There are two to three turning points during every NFL season, and the Ravens’ 20-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday might have been one of them.
The Ravens have spent this week talking about improving their passing game but didn’t point fingers at anyone in particular. That’s probably because there is enough blame to go around, from offensive coordinator Greg Roman to quarterback Lamar Jackson to poor pass blocking to disgruntled receivers.
And then there’s the comfort factor.
As long as Jackson kept this team winning, there was no sense of urgency to fix the passing game — even though Jackson hasn’t played well since the Ravens trounced the Los Angeles Chargers, 34-6, on Oct. 17.
But now, after another lackluster effort against Pittsburgh — which included a failed 2-point conversion attempt with 12 seconds left — everyone can see that this passing game needs to get better. Now it’s under the microscope.
A lot of criticism has been directed at Roman, but more should go to Jackson. His performance has regressed, but we’ve seen this before. When Jackson is playing well, he is fundamentally sound, stepping up in the pocket and into his throws. Most of his attempts are delivered overhand.
Now he is throwing sidearm and off his back foot, a sign that success has once again led to complacency and old, bad habits. The one thing that is hard to understand is why Jackson doesn’t release the ball quickly when pressured.
He is already in a shotgun formation, which gives him the ultimate presnap read. Yet against Pittsburgh, receivers were open, and he wasn’t even prepared to throw. It’s been well-documented that more teams are blitzing the Ravens because Jackson can’t make proper reads or quick decisions. Or both.
“We comb through the film together, all of us, and there are definitely some things in that area that we have to do better in, and he knows it,” Roman said. “There are times, though, when there is a smart sack. Like if you try to throw the ball and somebody is in a position where they can swat at your arm, now you’re putting the team in jeopardy. The bottom line, though, is we want to play on time and in rhythm. So, that’s something that we have to work on, especially with these teams that are playing way off and are just giving us stuff underneath.”
The key word is rhythm. The Ravens don’t have it right now, except for the Jackson-to-Mark Andrews combination, which has led to tunnel vision. Other receivers like Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins have been open, but Jackson can’t find them.
Some of the receivers are unhappy, and that’s understandable considering they all want the ball. But instead of sulking or complaining on social media, maybe they need to work harder to break out of this funk. Maybe they should stop bunching up together down the field, a major no-no in route running, and create space, which is of vital importance.
So is trust. Right now, Jackson can’t have much confidence in his offensive line. Who would? He’s already been sacked a career-high 37 times and hit more than a pinata. There are times when Jackson doesn’t go through his progressions because he doesn’t have time. Instead, he goes into survival mode and runs.
That, unfortunately, isn’t going to change. In fact, it might get worse, with right tackle Patrick Mekari nursing a hand injury and Tyre Phillips, another true guard, filling in. Alejandro Villanueva will continue to struggle at left tackle, so the Ravens are weak on the offensive line at the two major positions.
This is where Roman comes in. Season-ending injuries to running backs J.K Dobbins and Gus Edwards as well as left tackle Ronnie Stanley have caused some limitations, but the Ravens could roll Jackson out of the pocket more often like they did during his rookie season. Maybe they need to go back to having him read just one half or one quarter of the field and use the receivers to flood a certain area. The Ravens have fullback Patrick Ricard and enough tight ends to allow Jackson to throw off the edge.
In Pittsburgh, the Ravens used running back Devonta Freeman out of the backfield in passing situations in the first half but got away from it in the second. Well, go back to it. The Ravens are one of the worst teams in the NFL at running screens, but they ran a successful one up the middle a couple of weeks ago. That play was improvised, but put it back in the playbook.
How about a quarterback draw?
A lot of people have mentioned how Jackson has been successful running the hurry-up offense, but that has happened mostly when opposing defenses are playing prevent in the final minutes of the first half or the game. Roman has to be careful with that because if the hurry-up fails, it can put a lot of pressure on the Ravens’ defense.
“I mean, no-huddle is definitely an option for us,” Roman said. “We’ve been really good in ‘got-to-have-it situations,’ which we call two-minute. That’s where your back is against the wall, you’re fighting the clock. We’ve had some really solid success there in that situation. In game, hurry-up is a lot different dynamic. [It’s] completely different.
“The upside, the downside, the team, the big picture to it all, involving the defense and everything, is very different. So, it’s definitely on our plate. We work on it all the time, and it’s definitely something that you kind of want to get into at the right time. I’ve gotten into it, sometimes, early in the games this year, and it hasn’t worked out so well. So, I got right out of it. There are pluses and minuses.”
At least the Ravens are willing to make some changes. It’s great to have an athletic talent like Jackson on the field, and the 2019 MVP has carried the team for nearly three months. But all players go into a rut at some point, and the team has to rely on other resources.
The Ravens have to find other options until Jackson proves he is back to his top form.
The loss to Pittsburgh has made them face reality, which could lead to a brighter future.