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‘It’s not ideal, but we’re winning’: Being a Ravens receiver a test of patience, preparedness

"We’ll see if he’s wearing his jersey any time soon,” said Ravens John Harbaugh when asked about a sign Lamar Jackson jersey received by Pope Francis.

Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead IV wasn’t sure if he would be able to get to the edge and beat Los Angeles Rams safety Marqui Christian to the left pylon.

Snead turned and dashed to the end zone, leaping and extending the ball to the pylon, giving quarterback Lamar Jackson his fifth touchdown in a Monday night, 45-6 blowout victory.

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Reflecting on the play days later, Snead admitted the touchdown felt a little more gratifying.

“When I got the ball, I was like, ‘Dude, I have to score. This is my second catch of the game. I’m this close to the end zone. I might as well score, right?’” Snead said Nov. 27.

Snead recorded just two catches for 14 yards against the Rams, but both receptions went for touchdowns. It was the first time he had reached the end zone in two months.

Less than a week later — albeit battling constant rain — Snead recorded one catch for 14 yards in the team’s 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers.

Such is life for a Ravens receiver in the 2019 season. Since taking over as quarterback for longtime starter Joe Flacco, the Ravens have morphed from one of the most pass-happy offenses in the league to one with a divergent run-first approach.

In a system built around Jackson’s gifted abilities as a runner, receivers and tight ends are asked to block just as much as catch passes. The Ravens’ myriad offensive personnel groupings further limit the opportunities they have to make a consistent impact in the passing game.

“G-Ro [offensive coordinator Greg Roman] definitely helps us out — the receivers, I mean — when it comes to that, because like you said, we’re not seeing 10 targets a game,” Snead said. “We’re definitely grinding it out. And then when we get our opportunity, we know what to do with the ball.”

The Ravens, leading the league with 207.8 rushing yards per game, have carried the ball 445 times, more than any other team in the league. Conversely, they’ve thrown the ball 339 times, second-fewest in the league, only behind the Tennessee Titans (336).

In an eight-game winning streak where the team has rarely trailed, the offense hasn’t been required to deviate from its approach. Jackson is averaging slightly less than 27 pass attempts per game but hasn’t thrown more than 25 times since Week 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers — also a byproduct of being pulled from the field in decisive victories.

Which can make it hard for a position group to stand out in a league that is passing at an all-time high.

Rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews both came from Oklahoma, helping quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray complete 4,000-yard passing seasons and capture the Heisman trophy in back-to-back seasons.

Andrews has been Jackson’s most reliable option this season but has gone through stretches with low target totals.

“For how much we’re able to run the ball and do the RPO’s [run-pass options] and everything like that, that opens up so much and makes our jobs as tight ends and receivers so much easier when we’re running a route,” Andrews said. “It helps you be that much more open, just because the defense has to game plan for that run game and the linebackers have to suck up and pay attention to that.

“It’s a give and take. We’re not obviously throwing the ball sometimes 50 or 60 times again like other teams. But we do throw the ball enough where people are able to get touches and do their thing and help change the game.”

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For Brown, the biggest transition to the NFL hasn’t been physical but changing his mindset in a new offense.

“I think the biggest adjustment is not getting the ball as much [as] college,” said Brown, who has 36 receptions for 520 yards and six scores, which all rank second behind Andrews. “I know my number is going to be called eventually, so it’s my job is to be ready when that time is upon us.”

Jackson and Roman are aware of the receivers’ desire to be more involved. Jackson has repeatedly expressed his appreciation for their blocking efforts while stating a desire to reward them more in the passing game.

In the team’s 49-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10, Jackson found Brown on the first play of the game for a 49-yard reception, which Roman said was part of their scripted plays.

Players believe the week-to-week mystery over who will step up to contribute in the passing game makes their offense that much more difficult to defend.

“G-Ro has that trust in us to know that we’re going to do our job in the run game, and then when we get the ball in the passing game, that we’re going to make plays and we’re going to protect the ball and get in the end zone,“ Snead said. "It’s tough as a receiver right now. It’s not ideal, but shoot, we’re winning, man. And that’s all it’s about, getting those Ws and making this run.”

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