughout his career, he saw success even when others knew what was coming.
“I had a lot of times where I heard linebackers and people calls plays out and I went, ‘man we’re going to see how this works. I’m too late in the snap count I’m going to say set, hut. Here we go, it’s too late,’" Simms said. "Guys called out the play, but then I give the ball to the running back and turn around and damn it’s a fifteen-yard gain. So that’s doesn’t always mean the play won’t be successful.”
Simms pointed out that the Ravens' way of moving the ball can create big plays and keep defenses honest even if they can tell a run is coming, They may move offensive lineman into a certain spot that designates a handoff, but Jackson is still a threat to keep the ball, break the other way and get into the open field. Therefore, it is hard for a defense to go all-in on a play before it happens.
Baltimore's ability to use its pieces in the best ways is another reason why Simms feels Baltimore may stick with what they've done even if others catch on. They have the talent to dominate and they may be fine with just riding with that.
“I think the other thing too is, Baltimore is one of those teams, Mike, that I don’t know if they give a damn sometimes if you know what play they’re going to run," Simms said. "I think they just go ‘no, we’re better, we’re bigger, we’re more physical, we’re coached well and so what you know what’s coming.’"