Minutes after Lamar Jackson’s last-ditch pass fell incomplete last Sunday, with two Pittsburgh Steelers sandwiching wide receiver Willie Snead IV in the end zone, the Ravens' young quarterback promptly accepted blame for the team’s 28-24 loss.
“I put that on me,” Jackson said.
It was typical of the Ravens' young leader: quick to heap praise on teammates in success, and just as quick to hold himself accountable in shortcomings.
Since assuming the role of starter almost two years ago, Jackson has played a leading role in a team that is 24-5 in the regular season when he’s under center. But it was hard to ignore Jackson’s place in a defeat that dropped the Ravens two games behind in the AFC North race: an uncharacteristic four turnovers, including a pick-six and two fumbles inside the red zone.
With the Ravens' November slate taking them to Indianapolis to play the Colts — with a potentially handicapped defense — Jackson and the offense are searching for better execution facing another top defense.
“I get over it, but it’s going to always be on my mind, just because we lost that game and I hate having turnovers,” Jackson said Wednesday. “But you have to move on. Just like if we were in the game — if I had a turnover — I’d keep it going and score the next drive. So, I can’t dwell on it. You have to move forward. That’s what we’re doing now. The game is over with. I’m mad about the result, but we’ll see them again.”
Sunday’s performance was the continuation of a befuddling season so far for an offense that has played well at times but has still fallen short of resembling the group that was the league’s most efficient offense in 2019, setting several records.
Defenses have continuously packed the middle of the field and limited Jackson’s outside runs while forcing him to be a more accurate passer downfield and outside the numbers.
The offensive line has struggled to consistently protect Jackson, particularly on interior rushes, as it adjusts to the absence of retired guard Marshal Yanda and as center Matt Skura continues to work his way back into form from a severe knee injury he suffered last season.
“The Steelers didn’t do anything crazy, they didn’t recreate football,” Matt Bowen, a former NFL defensive back and current analyst for ESPN, told The Baltimore Sun in an interview.
“What the Steelers did — and what you’re going to see the Colts do this weekend — is play very disciplined zone coverage. … You want to have as many eyes as you can on Lamar but also have those linebackers play with depth, to match those crossers as they work back across the field and to take away those middle-field throws. Now you’re telling Lamar, ‘You’ve got to push the ball outside the numbers.’”
Since Week 3, among 29 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, Jackson is last in completion rate (54.6%) and fourth to last in passer rating (80.2). Overall, Jackson’s completion rate has dropped to 60.5% after finishing the 2019 season at 66.1%.
Through seven games, Jackson has connected on seven of 24 “deep passes,” according to Sports Info Solutions. Deep passes are defined as throws with a target depth of at least 20 yards. Last season, Jackson completed 16 deep passes on 46 attempts.
After playing a career-high 77 offensive snaps but only seeing two targets, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown expressed frustration in a since-deleted tweet about his involvement in the game plan.
Bowen advised that offensive coordinator Greg Roman get Brown — whose average targeted air yards are fifth-most in the league — the ball on shorter, more schemed throws.
He also suggested the increased use of bunch sets — the kind that the Steelers often showed in their second-half comeback — to free up Brown in the open field, along with speedy rookie receiver Devin Duvernay, whose snaps have increased as the season has progressed.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into where the defense decides to really emphasize their coverage and who ends up being open,” Roman said Thursday. “So, some weeks you get a lot, some weeks you don’t, but we’re always striving to keep Marquise involved and developing in our offense.”
Whatever problems the Ravens offense is hoping to figure out, the Colts defense won’t make them easy to solve come Sunday. Indianapolis, like Pittsburgh, features a top-10 run and pass defense, according to Football Outsider’s efficiency metrics.
And while Roman noted the Colts don’t utilize the same defensive scheme as the Steelers, Indianapolis has players who can pose similar matchup problems: a disruptive interior presence in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, an athletic inside linebacker in Darius Leonard and a secondary that could test the Ravens' receivers.
For all the issues that lie in front of the offense, there’s still reason for optimism. Despite losing two starting offensive linemen for the foreseeable future — including Ronnie Stanley, who’s out for the remainder of the year with a severe ankle injury — the offense rushed for a season-high 265 yards against one of the league’s top run defenses; rookie running back J.K. Dobbins led the effort with his first 100-yard game in the NFL.
The team still has Jackson, whom Bowen called “the most electrifying player in the National Football League when he has the ball in his hands.”
And according to Bowen, the passing offense doesn’t have to match the Kansas City Chiefs or Seattle Seahawks in output but instead do a better job of “manipulating coverages,” especially when it’s behind or in obvious passing situations.
Scheme tweaks will be apart of that. So will execution, particularly from Jackson.
“You’re talking about fixes that can be made,” Bowen said. “What you’re really talking about is not just making it to the playoffs, [but] building an offense that can get you to the 19th game, which is the Super Bowl. ... Offensively, they have a lot of talent, too. It’s just, can they make the small fixes to create that more efficient passing game?”
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