Sports

Takin’ on Sports: Ravens’ Regression

While tales of Lamar Jackson's demise are greatly exaggerated, the Ravens do have a problem with their passing game that needs to be addressed before it's too late

There is certainly a worrying trend developing in Baltimore, but it isn’t the “Lamar can’t win big games” you’ll hear from most pundits. No, that’s a fallacy we’ll get to in a second. What we’re talking about here is the serious lack of development of the Ravens passing game under Lamar, and it isn’t necessarily his fault. Yes, he played probably his worst game as a pro this past Sunday against the Steelers, but the focus needs to shift to offensive coordinator Greg Roman and passing coordinator David Culley.

The Ravens’ passing scheme is laughably bad and ill-fitting for their personnel. There are far too many long developing routes for an offense without serious weapons in the passing game — and that’s a problem that’s only going to get worse with the season-ending injury to left tackle Ronnie Stanley. This can be remedied with shorter routes and quicker throws on straight passing plays, saving longer routes for play action passes. The running backs are drastically underused in the passing game, as well. The Ravens do not call enough screens to alleviate the pass rush, nor do they get the backs in favorable matchups. This is pretty stupid considering the stable of backs the Ravens possess.

Something else they could, and should, do is to roll Jackson out more, and let him make plays. Jackson on a rollout is a major problem for defenses, because they absolutely have to respect wha the can do with his legs; and that will draw defenders in towards Jackson, giving his receivers room behind the defense. And if they stay back, Jackson can get 5-10 yards with his feet quicker than anyone in football.

There’s also a slight personnel problem. Tight end Mark Andrews has been Jackson’s favorite target, for good reason, but with defenses able to key on him this year he’s taken a step back. This off-season the Ravens traded away fellow tight end Hayden Hurst (the guy they picked before Lamar in the draft), and they didn’t replace him nor did they account for his absence in the scheme.

Last season’s first round pick, WR Hollywood Brown, isn’t getting the targets befitting a #1 receiver, and he ain’t happy about it. Brown was tabbed by many an expert to be a breakout star this season after playing most of last season with an ankle injury, but so far he’s only hauled in 27 passes (on 44 targets) for 379 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was only targeted twice against Pittsburgh, and that’s just atrocious. Like Andrews, part of the problem with Brown is the lack of help around him. Miles Boykin hasn’t progressed at all, and Willie Snead, while a fine slot guy and someone who can make a few clutch catches every so often, isn’t going to win you games. They signed Dez Bryant to the practice squad, but there’s no guarantee he’ll even make it to the main roster, let alone be close to the player he once was.

So what can they do in that department? In a dream world, GM Eric DeCosta — who has said he isn’t done dealing after signing Bryant and trading for pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue — trades for someone like Allen Robinson, who is wasting away in Chicago. But, the Ravens aren’t traditionally a team to make a big trade. They gave up a 3rd and conditional 5th for Ngakoue, who is a free agent after this season. It could be argued that’s a steep price for 10 regular season games plus a playoff run, but when you can add a premiere pass rusher to a defense that’s already one of, if not the league’s best, you pull the trigger.

A talent like Robinson, or someone equivalent, would do wonders to open up the passing attack. No longer would defenses be able to key on Brown and Andrews. And, while Brown was drafted to be a #1, he isn’t there yet. With a guy like Robinson, Brown would be able to find holes in the defense. The question is whether the Ravens feel like paying the price for Robinson-like talent, or if they go the way of their past and try to find a cheaper veteran who still has something in the tank — something they’ve traditionally done through free agency.

Of course, the Stanley injury throws a wrench into that line of thinking. Do the Ravens now need to get a replacement, or even someone to shore up what was an underperforming line even before Stanley went down? Center Matt Skura has struggled to get back to 100% after just absolutely wrecking his knee last season (he tore his ACL, MCL and PCL, and he dislocated his knee cap… ouch), and right guard Tyre Phillips hasn’t developed as quickly as hoped (he also got banged up versus the Steelers).

On top of that, star cornerback Marlon Humphrey tested positive for the rona, so who knows how much time he’ll miss or what dominoes that will topple. But defense hasn’t been the problem, so don’t expect anything big to happen on that side of the ball.

Now, about that whole “Lamar can’t win the big one” bullshit: seriously? We’re doing this during the guy’s second season as a starter? Michael Jordan “couldn’t win the big one” either, until his Bulls finally got past the Detroit Pistons in Jordan’s seventh season. Hell, he didn’t even win a playoff series until his fourth season.

Let’s look at “big” games Jackson has played in: this season, there’s been the two losses to the Chiefs and Steelers. Last year, the Ravens lost to the Chiefs in week 3, and then won Jackson’s first start at Pittsburgh in week 5, won at Seattle in week 7, beat the Patriots in prime time in week 9, blew out eventual AFC South champ Houston in week 11, blew out the defending NFC champion Rams in prime time in week 12 before beating the eventual NFC champs 49ers the next week, and then followed that up by beating playoff-bound Buffalo on the road. All while shattering NFL records and Lamar running away with the MVP award.

The Ravens have lost both playoff games with Lamar. In his rookie season, where Jackson took over for Joe Flacco in week 11, the Ravens lost to the Chargers, after beating them in week 16. That loss cannot be placed on Jackson, even if he played poorly. The coaches literally did not change the game plan from the win, and the Chargers were able to adjust and won easily. That was the first time the pundits claimed that the league had “figured out Lamar” — and then he won an unanimous MVP the following season. That season ended with the unfortunate loss to the Titans and the unstoppable train that is King Derrick Henry. That was supposed to be the motivation for the team in 2020; so far, that motivation doesn’t seem to be working all that much.

Of course, there’s always the need for perspective. The Ravens are still 5-2, and almost certainly will make the playoffs. Hell, even though they’re two games behind the Steelers for the division, there’s still nine weeks left in the season, including a Thanksgiving night rematch in Pittsburgh, so a third straight AFC North title isn’t out of the question. Home field advantage, which with the new playoff format (7 teams in each league) also includes the only bye, is probably out of the question, as their two losses happen to be to their competitors for the top seed.

Lamar Jackson is still a generational talent, with a very good supporting cast and limitless potential. The defense is still among the best in the league, and this is a franchise whose identity was its defense until last season. They still have one hell of a ground game — the Ravens ran for 265 yards on an extremely good Steelers defense, and that was without Mark Ingram. The end of the schedule is looking more favorable than it did before the season, it includes games against five teams with losing records and a rematch against a Browns team they beat 38-6 on opening day.

But it’s the other three games worth watching: this Sunday at the Colts, November 22nd against the Titans, and the aforementioned rematch with the Steelers.

The Ravens are nowhere near a crisis, but changes certainly need to be made in order to take the next step. Last year’s offense was record setting, but champions never stop finding ways to improve. Be it through the trade market, a shift in offensive philosophy or a tweak to the passing scheme, if the Ravens want the face of the franchise to take the next step, they need to address their biggest problem.

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