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What does John Harbaugh want from the Ravens in 2021? An offense that works like it did in 2019.

What does John Harbaugh want from the Ravens in 2021? An offense that works like it did in 2019.

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Cowboys' #25, Xavier Woods, and #23, Darian Thompson, try to catch him while Ravens' #82, Luke Willson, defend the play.

Ravens' Lamar Jackson runs for a touchdown in the first quarter of the game against the Cowboys. Cowboys' #25, Xavier Woods, and #23, Darian Thompson, try to catch him while Ravens' #82, Luke Willson, defend the play.

BALTIMORE — John Harbaugh wants a Ravens offense with a historically good rushing attack. He wants an offense with improved line play and a more accurate passing game. He wants an offense in which receivers get open more often and catch the ball more regularly. He wants an offense that has more diversity and scores more points.

What John Harbaugh wants from his 2021 offense, as outlined in Wednesday’s season-ending news conference, is not necessarily fantasy. Because what he wants sounds a lot like what he had in 2019.

It won’t be easy to reclaim. Salary cap crunches and injuries and defensive geniuses come for every offensive juggernaut, and that Ravens attack was in many ways a modern-football miracle, a ground-game behemoth that had not only the NFL’s most efficient rushing offense but also its most efficient passing offense. How many other teams this century will lead the NFL in both rushing attempts and points, as the 2019 Ravens did?

The 2021 Ravens might never approach those heights. Few do. But Harbaugh indicated Wednesday that the offense is in a good place — that, with coordinator Greg Roman and quarterback Lamar Jackson returning, it’s in good hands.

After the Ravens’ season ended Saturday with a whimper of a loss to the Buffalo Bills, a second straight divisional-round exit once again headlined by a maddening offensive performance, Harbaugh could’ve demanded a teardown. Instead, he has committed to a buildup.

“We want to be a winning offense,” Harbaugh said. “We want to build an offense that wins and scores points. In a lot of ways, we’ve done that.” He pointed to the evolution of what he suggested was “the best run offense in the history of football in the last two years.”

But Harbaugh also acknowledged that there was considerable room for growth. “We need to protect better. We need to throw better. We need to catch better. We need to get open better. We need to do everything more efficiently. We need to improve what we’re doing, and the better you do that, then the more success you’ll have doing it.”

Over a 45-minute question-and-answer session, Harbaugh addressed the Ravens’ chances of signing Jackson to a long-term extension (“Totally certain”), his interest in adding a splashy free-agent wide receiver (“Can we afford it?”) and the franchise’s next steps in the offseason amid a coronavirus pandemic (“If it has to go virtual, it has to go virtual”), among other topics.

But no subject sparked greater interest than Roman’s offense, and in particular a passing attack that Kurt Warner and former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., both NFL Network analysts, had recently criticized as being overly simple. In his second season under Roman, Jackson struggled at times, finishing with 10 fewer passing touchdowns and three more interceptions than in 2019, when he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

Over his past three playoff games, too, he’s thrown just one touchdown and four interceptions, the last of which Buffalo returned for a pivotal touchdown Saturday night. The play call underscored fans’ frustrations with Roman’s offense; on third-and-goal from the Bills’ 9-yard line, all four receivers had run fairly linear routes to the end zone.

“We have every route in football, and we have every route concept in football,” Harbaugh said. “We throw it less than most teams do because we run it so well. I know that Kurt would probably love to see us be a drop-back passing team that gets the ball out on time in a West Coast [offense]-type style, or a ‘Greatest Show on Turf’-type style, but that’s not the offense that we run. We’re not going to change an offense because it doesn’t fit his eye.”

The Ravens have mostly ignored new-age offensive conventions for the past two-plus seasons, leaving behind the pass-happy days of Joe Flacco to embrace the run-dominant, college-style approach they favor with Jackson. Under Roman, promoted after the team ran its way to a breakthrough AFC North title in 2018, the offense has had more successes than failures.

In 2019, the Ravens set the NFL’s single-season rushing record while Jackson led the league in passing touchdowns. In 2020, a Ravens offense that entered the year as the NFL’s second cheapest overcame midseason injuries to All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and starting tight end Nick Boyle to finish 11th overall in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Over the regular season’s final five weeks, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had more expected points added per play, a measure of offensive success.

Still, questions have persisted about the offense’s evolution. Jackson has expressed a desire to become more of a passing quarterback — the Ravens were the NFL’s only team to run more often than they passed in each of the past two seasons — and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown on Sunday pointed to the Ravens’ No. 1 rushing offense and No. 32 passing offense. “That’s not balanced,” he said.

But this team, Harbaugh argued, is not built like Pittsburgh’s. In 2020, the Ravens attempted an NFL-low 406 passes, 34 fewer than the runner-up New England Patriots and 250 fewer than the league-leading Steelers. Harbaugh’s concern wasn’t so much with volume (2,739 passing yards) as it was with efficiency (No. 17 in passing offense, according to Football Outsiders). He felt the Ravens “owe it” to their young offense this offseason to improve.

“Let’s continue to grow that and build that, and then let’s build up our efficiency, whether it’s play-action passes or drop-back passes or screen game, and all the different things that we can add to our repertoire there,” Harbaugh said. “So we’ll be working on that very diligently.”

Even if the Ravens miss out on a coveted free-agent receiver like the Chicago Bears’ Allen Robinson, they will return in 2020 with a solid offensive core intact. Slot receiver Willie Snead IV is the only projected starter not under contract through 2021, and the Ravens are hopeful young receivers like Brown, Miles Boykin and Devin Duvernay can develop with a more typical offseason schedule.

Ultimately, though, the unit’s success will depend most on its quarterback and its coordinator. Harbaugh said Jackson has only just begun to understand the kind of quarterback he can be, and that he knows “he needs to get better at everything.” Roman’s challenge will be to help Jackson get there. That could mean getting back to what worked best in 2019.

“Our offense has won us a lot of football games here, and we’re not apologizing for that for one second,” Harbaugh said. “We are going to improve it, no question about it. We’re going to go to work to be more precise, more efficient, better at what we do. That’s what we have to do — be better at it. We’ll leave the criticism to the critics.”


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