By now many people have bought into Lamar Jackson being a qualified NFL starter, something most people were hesitant to believe before the 2019 season. But even those that believe in him likely don’t realize the rarified air in which he sits, being the first player to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a season, and being the first player to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 1,500 yards in his first two seasons combined.
While the Ravens were the most run-heavy team in the NFL, that did not mean they weren’t aggressive. In the first half of games, an astounding 41% of their drives resulted in a touchdown. It was the highest rate in the NFL in over ten years. It was nearly double the NFL average (21%) and was well above the #2 offense of the Kansas City Chiefs (21%).
Baltimore used many personnel groupings and were outstanding from all of them, giving them tremendous diversity in attack and very little predictability. The Ravens astonishingly averaged more yards per carry from 11 personnel in the first half of games (6.9 YPC) than the NFL average of yards per attempt when passing the ball.
They need improve in multiple things to continue their prowess. First, they must allow Jackson the ability to audible more often and check to runs more frequently based on box counts. Second, they must allow Jackson to make defenses pay when they stack the box, and aggressively look to throw deep even on early downs.
In another season in Greg Roman’s offense, coupled with the analytics buy-in of the Ravens franchise and the investment in the defense, I believe the Ravens’ offense is poised for another strong campaign. The defense, which also brings back coordinator Wink Martindale, is the most expensive unit in the NFL and is coming off a season where they ranked first in EDSR defense. The Ravens are fortunate to face the fourth-easiest 2020 schedule after playing the eighth-easiest in 2019.
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While I am encouraged by the Bengals landing one the best quarterbacks of the 2020 class and potentially years, there are bigger concerns surrounding the offense in general, starting with what I saw from first year Head Coach and play caller Zac Taylor.
As an example, the Bengals were far superior passing out of 12 personnel than 11 personnel. Afterall, their #1 wide receiver, AJ Green, was out the entire season, and their #2 wide receiver, John Ross, missed half the year. Whether based on EPA, success rate, TD:INT, YPA, or passer rating, the Bengals were much worse trying to flood the field with 3+ wide receivers as compared to two receivers and two tight ends. Yet the Bengals used the most 11 personnel in the NFL last year, and used it to pass on 82% of all pass plays.
Another worry was predictability. When Tyler Eifert was on the field, the Bengals passed the ball on 81% of the time. That’s staggeringly predictable. But it got worse. If Eifert was the only tight end on the field, the Bengals passed the ball on 296 of 330 snaps, an incredible 90% rate.
These two examples make it clear the Bengals were not investing in analytics to help their team in 2019, and if that bad habit continues, it will be difficult to compete in the AFC North, let alone the NFL in general … even with Joe Burrow at quarterback.
The good news is the Bengals played the toughest schedule of pass defenses in 2019, playing eight games against top-10 pass defenses. In 2020, that number drops in half and they face the eighth-easiest schedule of pass defenses in totality. Overall, they go from facing the fourth-toughest schedule of defenses to the 10th-easiest. But troublesome is the fact they play five games against opponents with more rest than they have. That means those opposing defenses have extra time to prepare for Burrow and Taylor’s offense. It is essential that the Bengals scrub all overwhelming “tells” like Eifert’s from their playbook. It is essential that they evolve Taylor’s preferred 11 personnel offense to optimize when possible to roster talent, injuries, and defensive weaknesses. Second-year quarterbacks often take big steps forward, but it will be up to second-year playcaller Zac Taylor to do so if the Bengals are going to have a chance at exceeding their projected win total in 2020.
Kevin Stefanski’s hiring may be the single most impactful coaching hire for the 2020 season because of what I think it does to Baker Mayfield’s ceiling. While many quarterbacks experience a jump in performance in their second season, Mayfield did not, causing many to write-off his ability to lead the Browns to the playoffs. But many things happened in that 2019 season that resulted in his performance.
The first was the hiring of Offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Monken came from an Air Raid background, and wanted to deploy many 3+ wide receiver sets as often as possible. Week 1 saw them use 95% of pass attempts from 11 personnel. Week 2 saw 89% from 11 personnel. All told, through Week 9, the Browns used 84% 11 personnel when passing the ball, the highest rate in the NFL. The problem was Mayfield was terrible when passing from 11 personnel and significantly better from 12 personnel. Examine his production during these games:
From 11: 6.8 YPA, 39% success, 69 rating, 3:6 TD:INT
Non-11: 8.6 YPA, 55% success, 115 rating, 3:0 TD:INT
The Browns struggled to a 2-6 record through these first nine weeks and never made enough adjustments to get back on track. Mayfield has always struggled since entering the NFL in 11 personnel, but the good news is that Stefanski is right up Mayfield’s alley when it comes to personnel deployment. Las year, Stefanski used 3+ WRs on only 22.9% of snaps, by far the least often in the NFL. The NFL average was almost triple that rate (64.6%). Instead, he used a ton of 2-TE & 2-RB sets.
The only thing missing was better personnel and the Browns’ GM Andrew Berry ensured Stefanski would have what he needed to operate with heavier personnel. They added fullback Andy Janovich, tight end Austin Hooper, and right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency. They drafted left tackle Jedrick Wills and tight end Harrison Bryant.
They can roll 2-TE sets featuring Beckham and Landry at receiver, tight ends Njoku and Hooper, and either Chubb or Hunt in the backfield. They can roll 2-RB sets with Janovich leading the way for Chubb or Hunt or have Chubb and Hunt on the field together, which worked well in limited plays for the Browns in 2019. The combinations are nasty. The unpredictability is nasty. And most important, it seems like this is what makes Mayfield comfortable.
No team sees their projected schedule improve from 2019 to 2020 more than the Browns. Last year they played the ninth-toughest schedule and I forecast them to play the third-easiest schedule in 2020. In 2019, they played the third-toughest schedule of pass defenses. They’re projected to play the easiest schedule of pass defenses in 2020.
There is little to be gained by analyzing the 2019 Steelers Offense given they completely shifted once Ben Roethlisberger was injured six quarters into the season and the team had to revert to Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. I’m optimistic about the team’s floor being high assuming Roethlisberger is healthy and available all 16 games this season. But what makes me as optimistic about their ceiling is the addition of Quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.
Canada is bringing fresh ideas and new schemes. He may be bringing a lot more motion. And that’s something sorely missed by the Steelers. Under OC Randy Fichtner, the Steelers used a lot of 11 personnel, the least amount of play-action of any team in the NFL, and rarely (seventh-least) used pre-snap motion. Canada uses a lot of personnel groupings, a lot of shifts and motions, read-options and varies his tempo. And he always crafts his offenses to the personnel he has. For example, his recent stops included spread sets with a dual-threat quarterback (Northern Illinois), a heavy power rushing attack (Wisconsin), as well as working pro-style with the Pitt Panthers and at NC State.
Coaching will be extremely important because, for the second straight year, the Steelers have the NFL’s cheapest skill position corps. They literally are spending the 32nd-highest cap hit on wide receivers and 32nd-highest cap hit on running backs in 2020. That means youth and inexperience.
In addition to the hope of coaching improvement, another positive is the schedule for Roethlisberger. He missed 2019 when the Steelers played the ninth-toughest schedule of pass defenses. But in 2020, I forecast the Steelers will face the second-easiest schedule of pass defenses.
Cleveland Browns to make the playoffs +123
Ravens to win the most games in the NFL +650
Pittsburgh Steelers to finish second place in the AFC North +120