Late in the third quarter Sunday, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson took a pistol snap at the Cincinnati Bengals’ 14-yard line, rolled to his right and waited for someone to get open, ideally in the end zone.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter how many defenders stand in the way of Jackson and the Ravens’ red-zone offense, but on this play, there were nine. Two were chasing him to the sideline. Another three were guarding the goal line, keeping tabs on running back J.K. Dobbins and wide receiver Dez Bryant. Four more were in the end zone, where tight end Mark Andrews was probing and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was running — uncovered.
Seeing Brown sprinting along the back of the end zone, hand raised, Jackson wound up. His fastball buzzed over the head of Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt and hit Brown in the numbers, his second touchdown catch of the day. At the end of a 9-yard pass, no one was within 3 yards of Brown.
“In that condensed space, there’s a lot you’ve got to account for, and him [Jackson] being him, you have to account for him,” Brown said after a 38-3 win Sunday. He added: “He makes our job a lot easier.”
But the Ravens have also been scoring a lot because they’re scoring where it’s often hardest to score: in the red zone. In their 25 drives inside opponents’ 20-yard line since Jackson returned from a COVID-19 bout, they’ve scored all but twice, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Eighteen drives ended with touchdowns, a stellar 72% conversion rate. Only a missed field-goal attempt and a goal-line fumble have denied their red-zone offense points in that five-week span.
“When we’ve won games, we’ve been efficient down there, and when we haven’t, we haven’t been efficient,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We’ve been able to score touchdowns. That leads you to higher-scoring games, and obviously, that’s a huge key to winning games, so I think it’s very important.”
It helps to have Jackson. The closer to the goal line he gets, the more exacting he becomes. As a red-zone passer, Jackson is 39-for-58 (67.2%) for 259 yards, 19 touchdowns and no interceptions this season, good for a 116.3 passer rating. Only the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s presumptive Most Valuable Player, has a higher red-zone rating (119.1) among regular passers in 2020.
Over Jackson’s Ravens career, mistakes there have been even rarer than losses. During his MVP campaign last season, he had a 112.7 red-zone passer rating, 29 total touchdowns (five rushing) and no interceptions. Since 2018, Jackson trails only the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees (115.4) in rating (110.7) among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. His career red-zone totals: 47 passing touchdowns, 13 rushing touchdowns, three lost fumbles, no interceptions.
“When you have a quarterback who can extend plays and has such good vision, like Lamar does, that makes you tough in the red zone,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens went 4-for-4 in the red zone Sunday, scoring three touchdowns, and they ended the regular season No. 12 in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage (63.3%), a dip from last season (67.2%, No. 2 overall). But no stretch was more impressive than Weeks 14 to 15. In wins over the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens got inside the red zone 10 times and scored 10 touchdowns.
For offensive coordinator Greg Roman and senior assistant Craig Ver Steeg, who helps organize the red-zone attack, a creative running game and accurate passer make all the difference. Close to the goal line, more defenders fill the box, and passing windows shrink. The Ravens averaged 5.9 yards per play in the regular season — and 2.6 yards per play inside the 20-yard line. In the NFL, that’s an elite mark; only two offenses averaged more.
There is a continuity to their approach. With Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens pose the same challenges in the red zone that they do outside it. Running the ball is not an uncomfortable posture for their offense, as it sometimes seems to be for the pass-happy Kansas City Chiefs’. In their two-game masterclass last month, the Ravens scored three times on passes, once on a Jackson scramble and six times on designed runs.
With speed (Dobbins), power (Edwards) and a sturdy offensive line, along with the wrinkle of presnap motion, the Ravens’ ground game can hit compact defenses from every angle, and quickly. There’s a reason they led the NFL with 191.9 yards per game.
Against Cleveland, Dobbins followed fullback Patrick Ricard, his lead blocker in the I-formation, for a 1-yard score. Against Jacksonville, Dobbins scored from 2 yards out after taking a jet sweep and beating the second-level defenders to the goal line. Later, Jackson faked a handoff from a jet sweep look, then followed two blockers pulling in the opposite direction for an easy 5-yard score.
Some of their success goes according to plan. Other times, the Ravens just take things into their own talented hands. On back-to-back touchdowns against the Browns, Edwards improvised on a zone-read option, bouncing a carry outside before reaching for the pylon, and Jackson scrambled in from 17 yards out, tearing apart man coverage with his legs.
The following week, Jackson showed his poise in the pocket. The Ravens’ first touchdown against Jacksonville came on a 4-yard pass to wide receiver Miles Boykin, the third or fourth option in Jackson’s progression. On his second passing score, he scrambled to buy time before finding Bryant from 11 yards out. On his third and final touchdown, Jackson fired a 3-yard dart to Andrews, who’d parked himself in front of a smaller defender.
The Ravens cannot afford to be wasteful Sunday. In their 28-12 playoff loss to Tennessee last year, they came away with just 10 points in four red-zone trips. In Week 11, the Titans held them to three field goals and a touchdown over four such drives.
Tennessee’s defense, likely the worst of any playoff team, will enter the postseason with the NFL’s third-worst red-zone touchdown rate. The Ravens should be able to finish off possessions, and they might have to; the Titans end 75% of their own drives inside the 20 with touchdowns, the NFL’s second-best mark. If the Ravens come up short there Sunday, it can’t be because they arrived unprepared.
“We work on it every single day through training camp and the regular season,” Harbaugh said. “We know how important it is.”