What made the Chiefs and Ravens elite offenses in 2019?

In its purest form Football offense can be broken down into two phases, pass plays and run plays. To be successful, both phases require differing elements, and as such it is very tough to be elite at both at the same time. 

In the 2019 season two offenses stood out above the rest; The first was the Baltimore Ravens, who burst on to the scene with their bruising rushing attack but also led the NFL in passing touchdowns. 

The second was the Kansas City Chiefs, who put up incredible numbers but in part due to star quarterback Patrick Mahomes missing two games due to injury and being hampered for a further at least two further games after his return, didn’t lead the NFL in any categories. However, the the Chiefs offense was one of the most devastating when it was in full flow, despite a mediocre running game. 

With these two offenses both dominant, but in two very different ways, what are the building blocks of elite offense in 2020?

Stats Explained: What is EPA?

EPA stands for estimated points added, it breaks down each play in a football game and assigns them a point value based upon a mathematical model. It is useful for normalising the efficiency of an offense.

Elite Offense In Different Ways

elite offense

The graph above illustrates how both the Chiefs and the Ravens stood out from the pack for entirely different reasons. The Ravens were the only team in the entire league to finish with a positive EPA on run plays. Meanwhile the the Chiefs posted an EPA per pass play almost 0.1 point higher than their closest challengers. 

Both teams outperformed the rest of the league significantly in one metric of offensive efficiency. The head coaches and co-ordinators adapted their schemes to highlight the best skills of their bright young quarterbacks. These two quarterbacks would both take home individual awards from the 2020 season. Lamar Jackson won the MVP and Patrick Mahomes was named the Super Bowl MVP in the Chiefs victory in February.

Regular Season Kings

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The 2019 Baltimore Ravens finished the regular season with the best record in the NFL (14-2). They led the league in points scored, as well as both total and passing touchdowns scored. Their attack was led by a three headed rushing monster of Mark Ingram, Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards. 

Jackson and Ingram both went over 1,000 yards on the season while Edwards rushed for over 700. Between the three of them, they rushed for 19 touchdowns. The flexibility of the attack contributed massively to its success, with opponents not knowing who to focus on when two, or in some rare cases all three players, were on the field at the same time.

It should be noted that the Ravens weren’t just compilers. The team averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2019. A YPC value over four relieves a huge amount of pressure on the quarterback who will very rarely face drive killing third and long situations and will often face second down with five or fewer yards to go. In those situations the quarterback has a free down in which they can afford to be aggressive. This is one of the key reasons that Jackson led the NFL in passing touchdowns in 2019. The run game was able to get the team on the front foot and as such Jackson was able to throw deep balls to Marquise Brown and Willie Snead IV knowing he had another down if things did not go to plan.

The unsung heroes of last season for the Ravens were the offensive line. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley developed into one of the best pass blockers in the league, whilst right tackle Orlando Brown Jr is a perfect fit for the job the Ravens want him to do. Brown’s specific fit and skillset saw him fall to the third round of the NFL Draft, alloweing Baltimore to pounce and pick up a starting tackle at a deep discount. 

This is the benefit of running a scheme with reasonably unique personnel needs. By finding a way of successfully utilising players the rest of league doesn’t find appealing teams are able to pick up starters throughout the draft, allowing the front office to be more aggressive in other areas.

The additions of Ohio State running back JK Dobbins, Texas slot receiver Devin Duvernay and two new bodies on the offensive line in the 2020 NFL Draft this rushing offense could get even better next season. 

Efficient, Explosive, Elite Offense?

Consistently the best offense in the National Football League in the last two seasons with Mahomes at the helm, the Kansas City Chiefs rode their offensive firepower all the way to a Lombardi Trophy in 2020. Their combination of supreme speed at the pass catching positions and Mahomes blend of a cannon arm, solid completion percentage, fantastic sack evasion and a scheme that producers wide open pass catchers on the regular makes this offense very tough to stop. 

Mahomes leads the entire league in EPA per play since he assumed the starting role at the beginning of the 2018 season. The time he missed through injury in 2019 is the reason the Chiefs didn’t lead the NFL in most offensive categories last year. A healthy season for Mahomes in 2020 is going to make this team very fun to watch, especially if he can take that next step and join Russell Wilson on the absolute peak when it comes to technical quarterback play.

In addition to having the best young quarterback in the NFL the Chiefs have filled the offense around him with brilliant performers. The two headed speed demon of Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman out wide is a combo that will strike fear into any defense. This combined with the brilliant Travis Kelce at tight end and the tantalising talent of Sammy Watkins is a lineup that is up there with the best in the league. 

In addition to the range of pass catching talent, the Chiefs drafted LSU stand out running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Edwards-Helaire adds a new dynamic to this offense, both as a rushing threat and as a player who can catch the ball out of the backfield. 

The offense is completed by an offensive line that is better than the sum of its parts. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has a case to be made to be the best tackle in the league and left tackle Eric Fisher has developed into a steady blindside protector. The names in the middle of the line don’t jump off the page but the level of steady performance from the line week in week out is the bedrock on which this amazing offense has been built.

We know that this offense has staying power, as it has dominated the league over the last two seasons climaxing in a Super Bowl win. A season in which Mahomes and his supporting class are healthy has the potential to be record breaking. Even a small number of injuries will not stress the depth of the offense too much given the supreme number of playmakers Mahomes has at his disposal. Expect the Chiefs to dominate the league for seasons to come with their brilliant blend of a top-level passer, a great supporting class and a superb offensive mind in the head coaching position. The Chiefs are rightly Super Bowl favourites entering 2020 and it would not be a surprise in the slightest to see them back playing on the biggest stage come February.

Identifying the Trend​

These are two teams with different methods of scoring points but some similarities in the way they have built their offense. To succeed on offense in the NFL in 2020 a strong offensive line is a must. However, both teams have proven that you do not need blue chip talent in order to build a good offensive line that can impose their will on the game. A solid base upfront allows the skill position players to devastate their opponents. The other elements both offenses have looked for is speed. Whether that be Marquise Brown or Tyreek Hill, both offenses have elite speed at the receiver position that allows their quarterbacks to fling the ball deep and stretch the field.

However, the two teams have also chosen an area of the game to attack and built their schemes and personnel to fit that scheme. The Chiefs can roll in and out a number of elite pass catching options with the run game a secondary element. Meanwhile, the Ravens have built an elite backfield of players on cheap contracts who all can do different things. Whilst it is true that elite passing offenses often have more sticking power, the sheer amount of investment the Ravens have made into the running game in terms of building a group of backs that cover all skillsets should future-proof this offense. Expect to see the Chiefs and Ravens at the top of the league for a while to come with these two superb, but different offenses, driving the way.

Alex Chinery

Head of Analytics