Because wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is a rookie, especially a rookie in a run-first Ravens system, consistency can be elusive. In Weeks 13 and 14, the team’s top draft pick had a combined four catches for minus-1 yard. On Thursday, he had four catches on four targets for 45 yards and a touchdown.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Ravens did mostly as they pleased against the New York Jets defense. When Brown produces, the Ravens offense typically thrives — or maybe when the Ravens offense thrives, Brown typically produces.
He posted a season-high 147 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the Ravens’ record-breaking, season-opening 59-10 win over the Miami Dolphins. In Week 9, he had four catches for 48 yards as the Ravens dented the New England Patriots’ historically stout defense. A week later, he had four catches on four targets for 80 yards and a score against the Cincinnati Bengals, helping the Ravens reach the end zone on every Lamar Jackson-led possession.
Brown is not the most important piece in the Ravens offense, which enters Week 16 as the NFL’s most efficient rushing and passing attack, according to Football Outsiders. That would be Jackson, the favorite for NFL Most Valuable Player honors. But because of Brown’s production, potential and health, he is maybe the most intriguing piece.
In 12 games this season, Brown has 43 catches for 563 yards, and his seven touchdowns are tied for the most by a rookie in franchise history. Given the recent returns on first-round wide receivers — the 20 taken over the previous five years averaged 508.8 yards in their debut season — as well as Brown’s injury concerns, his 2019 should already be considered a success.
His second half has been especially encouraging: Since Week 9, he’s averaged 8.5 yards per target, with a catch rate of 78.6%. Among receivers with over 400 yards, only New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle and Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler have reached those thresholds this season. Not bad company.
As the Ravens prepare to face the Cleveland Browns on Sunday and consider their postseason future, Brown’s role looms large. Here’s what we’ve learned about the No. 25 overall pick — and what we’re still figuring out.
1. His best route hasn’t been a deep route.
According to a review of the Ravens’ seven games since Brown returned from a high-ankle sprain, Brown has been on the field for 118 snaps as a receiver. He has run just about every route in the book: corners and shovel passes, go routes and deep comebacks, stop-and-gos and screens (both as a receiver and as a blocker).
Defenses respect Brown’s elite speed. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, opposing defenders have given Brown an average cushion of 6.4 yards before the snap, tied for the 16th biggest in the NFL.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has nonetheless deployed Brown as a frequent home run threat. Since Week 9, he has run 23 go routes (including one fade route), catching his one target for 49 yards and drawing two pass-interference penalties for a combined 73 yards. He’s also run 13 corner routes and eight post routes, with two catches on two targets for 44 yards.
Brown’s greatest success, though, has come over the middle. Of the 14 slant routes he’s run, he’s been targeted eight times and made seven catches, averaging 6.9 yards per target. The risk-reward calculus is obvious: When cornerbacks play off Brown, it’s tougher to defend shorter throws. (Even when they have inside leverage, as Los Angeles Rams cornerback Troy Hill did near the goal line in the fourth quarter of Week 12, Brown can still beat them inside for a near-touchdown.)
But when the 170-pound Brown catches passes over the middle, he’s also more at risk for bigger hits from linebackers and safeties. For as much as the Ravens want to utilize Brown, they have to protect him, too.
2. His role will continue to evolve.
Coach John Harbaugh said last month, only half-jokingly, that “there are no plays that we don’t have in our playbook.” As the Ravens offense has evolved this season, unveiling a helpful wrinkle whenever it’s called for, Brown’s potential usage has expanded with it.
At the beginning of the season, he was primarily a deep-ball threat. At midseason, he became an option on presnap jet motion, taking a shovel pass from just behind the line of scrimmage for a 26-yard gain against the Patriots. In the third quarter Thursday, he got a touchdown out of a third-quarter corner route and an easy 7-yard completion a stick route, in which he read the zone coverage underneath before pivoting to Jackson.
The most intriguing new roles might have come in Week 14, when Brown and the Ravens finished with a season-low 257 yards in a win over the Buffalo Bills. Brown had three catches for minus-2 yards, but Roman probably did not come away disheartened.
In the third quarter, just a few plays after a wide receiver screen to Brown, lined up in the slot, went for 5 yards, the Ravens tried to clear a path for Brown again. It should’ve worked, too. But despite having five offensive linemen to take on just two Bills defenders close to the sideline, Brown was smothered as soon as he caught Jackson’s throwback screen pass, buried for an 8-yard loss.
The Ravens punted three plays later, but it was a tease of what might work in the playoffs.
3. If not much is at stake, there might not be much Brown.
The Ravens could have a first-round bye clinched before they even take the field Sunday. If the Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills on Saturday, the Ravens would be guaranteed a top-two seed in the AFC. If the Ravens win Sunday — or if the Patriots fall and the Kansas City Chiefs lose to or tie the Chicago Bears on Sunday night — home-field advantage would be theirs for the first time in franchise history.
Jackson’s Week 17 role has already come under speculation. But Brown’s place in the game plan of a team that has little to play for would be just as interesting.
As the Ravens returned from their Week 8 bye and prepared to face the Patriots, Harbaugh acknowledged that the team was managing Brown’s number of practice repetitions. Brown underwent offseason surgery for a Lisfranc (foot) injury, and the Ravens have been cautious in their care, taking him along slowly in training camp and limiting his action in the preseason.
Even into the regular season, it has been a better-safe-than-sorry approach. Until getting a handful of snaps late in Thursday’s win, Brown had never appeared in mop-up duty over the season’s second half. Whenever Jackson went out, Brown had followed him. That’s been the plan — so far. For Brown, it’s working.
“He continues to work hard, and he’s nowhere near where he’s going to be,” Harbaugh said last month. “There’s no doubt about that.”
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