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Five Things We Learned from the opening stretch of the Ravens’ 2020 season

"There were a lot of tipped passes during our games, and I'm trying to find angles," said Lamar Jackson when asked about his throwing mechanics.

From Lamar Jackson’s modest struggles to the success of an overhauled defense, here are five things we learned from the first six games of the Ravens' season.

Lamar Jackson has taken a slight step back from his MVP season.

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We knew coming in that Jackson would have a hard time replicating his unprecedented combination of passing efficiency and running production from 2019. We saw Patrick Mahomes go through a similar “regression” last season, coming off his 50-touchdown breakout.

But Jackson’s many admirers envisioned him becoming a more complete quarterback, with greater mastery of the presnap game and more confidence in his deep and outside throws. He devoted his offseason to these refinements and it seemed he might become a deadlier operator of Greg Roman’s offense, even if his personal statistics slipped slightly.

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Through six games, Jackson has been very good but not mind blowing. He threw poorly in a Week 3 loss to Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs and again in a Week 5 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Defenses have troubled the reigning Most Valuable Player trouble by crowding the line of scrimmage and daring him to attack outside and over the top.

He’s attempting more downfield throws (9.4 intended air yards per attempt compared to 8.8 last year, according to Pro-Football-Reference) but achieving stagnant results (4.4 completed air yards per attempt in both seasons). He’s receiving less help from his pass catchers, who’ve dropped nine Jackson throws through six games (compared to 14 all of last season) and are gaining fewer yards after the catch (4.2 per completed pass compared to 5.1 in 2019, according to Pro-Football-Reference). He’s facing pressure on 24.1% of his drop-backs compared to 16.2% last season, and he’s not punishing blitzes as consistently as he did in 2019.

Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said Jackson’s accuracy numbers look worse in part because he’s demonstrated better judgement in throwing balls away. That’s true to a point — he’s thrown away six passes in six games compared to 11 in 15 games last season — but his on-target percentage is slightly lower (74.4% compared to 76%), per Pro-Football-Reference.

Given the small sample, none of these statistical dips are alarming. Jackson has still made plenty of terrific throws, and despite the critical chatter about his side-arming tendencies, he played well against an excellent Philadelphia Eagles defensive front in Week 6.

Jackson remains historically dangerous with his legs; he’s turned a pair of designed option runs into long touchdowns, and his 6.9 yards per carry match his efficiency from last season. Defenses have prioritized bottling him between the tackles and forcing the ball out of his hands, so he’s not running as often as he did in 2019 (57.7 yards per game compared to 80.4 last season). Some of the lesser workload is probably planned, but Jackson said it’s also a reaction to what defenses are giving him. He’s not finding as much room off improvised scrambles.

Call it a B+ start to a season that began with A+ expectations from the brigade of people who pick apart Jackson’s game every weekend. He’s 24-4 as a regular-season starter, so take any criticism with a mountain of salt.

The Ravens have, mostly, achieved what they sought with their defensive overhaul.

The team’s architects were fed up with what they saw in a January playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, which mirrored the upset suffered a year earlier against the Los Angeles Chargers. They watched running back Derrick Henry trample a defensive front that had struggled to win one-on-one battles for much of the 2019 season.

So general manager Eric DeCosta went shopping in the jumbo section and came back with 6-foot-8 defensive end Calais Campbell and 6-foot-5 defensive end Derek Wolfe along with explosive rookie Justin Madubuike.

He and coach John Harbaugh have to be pleased with the overall results, even after the Ravens gave up 194 yards on 18 carries against the Eagles. They limited Bengals running back Joe Mixon to 59 yards on 24 carries in Week 5 and until the Eagles game hadn’t allowed any opposing runner to gain more than 72 yards. More importantly, the Ravens have dominated opposing quarterbacks (other than Mahomes), holding them to 5.5 yards per attempt. After a so-so pass rushing performance in 2019, they rank second in sacks, first in quarterback knockdowns and third in pressure percentage, according to Pro Football Focus.

Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, will only make them scarier. He’s the pure edge rusher Ravens fans have lusted after for two years, even if his Minnesota form was a step below his Jacksonville peak. It’s another opportunistic midseason move for DeCosta, who doubled down on his secondary strength when he traded for cornerback Marcus Peters at the same point last season. He clearly understands the Ravens are in win-now mode with Jackson still playing on his rookie deal.

Campbell has already made the Ravens less reliant on defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s blitz calls. He overwhelmed Eagles guard Jamon Brown to earn AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, and his four sacks exceed the total of any Ravens defensive lineman from last season. With his old Jaguars teammate, Ngakoue, in the fold, this defensive front will pressure quarterbacks even when Martindale does not bring the house.

