Lamar Jackson was a revelation last season, but he’s struggled to follow up his MVP output this year. Baltimore’s offensive issues have come by surprise, and their preseason status as a Super Bowl contender looks less likely. Why have they failed to recreate last year’s magic? And is there anything they can do to recover before the playoffs start?
Lamar Jackson proved doubters wrong and became an NFL star
Jackson entered the 2018-19 season with plenty of skeptics suspicious about his ability as a starting quarterback. Despite winning the Heisman Trophy during his football career at Louisville, Jackson was often told by scouts and analysts that he should be a wide receiver. His rookie year didn’t do much to push back against those opinions.
Despite finishing with a 6-2 record once he became the starter, Jackson’s success was almost entirely predicated on his athleticism. In the Ravens’ wild-card defeat at the hands of the Chargers, he had a paltry 25 yards passing until the fourth quarter. Jackson’s gifts were clear, but he needed to improve a lot to make the most of his potential.
Jackson didn’t simply get better. He put up one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. He accrued accolades as quickly as the Ravens scored touchdowns. Jackson became the second player ever to produce two perfect passer ratings in the same season. He broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback and was earned the league’s MVP via a unanimous vote.
Jackson’s exciting style of play dazzled fans and signaled a change in how the league viewed black quarterbacks. A shock playoff defeat to the Titans brought their season to a close sooner than most thought. However, Jackson’s status as a face of the NFL seemed set in stone. This season, the Ravens have regressed substantially, details The Ringer. And Jackson is both the culprit and the victim of this situation.
The Ravens are one of the biggest disappointments
The Ravens have been worse at every aspect of football this season, details NFL.com. But the drop-off is most severe on offense. They’ve fallen from second to 25th in yards per game and from first to 12th in points per game. (They’re still first in rushing yards per game but averaging 40 yards fewer than last year.)
Jackson’s completion percentage has dropped from 66% to 63.5% and his quarterback rating has fallen from 82.3 to 61.9. The QB has already thrown as many interceptions in 10 games as he did in the entirety of last season (six). If the 2020 regular season ended today, the Ravens would miss the playoffs. The reasons for this are based in both tactics and talent.
Opposing defenses have honed in on how to stifle Baltimore’s passing game. Specifically, they’re playing way more nickel and dime packages. And the Ravens haven’t been able to adapt. Baltimore has seen six or more defensive backs on 102 snaps compared to 76 snaps in all of last season.
What makes those lineups so impactful is that they provide extra support to slow Baltimore down outside while allowing for someone to spy Jackson so he can’t scramble as effectively as he did. (Mike Renner wrote about this in an article for Pro Football Focus.) But their problems aren’t just based in schematics.
Baltimore’s offensive line is much worse. Marshal Yanda is a potential Hall of Famer at guard, and he retired last offseason. All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 8. As good as Baltimore tight ends and Marquise Brown are, the fact is they don’t have enough outside playmakers to take advantage of the constant man coverage.
Can the Ravens still make it to the postseason?
The fate of the Ravens season is still full of uncertainty – and that was before several players, including Jackson, tested positive for COVID-19. The rest of their schedule is pretty easy, but their inconsistencies are such that they can’t assume that those games are automatic wins, especially considering Jackson’s health.
If the reigning MVP returns soon and doesn’t from any of the longer-lasting consequences of the coronavirus, Jackson will need to better deal with pressure and develop more confidence throwing into tight windows. The combination of his talent and the randomness of one-off postseason games means you can’t completely write them off, but they’re clearly an outsider in the AFC.
Baltimore should be able to bounce back next year, they’re projected to have over $20 million in cap space next year, so the team has avenues to add better players to the roster. But ultimately, the next few years of the franchise will be defined on how Jackson deals with this setback going forward.