Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the play of wide receiver Miles Boykin and secondary player Jimmy Smith.
When Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson opened the season with a flourish, completing 12 of his first 13 attempts, it was as if he were drawing receivers' names out of a hat.
His first throw went to rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay. Then he found tight end Mark Andrews for a touchdown. Then wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown caught a long bomb. Fullback Patrick Ricard and wide receiver Miles Boykin were next to connect. Jackson had channeled his inner Oprah Winfrey: Everyone was getting something.
By the end of a 38-6 win over the Cleveland Browns, seven Ravens receivers had combined for 20 catches, and none had more than five. Jackson had spread the ball everywhere — downfield, over the middle, in the flats — and he’d shared it with almost everyone, too. There was strength in numbers.
One uneven month later, they’re a lot weaker. As the Ravens' passing offense has become more predictable, more focused on the team’s top two receivers, it’s also become less effective. After the Bengals held Jackson to 180 passing yards and a career-low 51.4% accuracy Sunday, safety Jessie Bates III said Cincinnati knew where Jackson wanted to go with the ball: to Andrews and Brown.
Over the past three games — maybe the worst three-game stretch of Jackson’s young career as a starter — he has targeted his Pro Bowl tight end and rising-star wide receiver on exactly half of his 86 targets. For the season, the former Oklahoma teammates have accounted for 45.4% of the Ravens' total receptions.
“Not as long as we’re having success and moving the ball,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a video conference call Wednesday. "I think it will matter in the long run. I think people will defend the guys you’re throwing to; we certainly do that on defense.
“But we’re not trying to throw to two guys all the time. We’re not really trying to throw to seven guys, either, but we’ve had games where we have spread it out quite a bit this year, where he’s hitting multiple targeted guys. So I think it will play out differently from week to week, but I also think it’s something we need to continue to look at.”
Top-heavy receiving corps aren’t necessarily easier to defend. In Seattle, wide receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett have been targeted on 45.6% of the team’s pass attempts. All the Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson have done is lead the NFL in passer rating and rank third in completion percentage.
Overall, three of the NFL’s 10 highest-rated passing offenses this season have receiving duos who account for over 45% of their targets, and seven have a duo with at least 40%. The Los Angeles Chargers have wide receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Hunter Henry doing the heaviest lifting (49.7% target share). On the Kansas City Chiefs, another team with a ball-dominant tight end and wide receiver, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill lead the way, respectively (42% share).
In Baltimore, the Ravens' added reliance on Andrews and Brown this year is notable. Last season, when Jackson led the NFL in QBR and finished third in passer rating, they were easily his two favorite targets — and still got less than 39% of the Ravens' total pass attempts.
But balance only helped so much. Jackson’s most productive outings in 2019 happened to be ones in which Andrews and Brown featured prominently. In Jackson’s first game with a perfect passer rating, the Ravens' Week 1 blowout of the Miami Dolphins, the two got a combined 12 of 20 targets, catching all but one. In Jackson’s second perfect-rating game, the Week 10 rout of the Bengals, Jackson targeted Andrews and Brown on 11 of his 17 attempts, connecting all but once.
The trio’s Week 1 performance last month seemed to offer a preview of what lay ahead: Brown and Andrews combined for 10 catches on 12 targets for 159 yards and two touchdowns. But as Jackson’s accuracy has dropped off, falling from 66.1% last season to 63.7% entering Week 6, the Ravens' problems have compounded. Andrews and Brown are still Jackson’s best options. Sometimes they also seem like his only options.
“Every win is a blessing, and whenever you can get one, you have to take that and run with it,” Andrews said after Sunday’s win. “But there are times when our offense isn’t clicking and we need to get better. So it is what it is.”
A turnaround will take a group effort. Duvernay was the only wide receiver other than Brown to catch a pass against Cincinnati. Boykin, a third-round pick last year, has two catches on his past eight targets, and one of the completions came via a fake punt from Sam Koch. Wide receiver Willie Snead IV, who signed a one-year extension last October, has six catches for 53 yards since Week 2.
They remain exceptional blockers — Snead’s cut block helped spring running back J.K. Dobbins for his 34-yard gain in the second quarter Sunday — but their strong training camps have not carried over past Week 1. According to PlayerProfiler, Boykin’s yards per route run, which measures a receiver’s output on passing plays, has fallen from 1.8 in 2019 to 1.06 this season (No. 96 in the NFL). Snead’s has dropped, too, from 1.41 yards to 1.27 (No. 77 overall).
Both should have opportunities Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles (1-3-1), whose pass defense is one of the NFL’s worst, according to Football Outsiders. Boykin, in particular, has been unlucky to have some of his best downfield routes rewarded with overthrown deep shots.
Baltimore Ravens Insider Newsletter
Want the inside scoop on the Ravens? Become a Ravens Insider and you'll have access to news, notes and analysis from The Sun.
Jackson said Wednesday that there’s no “bitterness” in the locker room about who’s seeing the ball. It helps that the Ravens are 4-1, he acknowledged. But Jackson’s success might now depend on receivers he hasn’t yet relied on.
“I feel my guys still need the ball in their hands, so we’re going to do a better job of getting those guys the ball in their hands,” Jackson said. “Our guys are still our guys, and we’re still a brotherhood going on here. But yes, as the season goes on, and as the weeks go on, the guys should be getting the ball a lot more.”