Last year’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was a gut punch for the AFC North champion Ravens, but not a deterrent to their unorthodox approach on offense. For the first time, the team’s eccentric offense was stymied and its rookie quarterback truly resembled a first-year signal-caller.
As Jackson and the top-seeded Ravens prepare to play their first postseason game since being knocked out at home last season, the offense’s continuity has them feeling confident a replay of last year’s wild-card round game against the Chargers won’t play out Saturday night against the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans.
“I think it really kind of helped shape our season this year,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said of the 23-17 loss. “We had a chance to kind of evaluate what we were doing and see how it worked in that game and see what we can do better.”
After being promoted from assistant head coach and tight ends coach, Roman redesigned the offense around Jackson, turning it into the league’s top-scoring unit. Saturday will mark one year since Roman was tapped to expand on last season’s strides.
The improvements this season are evident, and it starts with Jackson’s ascension as a passer. In last year’s loss to the Chargers, Los Angeles quickly shut down a Ravens rushing attack that was the best in the league once Jackson took over as the starter in Week 11.
Jackson, who didn’t attempt more than the 25 passes in the regular season, completed 14 of 29 passes for 194 yards, one interception, and a game-ending fumble. Through three quarters, Jackson had passed for just 25 yards and registered a passer rating of zero.
Since becoming the youngest quarterback to start an NFL playoff game, Jackson has been outspoken about his desire to rectify what remains the major blemish of his burgeoning career and fulfill his promise to bring the Ravens a Super Bowl. There’s been a noticeable change in his typically vibrant demeanor this season when asked about the playoff loss.
But before leading the Ravens back to the postseason, Jackson had to return to the team’s facility in Owings Mills as a better version of himself. When asked what that playoff game showed he needed to improve, Jackson responded, “Everything.”
“If I really have a pinpoint thing … I would say my base,” Jackson said. “I’d get narrow in a game, and if you go back to that [2018 playoff] game, I used to get narrow a lot, trying to see over the guys instead of just keeping a base and moving in the pocket — having better pocket awareness, like I do now. Little things like that, but really, everything.”
The work Jackson put in during the offseason — fine-tuning his mechanics and footwork — speaks for itself: A league-leading 36 touchdown passes, two perfect passer ratings and a presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player award waiting for him in three weeks.
“We really wanted to work on balancing out the scale, so to speak, this offseason,” Roman said. “I don’t think you want to present a singular problem to a defense, because in this league, they can stop something all the time if they really, really want to commit to it. So, it was critical that Lamar really applied himself, and he did. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do with a great attitude. I really think the results have shown.”
Jackson’s comfort level in his first full season running the offense is also displayed in his supporting cast. Five offensive starters from last year’s game join Jackson for Saturday night’s matchup. Other players, such as fullback Patrick Ricard and tight ends Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst, will also play a significant role.
“It starts with my teammates. We have our chemistry going,” Jackson said. “We worked so hard at it during the summer and stuff like that. People were counting us out then, looking at rosters and stuff and saying what we were going to be at, predicting what we were going to do. But I just want to get better each and every day, and I know I’m a lot more confident.
“I’m not a rookie anymore. I’ve been around. I’ve seen everything they can bring. So, I just have to keep playing ball, and we’re going to see when it comes.”
The 2018 loss didn’t prove flaws in the overall system, but rather highlighted weaknesses in individual pieces. Rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was drafted to replace the speed element lost from departed veteran John Brown. Andrews and left tackle Ronnie Stanley have elevated their play this season to a Pro Bowl level. Veteran running back Mark Ingram II, signed as a free agent, provides another dimension in the offense’s still-potent running game.
“I think we just dove more into what we kind of touched on last year,” Boyle said. “I think we got more detailed in our runs. I think we present the defense with a little more looks and I think that we integrated our pass game based off our run system, which is what we like to do.”
Lessons from last year still hold true, however. Jackson knows he can’t start as slow as he did against the Chargers. The stakes are higher, though Jackson said he approaches every game like it’s the Super Bowl.
When Jackson took over for an injured Joe Flacco, the team overhauled its offense to accommodate a raw passer and salvage what was becoming a lost season. One year removed from its playoff loss, the unique system has become embraced by the entire team.
“For that Chargers game, it was just such a different feel,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “But now who we are and our identity is pretty clear. I think at the time, we didn’t really know.”
AFC divisional round
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM