Lamar Jackson wanted to expand his game in 2020 and push the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Instead, he and they plateaued in a season that ended with familiar disappointment. Here are five things we learned from the 2020 season:
The Ravens counted on an improved Lamar Jackson to take them to the next level; instead, he and they plateaued.
Recall the narrative around Jackson entering his third season. He planned to become a more confident thrower of downfield and outside-the-numbers passes. Fueled by his evolution, the Ravens offense would become a more flexible, less predictable beast.
After 18 games, including the 24-year-old quarterback’s first playoff victory, we can say that did not happen.
Jackson did not take a clear step back as a passer. His percentages of poor and on-target throws changed little from 2019, according to Pro-Football-Reference. He threw downfield about as much and about as successfully as he had the year before. The situation around him got worse; he was pressured more despite being blitzed less, and his receivers dropped six more passes while picking up fewer yards after the catch. So perhaps we could argue he did well by staying the same. But stagnation was not what Jackson or his many fans expected from him as a Most Valuable Player follow-up.
Even when he and the Ravens took flight over the last five games in the regular season and the wild-card round against the Tennessee Titans, they did so by reclaiming their identity as a ground-and-pound engine of war. Jackson reconnected with his scrambling genius, but he did not unveil some new dimension as a passer.
Again, the news grew worse in the playoffs. Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier went with the same formula that had troubled Jackson in the past: stack the box against the run, blitz drop-backs and play zone coverage so defensive backs could keep their eyes out for potential scrambles. Jackson responded by taking too many bad sacks, finding too few open receivers and throwing a tunnel-vision interception on the pivotal play of the game. His harshest critics say he’ll never be accurate enough, but that’s not really what we saw against the Bills. Instead, we saw a young quarterback who has not learned to adjust decisively to what’s happening in front of him.
This frustrated Ravens fans who felt they’d waited 12 long months to end up right back in the same predicament. But this is not a hopeless situation. Look at the 24-year-old quarterback who just beat the Ravens. Josh Allen went from crumbling against pressure in 2019 to eviscerating blitzes in 2020. He developed greater trust in his mechanics through dogged offseason work with quarterback coach Jordan Palmer. He developed greater trust in his receiving corps, bolstered by the addition of All-Pro Stefon Diggs. He increased his play-action attempts by 52% under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
Allen’s improvement was atypical but suggestive of a blueprint that could work for Jackson, who’s a more accomplished player than his Buffalo counterpart in many respects. The Ravens’ franchise star needs to get more out of his offseason than he did in pandemic-haunted 2020. That might mean honing his mechanics with quarterback coach Joshua Harris on the fields of Pompano Beach, Florida. It might mean hunkering down with Ravens coaches and teammates over Zoom calls. It might mean some fresh path.
“Lamar, I think, is just embarking on that; he’s just starting on that and kind of figuring that out for himself,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Like, what’s his method going to be?
The front office and coaching staff also must improve the situation around Jackson. But if he comes back as exactly the same player, the Ravens will continue hitting the same wall on their road to the Super Bowl he desperately craves.
The Ravens aren’t changing their basic approach to offense, no matter what fans and analysts say.
We’ve begun another offseason with a significant portion of fans eager for radical change on Harbaugh’s staff. These loud voices say Jackson will never reach his potential if he’s forced to work with the unimaginative passing schemes of offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Their line of thinking gained support from former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., who said his 6-year-old could run the team’s offense as well as Roman, and from Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who decried the lack of spacing and creativity in Roman’s route designs.
The numbers are damning. The Ravens ranked last in pass attempts and passing yards — no great surprise. But they fell from 10th to 21st in yards per attempt. If you prefer the more sophisticated contextual measures of Football Outsiders’ DVOA, they dropped from No. 1 in passing efficiency in 2019 to No. 17 in 2020.
Their top two pass catchers, Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews, delivered uneven seasons. Brown flourished in the playoffs, and Andrews remains a top-10 tight end. But the Ravens have not developed anyone else to scare defenses. Miles Boykin made a few big catches in the second half of the season, but Jackson simply doesn’t throw him the ball much, even when he’s open. Rookie Devin Duvernay vanished from the rotation down the stretch and never emerged as the vertical threat Harbaugh foresaw on draft day. With Hayden Hurst traded away and Nick Boyle injured, Jackson couldn’t rely on his non-Andrews tight ends. He’s yet to make much use in the passing game of future No. 1 running back J.K. Dobbins, who dropped an important third-down pass in the loss to Buffalo. Compared with other top teams, the Ravens lacked both downfield targets and bailout options to counter pressure.
Should they react to these troubling trends by dumping Roman? Harbaugh answered with an emphatic no in his end-of-season news conference. “The reason I’m strong on this is because it goes back to the same criticisms that we’ve heard for the last three years about not being the type of an offense, or the type of a quarterback, that some people want to see,” he said. “They’re just going to have to live with it, because Lamar Jackson has won a lot of football games here. Our offense has won us a lot of football games here, and we’re not apologizing for that for one second.”
On balance, he’s correct. The Ravens have built a historically productive ground offense around Roman’s concepts and Jackson’s unique skills. They should not discard what works best about this team in a theoretical stab at improving what doesn’t. They must take a more holistic approach. That means skill development for Jackson. It means adding a proven wide receiver to pair with Brown and more reliable pass blockers on the interior. It means a return to more play-action attempts (23% of Jackson’s throws in 2020 versus 41% in 2019, per Pro-Football-Reference).
While it’s true that Roman has never run a high-powered passing offense and that his aerial attacks regressed at the end of his tenures in San Francisco and Buffalo, it’s also true that his best 49ers offenses threw efficiently and won multiple playoff games per season. With his tweaks to the running game this year — more varied backfield alignments, creative usage of pulls and a six-man line, inverted option plays for Jackson — we saw he’s capable of adjusting on the fly.
