NFL outliers on both offense and defense
Potential philosophical change signaled in use of groupings
Even as the Ravens’ offense emerged as an outlier over the past three seasons, running more often and more efficiently than any NFL team in that span, it never strayed too far from the pack before the snap.
Under coordinator Greg Roman, the Ravens’ most common personnel grouping had always been the NFL’s most common personnel grouping: “11,” featuring one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. In 2019 and 2020, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s first two seasons as a fulltime starter, the Ravens lined up with three wideouts and one tight end on nearly half of their plays, according to Sharp Football Stats. Last year, they did so less often, and far below the league average, but it was still Roman’s go-to setup.
In Sunday’s season-opening win against the New York Jets, however, Roman and the Ravens signaled a potential philosophical change: They lived mostly in a two-wide-receiver world. According to TruMedia, their usage rate of 11 personnel (6.3%) was by far
the lowest of any Week 1 offense entering Monday night. The Atlanta Falcons were next closest, at 27.3%.
Here’s how the Ravens lined up against the Jets, and how effective they were in those groupings, according to the play index site nflfastR. Expected points added reflect the relative efficiency of a play, accounting for situational factors:
21 personnel (two backs — in this case, fullback Patrick Ricard always among them — one tight end, two wide receivers): 19 plays, 0.32 expected points added per play. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman’s 55-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter came in 21 personnel.
12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two wide receivers): 15 plays, -0.20 EPA per play. Wide receiver Devin Duvernay’s 25-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter came in 12 personnel.
22 personnel (two backs — again, Ricard always included — one tight end, two wide receivers): 11 plays, 0.03 EPA per play
11 personnel: five plays, 0.34 EPA per play. Duvernay’s 17-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter came in 11 personnel.
13 personnel (one back, three tight ends, one wide receiver): three plays, -0.97 EPA per play. Jackson’s fourth-quarter interception came in 13 personnel.
02 personnel (no backs, two tight ends, three wide receivers): one play, 0.41 EPA
It’s too early in the season to tell which packages will be the offense’s best or most used. But in Week 1, the Ravens made clear their intentions to use their tight ends more like wide receivers. Mark Andrews led all Ravens receivers in snaps (47), and rookie Isaiah Likely earned as much playing time as wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (25 snaps) and almost as much as Duvernay (29).
“Those guys are going to be on the field as much as we can put them out there,
because they’re also receivers — they’re just bigger receivers. But they’re good blockers too,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday of Andrews and Likely, both of whom can line up outside or in the slot. “That’s good for us. So I think you’ll see those guys out there quite a bit.”
With Ricard’s outsize role in the Ravens’ running and play-action schemes, snaps for the team’s complementary wide receivers could be hard to come by this season. Ricard played 36 snaps Sunday, almost as many as Bateman (37), and equal to the combined total of wide receivers Tylan Wallace (six snaps), James Proche II (five) and Robinson.
Dime and again
As the Ravens sacrificed speed for size on offense in Week 1, they went the opposite way on defense.
Mike Macdonald, in his first game coordinating the Ravens’ defense, used dime personnel (six defensive backs) on 47.6% of the team’s snaps Sunday, according to TruMedia, far more than any defense had entering Monday night. The Chargers finished with the second-highest rate, at just 28.6%.
Macdonald’s reliance on cornerbacks and safeties didn’t represent an extreme departure from the leaguewide norm. As three-wide-receiver formations and spread attacks have taken hold across the NFL over the past decade, defensive structures have changed. According to Football Outsiders, nickel defenses (five defensive backs) first became more prevalent than traditional “base” defenses (four defensive backs) in 2012, before finally being used on a majority of all plays in 2015.
Dime-heavy looks aren’t uncharted territory for Harbaugh, or for Macdonald, a former defensive assistant in Baltimore. In 2019, the Ravens had two complementary safeties, Chuck Clark and Earl Thomas, who as a pairing almost never left the field. They had Brandon Carr, who toggled between cornerback and safety and finished fourth on the defense in snaps. And at cornerback, they had two stalwarts in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, a midseason trade acquisition, plus Jimmy Smith and Anthony Averett.
That year, the Ravens used nickel looks on 46% of their snaps (26th most in the NFL) and dime looks on 41% of their snaps (third most), according to Football Outsiders. They also finished fifth in the NFL in overall defensive efficiency, bolstered by their fourth-ranked pass defense.
When the Ravens took Notre Dame star Kyle Hamilton with their top pick in April’s NFL draft, adding him to a safety group that already had top free-agent signing Marcus Williams and Clark, their defensive leader, Harbaugh acknowledged that the Ravens would lean even more on their secondary. A standout preseason for the team’s defensive line, which should be among the NFL’s best run-stopping groups, might have only emboldened that approach.
“We’re going to run multiple personnel groups, and three safeties has been a big part of what we like to do,” Harbaugh said in April. “So, yes, we’ve got three really good safeties right now. We can play the extra safety at nickel, we can play safety at dime, we can play them at mike [middle linebacker]. All of those guys are going to be on the field, for sure.”
Hamilton didn’t supplant Williams or Clark as a starter in the preseason, but that didn’t keep him from the field Sunday. He played half of the defense’s snaps in Week 1 (42), more than starting defensive lineman Calais Campbell (41) and starting inside linebacker Josh Bynes (32). In all, six Ravens defensive backs played at least half of the snaps inside MetLife Stadium: safeties Clark, Williams and Hamilton, and cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Brandon Stephens and Humphrey.
Circumstances somewhat dictated their usage. After the Ravens took a commanding lead in the third quarter, Macdonald could worry less about stopping the Jets’ running game and devote more resources to stopping quarterback Joe Flacco. The Jets had just four carries after halftime, compared with 40 drop-backs.
Fuller’s season-ending knee injury will test the Ravens’ depth Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, especially if Peters (knee) remains unavailable. But Macdonald said last week that he trusts rookie cornerbacks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion “Pepe” Williams enough to play them early this season. Both saw limited time Sunday.
“Shoot, everybody on our defense can play,” Marcus Williams said Sunday. “One guy goes in, one guy goes out, this is what we do. You can see it out there. If it’s giving you guys a hard time [tracking the defensive backs], it’s probably giving the quarterback a hard time, too.”