Exactly a year ago, the Ravens’ offense was in a bad place.
On Dec. 2, 2020, a unit crippled by the coronavirus — quarterback Lamar Jackson’s absence, especially — finished with 219 total yards in a Wednesday afternoon loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A week before that, a more representative Ravens attack had settled for field goal after field goal against a depleted Tennessee Titans defense in an overtime loss. A week before that, the Ravens had averaged a season-low 4.2 yards per play against the Indianapolis Colts in a gutsy win.
But in Week 13, Jackson returned, and the running game revved up, and the winning didn’t stop until over a month later. Over a six-game streak, including a wild-card-round victory over the Titans, the Ravens averaged 425.6 yards and 34.3 points per game.
So for as much as the team’s offense has struggled in recent weeks, the lows of 2021 have not quite reached the lows of 2020. Which means the highs of the Ravens’ next six weeks might yet eclipse those of last year’s surge, too.
“I’m really hopeful,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday as he prepared to face the Steelers (5-5-1). “That’s the plan. That’s the idea. That’s what you keep chasing. … We’re trying to just coach everything all the time, and hopefully, it all clicks in a great way and you have a good game on that next Sunday. And that’s really all you hope for.
“We’re not trying to, like, paint the narrative about the end of the season or all that. We know that football in December is the most valuable football of the regular season. And that’s where we want to play our best. And that’s what we’re striving to do. And then you just keep chasing that and try to get that done on Sunday.”
At the very least, the Ravens have given themselves some room to find their early-season form. They enter Week 13 with the AFC’s best record (8-3), a one-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) in the AFC North and as 4 ½-point favorites in Pittsburgh. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Ravens have a 91.3% chance of making the playoffs and a 64.1% chance of winning the division.
That was not the case last December, when a 19-14 loss to the then-undefeated Steelers dropped the Ravens to 6-5. Heading into a Week 13 game against the Dallas Cowboys, their offense ranked 24th in overall efficiency, 22nd in passing efficiency and 11th in rushing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. By season’s end, Greg Roman’s unit had turned things around, finishing 11th, 17th and third, respectively.
Even after a disappointing showing on offense Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens’ road back to the NFL’s upper third is not quite as far. They’re No. 17 in overall efficiency (20th in passing and eighth in rushing), according to Football Outsiders, and none of the five teams left on their schedule are defensive juggernauts.
The lowest-rated unit is the Steelers’ (No. 27), which could be without star outside linebacker T.J. Watt (reserve/COVID-19 list) on Sunday and must face the Ravens in Baltimore. The highest-rated unit is the Los Angeles Rams’ (No. 9), which after a strong start has allowed an average of 31.7 points over the past three games, all losses. In between are the Green Bay Packers (No. 13), Browns (No. 14) and Bengals (No. 16).
“We just do what we need to do, just play football,” Jackson said. “Whatever call is called, we just need to do us. And it’ll start back soon. It needs to, right away. Hopefully, this week, it starts.”
It mostly stalled Sunday night: 303 total yards, 3.9 yards per play, a career-high four interceptions by Jackson. Jackson blamed himself Wednesday, saying his outing had “bad passes,” “underthrown passes” and “bad reads.” He reviewed the film Tuesday and deemed it a “horrible game.” His passer rating (46.5) was his worst as a starter.
“I looked like a rookie,” Jackson said. His return from a mystery illness that sidelined him a week earlier was no excuse, either. “I’m supposed to do what I’m supposed to do and play ‘Lamar-ball,’ and I didn’t. But we still got the ‘W,’ so that’s what really matters.”
With a mistake-prone defense, however, Jackson and the Ravens have given themselves little margin for error. According to RBSDM.com, their offense since Week 6 ranks 24th in the NFL in expected points added per play, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position. That trails even the Steelers (22nd).
Situationally, their shortcomings haven’t been solved, either. They rank among the NFL’s better offenses on first and second down but are just 30th on third and fourth down, according to Football Outsiders. They haven’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter since running back Latavius Murray cruised in from 14 yards out against the Chargers. That was a month and a half ago.
Still, it’s not hard to see momentum — or imagine that it’s coming. Harbaugh on Monday pointed to the Ravens’ recent stretch of improved first-down totals and time of possession, which his staff correlates to scoring output.
Personnel-wise, Jackson has had wide receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashod Bateman available together for just two games, and tight end Nick Boyle for just one. Murray’s return has helped the team’s depth at running back. Patrick Mekari has taken back his starting job at right tackle. Rookie Ben Cleveland could push Ben Powers at left guard. Jackson said the offensive line, as a whole, was “outstanding” Sunday.
The component pieces are there for Roman and Harbaugh; they just need to come together. As Jackson described the experience of watching his four interceptions against Cleveland, he seemed not to recognize the player he saw on film. That’s what this week’s practices would be for: rediscovery and rejuvenation.
“I’m watching the film like it’s fate,” he said. “So yes, I let it fester for a couple days, and then I let it go and get prepared for the Steelers, for my next game, whoever it is.”
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 4 ½