It’s not official yet, but the torch long held by the defense in Baltimore keeps moving in the opposite direction as the Ravens, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, become an offensive team.
It’s been gradually moving in that direction for years under the fourth-year quarterback, but the Ravens took a huge step in that direction Sunday in a 23-7 win against the Denver Broncos at Empire Field at Mile High.
It was an impressive performance by Jackson, who finished with 22 completions on 37 passes for 316 yards and a touchdown, but even more significant was that he completed passes to five receivers. This just wasn’t the Marquise Brown or the Mark Andrews show, as the receiver and tight end combined for nine catches for 158 yards and a touchdown.
“You know, I’m a little biased. He’s just really special,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson. “Lamar will be the first to tell you, it wasn’t just him. The offensive line did a really good job many, many times, and the wide receivers made catches and grabs, got upfield. Marquise going and getting that ball was just an amazing catch. Good for him. ... It’s a team effort.”
Of course, Brown had the catch of the day, diving and hauling in a 49-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. But James Proche II had five catches for 74 yards and Sammy Watkins had four for 49 yards. Speedster Devin Duvernay had three for 31 yards. In other words, Jackson and the Ravens spread the ball around.
That’s been the game plan ever since Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as the starter three years ago. Now, the Ravens are starting to see it come to fruition, thanks in part to the investments that have been made on offense in recent years.
Not only was Jackson drafted in the first round, but the Ravens selected Andrews in the third round that same year. They took Brown in the first round a year later and then Duvernay in the third and Proche in the sixth in the 2020 draft. In April, the Ravens drafted receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round and also signed Watkins as a free agent.
It’s taken a while for the passing game to come together and there are still a lot of things to work out, especially with Bateman, who returned to practice this week, still awaiting his NFL debut after undergoing groin surgery in August. But at least there was a sound passing game against the Broncos. On a day when the Ravens struggled to rush for 102 yards against Denver, the passing game complemented the rushing attack well.
Brown was the long-ball threat while Andrews worked the intermediate areas, both outside and over the middle. The Ravens can present matchup problems because all of their receivers can play outside or in the slot, and both Brown and Duvernay have excellent speed. Proche might have the best hands on the team.
It should get even better once Jackson has more time to work with Bateman.
Another adjustment, compared with a year ago, is that Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman is attacking the entire field, especially with crossing patterns to Andrews and Brown. Few linebackers can cover Andrews across the field, and even fewer cornerbacks can run with Brown.
The key to the passing game is, of course, Jackson. He has shown this year that he can throw accurately outside the numbers, which has been a major criticism of his play for the past three years. Jackson wasn’t brilliant Sunday, and at times struggled because he didn’t step into his throws as he had in previous weeks.
But he is picking up blitzes better and isn’t so quick to run out of the pocket when pass protection breaks down. So far, he has proven to be a more complete quarterback. It remains to be seen how much this passing game will develop because the pass protection is suspect. In two of the first four games, the offensive line has been an issue — especially tackles Patrick Mekari and Alejandro Villanueva.
Villanueva might miss some time with a knee injury he suffered Sunday, and if that’s the case, the Ravens are in trouble. But at least for the first time in recent years, the Ravens had a passing attack that was effective.
It was a top priority after last season when they finished with NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack and the worst passing game. They’ve already closed the gap.
Now, the passing of the torch might not be far behind.
“They’re a good team, they’re undefeated for a reason, but it just shows that the sky is the limit for this team,” Duvernay said. “If we just keep going, keep playing together [and] keep playing as one, we can do whatever we want.”