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Mike Preston: Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense have to get back to the fundamentals | COMMENTARY

Maybe Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said it best when talking about Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“We have respect for him, but we don’t fear him,” Tomlin said after the Steelers' 28-24 win Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

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After a year when Jackson was the NFL Most Valuable Player, that fear has diminished.

In 2019, Jackson kept defensive coordinators up at night. He could beat you with his arm or his legs from anywhere on the field. He was the new-wave Barry Sanders, only at the quarterback position.

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Now Jackson is in a funk. We can’t even call it the sophomore jinx because he is in his third season.

Ever since the debacle in Philadelphia two weeks ago, Ravens coaches and teammates have stayed away from criticizing Jackson. They said nothing was wrong with his technique or mechanics and let everyone know the bottom line was the team’s 5-1 record.

Then came Sunday.

Jackson threw two interceptions that led to two Pittsburgh touchdowns, including a pick-six. He lost two fumbles, one that killed a drive in the first quarter and another that ended a possible game-winning drive in the closing minutes.

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Jackson completed 13 of 28 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. He made plays that gave the Ravens an opportunity to win, but it’s hard to beat an NFL team when you spot it 14 points, especially when that club is undefeated.

“We didn’t play well enough to win the game in the end,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I thought we fought hard [and] competed very well. [Lamar] played hard. He made a lot of plays. The turnovers, obviously, were disappointing. That’s the difference in the game in some ways, obviously. And that’s part of it.

“We’re disappointed with that part of it. We’re very happy with other parts of it. I thought he competed, made a lot of great throws and runs and things like that. So, it’s a mixed bag in that sense, but of course we’re not pleased with losing the turnover battle. That’s something that we always want to win.”

The key words are “mixed bag.”

The Ravens built this offense around Jackson, and for better or worse, they are stuck with it. That’s not to say they want to run and abandon it. When the quarterback struggles, it hurts the offense, but Jackson’s situation is unique.

Without Jackson, the Ravens have no running game, especially on the perimeter. The passing game is limited because Jackson struggles to complete throws outside the numbers, which is why the Ravens don’t attempt deep comeback routes or sideline patterns. Shoot, they don’t even throw short hitches, which require passes to be high, tight and to the outside of the field.

Right now, the Ravens have an erratic quarterback and offense. Last season, opponents feared Jackson’s big-play ability and the Ravens’ dominant running game. Jackson still makes teams nervous, but some of the fear has disappeared.

“The turnovers, I feel, are the reason we lost the game. I put that on me,” Jackson said. “The start of the game, the first drive — a pick-six. And then we drive to the red zone — I fumbled. I’ve got to get the ball out quicker, because we know they’re dominant up front. And then that pick off the play to the flat throwing it to Mark [Andrews]. I’ve got to clean those up, and I feel like we [would’ve] won that game. That’s all to it.”

The Ravens need to clean up Jackson’s mechanics. They can’t hide the problems anymore. He has to get rid of those sidearms attempts and start stepping into his passes again to get more velocity on his throws. He has to become more of a threat as a passer when he gets out of the pocket. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes runs to buy more time to throw. Jackson just runs to pick up yards.

At this time, Jackson’s decision-making is slow. He holds on to the ball too long and just chucks it up when he is about to be sacked. And we’re not talking about just throwing it away; he lofts it like the football has been filled with helium.

Then there is the issue of ball security. Just tuck the ball and put it away.

“Just hold on to the ball, that’s all,” Jackson said. “We’ve been doing a great job at it all season. [I’ve] just got to do better when we’re playing against a rival team.”

Those problems can be fixed, but Jackson and the Ravens have to go back to the fundamentals.

Still, there is one area of Jackson’s game that is a major concern, and maybe I’m wrong, but he doesn’t seem to handle pressure well.

When the Ravens are winning, and the offense is clicking, Jackson is outstanding. But when this team falls behind, and the Ravens need Jackson’s arm to carry them, he struggles. That can change if he leads some big comebacks, especially in the postseason.

Until then, the silver lining is that the Ravens still almost won Sunday. The defense is strong enough to win most games. Regardless of how poor Jackson played against Pittsburgh, he still almost pulled out the victory.

The Ravens can help Jackson out with some tweaks in the offense. They don’t need to listen to receiver Marquise Brown, who suggested they should throw the ball to him more often, especially down the field. But a few screens to slow Pittsburgh’s pass rush would have helped.

The Ravens could borrow a few pages from the Steelers playbook. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger mostly throws short passes, including slants, rubs or clear outs over the middle. In the past, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick always came up with some gimmick play to use against the Ravens.

That doesn’t happen in Baltimore.

The Ravens have to get Jackson right again. They had 457 yards of total offense Sunday playing without their top running back and two starting offensive linemen for most of the game — right guard Tyre Phillips and Ronnie Stanley, one of the best left tackles in the league. They converted on eight of 15 third-down situations and had the ball for nearly 11 more minutes than Pittsburgh, which entered the game with the No. 1 total defense in the NFL.

It’s a matter of Jackson regaining his confidence and coming close to the level he played at last year. The fear is gone, but it can return quickly.

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