If we’re back to the same conversation at this time next year, the verdict might be different. But for now, blowing up Roman’s offense would be an overreaction.
The Ravens built the defense they wanted for 2020, but they might not be able to keep it.
Lost in the garment rending over the Ravens’ offense was the fact their defense closed the season with a pair of extraordinary performances.
With an imposing interior line and a collection of versatile edge defenders, they stonewalled the most imposing runner in football, Derrick Henry. With their high-priced secondary, they held Allen and a top-five passing attack to one offensive touchdown. The Titans and Bills both averaged more than 30 points per game in the regular season. They combined for 30, six of those on an interception return, in two playoff games against Don “Wink” Martindale’s crew.
Injuries kept the Ravens from being this good all season; they finished ninth in defensive DVOA. But their offseason investments — draft, trade and free agent — paid off in the games that mattered most. This wasn’t a defense defined by remarkable individual seasons. No Raven finished with more than six sacks. Veteran stars Calais Campbell and Marcus Peters played through injuries and did not match their performances from 2019. Midseason addition Yannick Ngakoue made spotty contributions as a pass-rush specialist. It was the overall design that worked, with waves of multidimensional players making up for the lack of an Aaron Donald or a T.J. Watt.
The Ravens will take a similar approach heading into next season, but they’ll have to make difficult business decisions. With so much money invested in the secondary and on veteran linemen Campbell and Brandon Williams — not to mention a potentially pricey shopping list on the offensive side — something will have to give.
The obvious dilemma will occur on the edges, where Matthew Judon, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward and Ngakoue are all headed for unrestricted free agency. As Harbaugh indicated, the Ravens would love to keep Judon, who’s an important voice in the locker room and makes up for his lack of elite pass-rushing numbers with his versatility in coverage. That doesn’t mean they’ll want to use the franchise tag again or pay Judon the going rate in free agency. Perhaps they could go for a bargain version of Judon by re-signing Bowser, but there’s no guarantee that will be easy either. Losing the coverage skills of both would be a blow. Harbaugh also expressed interest in crafting a larger role for Ngakoue. But it’s hard to see the Ravens offering big money after the former Maryland standout played just 20 snaps and failed to mark the stat sheet against the Bills.
The Ravens will probably have better luck offering short-term deals to veterans such as McPhee and defensive end Derek Wolfe, who love playing in Martindale’s defense. They’ll have to rely on such moves and on the draft to make up for inevitable free-agent losses.
The Ravens ultimately paid for the chaotic state of their offensive line.
We knew Marshal Yanda could not be replaced with a click of the fingers. And the Ravens’ problems grew much worse midway through the season when All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s ankle folded underneath him and center Matt Skura started snapping the ball like a live hand grenade.
In context, they survived it all pretty well, with Patrick Mekari improving on Skura’s performance at center and Ben Powers settling into Yanda’s old spot. This did not hold against the Bills, whose pass rushers took advantage of disastrous performances by three-fifths of the Ravens’ offensive line. Mekari could not get the ball to Jackson cleanly and also struggled as an interior pass blocker. Powers, meanwhile, played the worst game of his career in ugly tandem with the overmatched right tackle duo of D.J. Fluker and Tyre Phillips.
Was this an ill-timed anomaly or a sign that general manager Eric DeCosta needs to pursue significant outside help?
Stanley will immediately improve the outlook if he returns healthy and pushes Orlando Brown Jr. back to right tackle. Bradley Bozeman appears entrenched at left guard, and Powers at least earned a chance to compete at right guard despite his poor performance against Buffalo. The Ravens face a more unsettling choice at center. After all their snapping woes this season, can they afford to assume Mekari’s nightmare performance was a one-off? At the very least, they’ll probably bring in a veteran center and make Mekari win the job. They also need to add depth at tackle to hedge against another injury and the possibility that Brown could depart in free agency after next season. Phillips might yet become a starting guard, but he and Fluker did not cut it on the edge.
However they puzzle this group together, the Ravens will aim to regain the stability they enjoyed in 2019. Harbaugh deemed this “priority one, for sure.”
A productive rookie class arrived at the right time for a team facing its next money crunch.
With their previous wave of young stars (Stanley, Marlon Humphrey, Jackson, Andrews) about to get expensive, the Ravens needed to hit on their 2020 draft to add cheap reinforcements. Though they did not find immediate contributors at every undermanned position (Duvernay’s lack of production at wide receiver was a disappointment), their top three picks met or exceeded expectations.
First-round pick Patrick Queen started every game at middle linebacker, just as C.J. Mosley did back in 2014. Though he was vulnerable to play-action manipulation and not always strong enough to shed run blockers, he improved in coverage and blitzed potently. At 21, he has ample room to grow given his rare ability to cover ground.
The Ravens puzzled some analysts when they used their second-round pick on Dobbins, but he played so well down the stretch that he pushed veteran Mark Ingram II out the door. The Ravens haven’t had a running back with his combination of vision and balance since a prime Ray Rice. He breaks long runs, thrives at the goal line and rarely goes down easily. If Dobbins shores up his pass catching, he’s headed for the Pro Bowl.
Third-round pick Justin Madubuike missed the first four games of the season with a knee injury. By the end, he was right behind Campbell and Wolfe in the defensive-line rotation. It’s not entirely clear how Madubuike will evolve, but he explodes off the ball enough to become the formidable interior pass rusher the Ravens have lacked in recent seasons. He already holds his own on both running and passing downs.
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All three played substantial snaps in the playoffs. The Ravens also received meaningful contributions from Duvernay, Phillips and inside linebacker Malik Harrison. Quite the haul for DeCosta’s scouting operation.