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That said, the rebuild narrative is somewhat misleading. The Ravens have not received stellar production from Wolfe, who’s missed two games, or Madubuike, who missed the first four with a knee injury. Instead, 31-year-old Pernell McPhee has bounced back from a torn triceps to delivered excellent work against the run and the pass, while outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson has improved in his second season. Tyus Bowser and Jihad Ward have also played well against the run, while rookie middle linebacker Patrick Queen has stood out as a blitzer.

The Ravens have to prove they can get to the quarterback against better offensive lines than the ragtag groups they’ve faced the last two weeks. But their defense is one of the five best in the league and likely to get better with Ngakoue.

Marshal Yanda’s retirement was the sharpest blow to the Ravens' championship aspirations.

No one could fault Yanda for walking away with his health largely intact and an eighth Pro Bowl selection as the exclamation point on his sterling career.

But after six games, it’s hard to deny the Ravens miss him. Fletcher Cox and his Eagles mates pushed into the backfield over and over last Sunday, and Baltimore blockers exacerbated the problem by committing nine penalties, many of them presnap. Overall, the Ravens have allowed more pressure on Jackson (15 sacks through six games this season compared to 23 all of last) and have struggled to create room for their running backs when opponents stack the box.

Give rookie Tyre Phillips credit for winning Yanda’s old job in an abbreviated training camp. He’s a smart, ornery player who will probably provide good value in the long run. But he grades as one of the worst run-blocking guards in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, and has struggled to react quickly against bull rushers. Patrick Mekari hasn’t played well enough to take Phillips' job, and Ben Powers is stuck behind both on the depth chart. So unless the Ravens find an outside option, they’re working with imperfect solutions at right guard.

The offensive line’s disappointing performance can’t be blamed entirely on one spot, however. At center, Matt Skura made a remarkable comeback from knee surgery but has played unevenly as he works to return to his pre-injury level. Even All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley contributed to the flag fest in Philadelphia with an uncharacteristic four penalties (two declined).

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Would the whole picture look better if Yanda were still in it? Probably. Harbaugh’s not one to dwell on the past, but he sounded wistful Monday when asked about his former Pro Bowl guard. “He had so many good years, but he never played better than he did last year,” he said. “He was dominating. He was blocking two guys often times in the run game.”

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The Ravens will face the ultra-aggressive Pittsburgh Steelers when they resume play next weekend, so don’t expect the Yanda-sized hole in their collective heart to close anytime soon.

The Ravens can’t afford another major injury in their secondary.

The Ravens were the NFL’s King Midas, bathing in a tub overflowing with secondary gold. When they re-signed veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith in the offseason, they seemed to be buying contingencies for their contingencies.

How’s that looking now? First, they released Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III to preserve the equilibrium of their locker room. Next, they lost nickel cornerback Tavon Young to another heartbreaking knee injury. Now, cornerback Anthony Averett is out with a long-term (though not season-ending) shoulder injury.

Bye-bye, depth.

Opponents aren’t going to cry for all the Ravens have lost. All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey looks better than ever after signing a lucrative extension. DeShon Elliott wrecks opposing ball-carriers and has mostly held up in coverage as Thomas' replacement. Peters has played below his 2019 level but remains an interception threat on every ball thrown his way. Smith has adapted to his Swiss Army-knife role and provided excellent coverage against tight ends and larger wide receivers.

But given how often the Ravens line up with six defensive backs, they’re relying on players such as safety Marcus Gilchrist and cornerback Khalil Dorsey, who were not exactly integral to their 2020 plans. NFL secondary depth evaporates quickly, and after six weeks, the Ravens have run out of cushion.

The Ravens still have time to find the dominant form that’s eluded them so far.

Let’s take a deep breath and expand our view. The Ravens are 5-1, tied for the second-best record in the league. Their plus-75 point differential ranks first, and they stand second in Football Outsiders' DVOA measurement of overall efficiency. Their defense has met or exceeded expectations, and they’re unmatched on special teams. On offense, they lead the league in yards per carry and feature the reigning MVP, who terrifies every defensive game planner in the sport.

You could find about 30 fan bases that would throw a party if they drew that scenario in a blind lottery.

Or look at it like this: Through six games in 2019, the Ravens were 4-2 and had actually been outscored overall from Week 2 through Week 6. Only after their Week 7 bye did they truly begin their reign of terror over the rest of the NFL.

Harbaugh has always excelled at nudging his teams to buy in over the long haul of a season, and his staff has demonstrated its facility for tactical adjustments.

So no, the Ravens haven’t quite picked up where they left off last November and December. They’re not stringing together as many drives. Jackson isn’t perfectly in sync with his receivers or entirely secure behind his offensive line.

But this isn’t a time to feel glum about their prospects.

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