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Paul Johnson: No Question Ravens Can Win With Run-Heavy Approach

June 11, 2019
In this age of pass-heavy football and quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes enjoying record-setting seasons, most teams focus on the air attack rather than the ground-and-pound style of past generations.

There is one team, however, going against the grain.

Much was said throughout the 2018 NFL season about Baltimore Ravens' ability to succeed with a run-heavy offensive game plan led by quarterback Lamar Jackson. Most analysts and fans acknowledged Jackson's elite athleticism and his limitations throwing the ball, but were skeptical if the team could sustain this style and use it as a blueprint moving forward.

The formula clearly worked, at least for a time. Jackson led his team to a 6-1 record and the AFC North title in seven regular-season starts after longtime starter Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury and later sat in favor of Jackson. Jackson ran for 695 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season, but he played poorly in the wild-card game against the Los Angeles Chargers. While some chalked it up to inexperience, others pointed to that performance as proof that the Ravens' run-first style is not feasible for a championship run.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and the rest of his staff are doing all they can this offseason to develop this offense for the upcoming season, even calling upon recently retired college coach Paul Johnson, famous for his prolific use of the option offense.

"They just wanted to get my take on how we did some things. We talked about schemes, and ... I was very impressed with their system and what they have in to try and complement the talents of Lamar," Johnson said on Glenn Clark Radio June 10. "They've got some guys that can run the football. I don't think they're looking to go wholesale to an option game, but certainly it's going to be part of their package."

Johnson was head coach at Georgia Southern University (1997-2001), Navy (2002-2007) and Georgia Tech (2008-2018). An avid supporter of a run-first offense, Johnson says Jackson and the Ravens should continue perfecting this game plan since it worked so well last season.

"I don't think there's any question you can win [with this offense] at the highest level," Johnson said. "I think what Coach Harbaugh is looking to do is utilize the strengths of the quarterback that they have. It would be pretty foolish to put Lamar in the same system as Tom Brady. They're two different people."

Johnson said primarily running the ball puts the opposing defense in an uncomfortable position; a successful run-first offense can dictate the number of possessions in a game, and defenses tend to struggle to use all of their coverages and blitzes when facing that style.

While a no-huddle style can catch opposing teams off guard, a run-first style can do the same, according to Johnson.

"A normal game in college would be 17-18 possessions, and when we play that same game might be 10 possessions. So you're putting a lot of pressure on the other team's offense, too," Johnson said. "They can't try all the stuff they want to try and be freewheeling. It's a little harder to call plays for the other team if you know you might not see the ball for seven or eight minutes."

Critics of running quarterbacks believe that style of play carries a higher risk of injury and therefore is not sustainable long term, but Johnson disagreed. He said that in his experience it's actually less likely that the quarterback will be injured because they're not as exposed to clean hits.

"[Last season], I'm not sure Lamar took any real solid hits. He's smart enough to know when to get out of bounds and when to get down, plus the fact that he's such a good athlete, he's hard to get a good shot on," Johnson said.

Fans and analysts will have to wait until Sept. 9 to against the Miami Dolphins to see if Jackson and the Ravens are a one-year fluke or a running force to be reckoned with. One thing that can't be ignored, though, is Jackson's electrifying talent and big-play ability. If he and the team can put it all together, Johnson says they'll find success with this "different kind of mindset." 

"Just watching [Jackson] you can tell he's a tremendous athlete," Johnson said. "... He's got great acceleration, he can throw the football, I think he's a smart guy and he's a competitor. He wants to win. I think he'll have a bright future."

For more from Johnson, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox