After the lowest-rated passing game of his career, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was asked for a common denominator. He had just thrown four interceptions. What, if anything, did the plays have in common?
“I mean, it’s one game that it happened,” Jackson said after a 16-10 win Sunday night over the Cleveland Browns in which he’d posted a 46.5 passer rating, his worst as a starter. “They just made great plays on those interceptions. It wasn’t like I was throwing it right to them; they were making diving interceptions. … They just made great plays.”
If the most worrisome part of Jackson’s midseason struggles is his skyrocketing interception total — he’s up to a career-high 12 now, tied for second most in the NFL — the most surprising part is where they’re mostly happening.
Over Jackson’s first two seasons as a starter, and even a month into his third, the middle of the field had been his safe space. There were few propositions in the NFL better than a between-the-numbers throw from Jackson. If he hit, and he often did, the Ravens’ offense would be in a good place. If he missed, the repercussions were often minimal.
That has changed over a seven-week span in which Jackson has faced blitz-heavy defenses, a mystery illness and heightened expectations. In the five games since his record-breaking passing performance against the Indianapolis Colts, the middle of the field has turned from Jackson’s breadbasket into his Bermuda Triangle, a place where would-be completions mysteriously disappear.
Consider: Over the season’s first five weeks, Jackson averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, threw five touchdowns and two interceptions and posted a 103.2 passer rating on middle-field throws, according to Sports Info Solutions. Over the past seven weeks, he’s averaged 6.5 yards per attempt, thrown four touchdowns and eight interceptions and posted a 63.7 passer rating on middle-field throws.
Jackson’s surprising struggles reached a new level Sunday. All four interceptions came on targets over the middle to Andrews, his most reliable receiver. All four came on throws from clean pockets. And all four appeared to be Jackson’s fault.
On the first, he didn’t seem to see rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman running a left-to-right shallow crossing route underneath tight end Mark Andrews’ right-to-left crossing route. Jackson’s fastball ricocheted off Bateman, then off Browns linebacker Malcolm Smith, and finally to cornerback Denzel Ward.
On the second, Jackson stared down Andrews over the middle and didn’t seem to account for Grant Delpit, who’d moved up from his presnap deep-safety alignment and into a shallower zone. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins was unmarked on another shallow crossing route, but Jackson tried to squeeze a pass through to Andrews. Delpit stepped in front of it for an easy pick.
On the third, Jackson had a misunderstanding with Andrews, who spun to the sideline as he turned around to present a target for Jackson in zone coverage. Jackson threw as if he expected Andrews to spin inside. Safety Ronnie Harrison Sr. came up with a diving interception. “That’s me,” Jackson said afterward, taking the blame. “I should’ve thrown it right to [Andrews].”
On the fourth, Jackson underthrew a deep pass to Andrews, allowing safety John Johnson III to turn his head just in time. The ball bounced off Andrews’ free right hand and into Johnson’s lap.
“I feel like those drives, when the interceptions came, we could’ve done something on those drives,” said Jackson, who finished 20-for-32 for 165 yards and a touchdown. “We could’ve put points on the board. I just told my team, ‘That’s me. I owe y’all.’”
Jackson won the Ravens’ starting job in 2018, NFL Most Valuable Player honors in 2019 and his first playoff game in 2020 partly because of his over-the-middle passing prowess. Over those three seasons, he completed 70.4% of his passes, threw 4.7 touchdowns for every one interception and posted a passer rating of 118.2 on targets between the numbers, according to SIS. His expected points added per such pass was 0.31, an All-Pro-worthy level of efficiency.
This year, however, Jackson has notably struggled with his accuracy. On middle-field throws even last season, Jackson had a completion rate of 70.7%, a catchable-ball rate of 85.7% and an on-target rate of 77.7%. Entering Week 13, those marks have fallen to 66.5%, 80.5% and 69.7%, respectively. Jackson’s EPA per pass for 2021 is just 0.02; since Week 6, it’s -0.25 per attempt, a bottom-of-the-barrel level of efficiency.
The swooning Steelers could be a panacea of sorts Sunday. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 68.1% of their passes over the middle against the Steelers this season, averaging a solid 7.7 yards per pass attempt and throwing twice as many touchdowns (six) as interceptions (three). Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow went 11-for-12 for 101 yards there Sunday in Cincinnati’s 41-10 rout.
This will also likely be the Ravens’ third go-around with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Watkins and Bateman available at wide receiver. Through their first two games together with Jackson — a Week 10 loss to the Miami Dolphins and Sunday’s win over Cleveland — fireworks at the position were elusive. That could change against Pittsburgh’s pass defense, which ranks No. 26 in the NFL in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, and might be without star outside linebacker T.J. Watt (reserve/COVID-19).
But a Ravens turnaround will have to start with their quarterback. On Monday, coach John Harbaugh said there was no “macro-adjustment” for Jackson to make with how he approached this week. He would just have to learn from his mistakes, same as any other week.
“It’s just a matter of keeping to the grind and embracing the grind of it, for all of our guys,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t care how well you play or don’t play or whatever … Lamar played a winning football game. He made so many plays for us, so you don’t want to lose sight of that.
“But he’ll be thinking about the interceptions. That’s what he’ll be thinking about; I know how he is. So you just kind of embrace that and go to work and try to get ready for the next game — put the game plan in, practice the game plan, understand your opponent as fully and completely as you can and go play football, and that’s what we’ll do. Every week is a different week.”
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