Since Lamar Jackson took over as a rookie starting quarterback in mid-November, most Ravens wins have followed a certain script: The defense dominates, the ground game rolls, and kicker Justin Tucker makes just about everything.
The Ravens have won a lot in the past year, all but four of the 13 games (postseason included) since Jackson replaced an injured Joe Flacco in Week 11. But when they have lost, or even when their offense has struggled, there has been a common denominator, too: opposing defensive lines having their way.
The Ravens allowed seven sacks and finished with under 100 rushing yards in their AFC wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The Browns ran roughshod over the Ravens defense in Week 4, but Cleveland also finished with four sacks in the 40-25 road win. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers posted five sacks, the most Jackson’s ever taken in a regular-season game, and held the Ravens to 3.5 yards per carry. But a handicapped offense proved costly in a 26-23 overtime loss.
Coach John Harbaugh has regularly praised his offensive line this season, and with good reason. According to ESPN, the Ravens rank No. 2 in the NFL in Pass Block Win Rate (65%), a metric measured by whether linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer. Only the Indianapolis Colts (66%) have fared better. And in run blocking, analytics website Football Outsiders rates the Ravens No. 11 overall.
The line struggled at times against the Browns and Steelers’ talented defensive fronts, but the onus might fall heaviest on Jackson. He is capable of superhuman feats, and this Ravens offense would be one-dimensional without his run-pass threat. Jackson’s self-belief can lead to trouble, though. So as the Ravens prepare to face a Cincinnati Bengals defense Sunday that doesn’t need numbers to create problems, pass-protection responsibilities stretch from their receivers to their line to their quarterback.
For more than a month this preseason, no one knew who would start at left guard, not even Ravens coaches. Jermaine Eluemunor was the favorite. Then he got traded. In the Ravens’ preseason finale, rookie Ben Powers got the first-team nod. But in Week 1, it was second-year player Bradley Bozeman who started between Ronnie Stanley and Matt Skura.
Through five games, Bozeman has been remarkably solid, about what you’d hope for from a sixth-round pick who played almost exclusively center at Alabama. Pro Football Focus rates him as the NFL’s No. 26 guard, ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Andrew Norwell (2019 salary cap hit: $16 million) and the New Orleans Saints’ Andrus Peat ($9.625 million).
The past two weeks amounted to a trial by fire for Bozeman. In Week 4, he was on the hook for the Ravens’ first sack. In a one-on-one matchup early in the first quarter, Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon got him to reach with an outside-inside fake, then easily toppled the off-balance Bozeman before smothering Jackson.
Bozeman surrendered another sack Sunday, though this was more of a team effort. On third-and-long late in the second quarter, Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams lined up over right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. But a well-executed stunt freed Williams to loop around to Bozeman’s outside shoulder as linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward slanted in the opposite direction, occupying Skura and right guard Marshal Yanda.
By the time Bozeman recognized his new responsibility, he could land only a marginal blow. The pocket was compromised, and Williams was in Jackson’s face.
Of course, no line is perfect. Occasional struggles are to be expected against pass rushes with the quality of Pittsburgh and Cleveland’s. Of the Ravens’ five starters, only left tackle Ronnie Stanley, now among the NFL’s best pass blockers, was largely free of blame for the nine total sacks allowed. Even Yanda, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, was beaten easily by nose tackle Javon Hargrave for one Sunday.
The Browns and Steelers were not afraid to blitz Jackson. On the nine sacks the Ravens allowed, they faced five-man rushes five times and a six-man rush another time. Blitzes often apply two distinct types of pressure on the skill-position players around quarterbacks: They need to pick up the pressure and they need to exploit it.
Running backs Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill have been mostly solid in pass protection this season, with Ingram in particular delivering some expert takeout blocks. But when the Ravens find themselves in deep holes late in games, as they did against Cleveland, their running game becomes an afterthought. Defenses adjust accordingly.
The final sack of the Ravens’ loss to the Browns had no bearing on the game — they trailed 40-18 with two minutes remaining and ended up scoring on the drive — but it showed the risks of relying on young talent. One play after bottling up a safety blitz by Jermaine Whitehead, Hill whiffed on a blitz by Cleveland inside linebacker Joe Schobert. By the time Jackson was at the end of his three-step drop, Schobert was already lining him up.
Jackson needs help outside the pocket, too. Whether it’s improved play-calling, targets getting open sooner or Jackson having to designate “hot” receivers on heavy blitzes, the team’s passing game is in need of improvement. Jackson has four touchdowns and five interceptions over the past three games, with a completion rate under 62% and a passer rating of 73.3.
Slow to throw
Jackson is not a particularly deliberative passer. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, his average time to throw of 2.72 seconds is, well, average, a hair slower than the Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz (2.58) and a fraction faster than the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes (2.79).
But that stat does not account for the time it takes to abort passes, and for as much as Jackson’s improvisational skills can turn nothing into something, they can also undercut small openings in the pursuit of bigger ones.
Sometimes his quick feet lead him nowhere. In the first quarter against Cleveland, on third-and-7 near midfield, tight end Mark Andrews got open briefly near the first-down marker. Jackson saw him, but he also saw Browns safety Damarious Randall flying in, unblocked, off the edge. Rather than risk taking a big hit on his follow-through, Jackson spun free and looked downfield.
There were more targets open now, but as Jackson set his feet, Randall traced his path and took him down. The Ravens had to punt. They didn’t cross midfield again until their final drive of the first half.
Other times over the past two weeks, Jackson looked off receivers open in the flats, only to be sacked. Jackson is sixth in the NFL in average intended air yards (9.7), according to Next Gen Stats, but sometimes the shorter pass is the better pass. Wide receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Willie Snead IV have shown impressive open-field ability, as have the Ravens’ tight ends. Not every big play needs to be spoon-fed.
Jackson, only 22, is still grasping the nuances of the position. Harbaugh said Monday that he’s “learning leaps and bounds every single week, because you see new things all the time. He’ll be doing that throughout his career, but now is when it’s steepest, and he learns fast.” His pocket presence should develop with time.
Sunday will be another test. According to ESPN, the Bengals have pressured the quarterback 28.7% of the time without a blitz, fourth best in the NFL. With a depleted roster, an effective pass rush might be Cincinnati’s best chance at staying close. As the Ravens defense searches for answers, it’s increasingly on Jackson to keep this young season upright.
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