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The Ravens Need to Go Back to the Drawing Board After Another Playoff Exit

Lamar Jackson’s pick-six was the defining moment of the game, but Baltimore’s loss to the Bills exposed so many of the Ravens’ shortcomings that they need to address if they want to stop repeating their playoff disappointment

Divisional Round - Baltimore Ravens v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens used to make football look easy. On Saturday night, the Ravens made everything look hard. Even the way Baltimore snapped the ball to the quarterback looked more like a JV football practice than an NFL playoff game. It was hard to watch as Buffalo beat Baltimore 17-3, ending the Ravens’ season in ugly fashion for the third consecutive year.

The game turned after three plays in quick succession in the third quarter. Jackson nearly threw the game-tying touchdown pass to receiver Marquise Brown in the end zone. But Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes pressured Jackson and the throw fell short of Brown. On the next play, Jackson threw an interception in the end zone—his first career pick in the red zone—and Bills cornerback Taron Johnson returned it for a touchdown to make the game 17-3. Two plays from scrimmage later, Ravens center Patrick Mekari snapped the ball over Jackson’s head. In the ensuing mad dash, Jackson hit his head on the turf and was ruled out for the rest of the game with a concussion. Baltimore’s playoff quest was essentially ended by those three plays, as was the feeling of inevitability that the Jackson-era Ravens would be an offensive juggernaut.

This was a weird game. The wind at Bills Stadium was so strong that the goalposts were swaying. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, missed his first two field goals in the first half. To put that in perspective, he’s had two seasons in which he’s missed fewer than two field goals. A Ravens punt went 23 yards. Mekari had trouble snapping the entire night. There was a lot of weird shit. But despite Baltimore struggling with the most basic aspects of the game, they nearly tied the game in the third quarter. There’s an argument against being too reactionary about Jackson’s performance—he finished with 14 completions on 24 passes for 162 yards and the interception, 34 rushing yards on nine carries, and was sacked three times.

But nothing about the way Baltimore’s offense played on Saturday gives them the benefit of the doubt. The Ravens came out with what looked like a dominant opening drive in which they ran on their first six plays. But the rest of their first-half drives included Jackson taking an 11-yard sack, which led Baltimore to settle for a field-goal attempt (which Tucker missed); two consecutive three-and-outs; another missed field goal by Tucker; and a drive that saw Jackson take a sack and Baltimore commit three consecutive penalties to set the Ravens up with a second-and-29 at their own 1-yard line. Somehow they converted the ensuing third-and-18 into a first down, but that was the exception that proves the rule. The Ravens are an offense that goes five yards forward and 10 yards back.

Baltimore is terrible at playing from third-and-long. Their drop-back passing game feels nonexistent. Aside from when Jackson magically scrambles to convert a third-and-13, third-and-longs for the Ravens’ offense have a hopeless quality to them—a strange sensation for a team led by the reigning MVP.

Jackson needs help. Brown, a 2019 first-round pick, played great over the last two months, but the rest of Baltimore’s receiving corps is awful. Dez Bryant played meaningful snaps for the Ravens this postseason. The team’s no. 2 receiver is Willie Snead (!). Tight end Mark Andrews has become synonymous with drops. Running back J.K. Dobbins dropped a key third-down pass on Baltimore’s second drive of the game, which was a trend for the rookie—Dobbins dropped one in every six passes thrown his way during the regular season, according to Pro Football Reference. Running back Gus Edwards has such butterfingers that the Ravens don’t even throw him the football.

Baltimore did not invest in their pass-catchers this offseason, and the result was a team that could not catch passes. The Ravens had the fewest completions in the NFL this season, at an average of just 16 per game. That’s all well and good when their running game is dominant, but that wasn’t the case against the Bills, who sold out to stop the run and did not respect Baltimore’s passing game. In the first half, the Bills blitzed on almost 60 percent of Baltimore’s snaps. Buffalo was not afraid that the Ravens could hurt them through the air—and they were right.

It’s infuriating considering Baltimore entered this season talking about how the deep-passing game was going to unlock the next level of Jackson’s skill set. The Ravens knew defenses would adjust to them in 2020, and they considered their deep-passing game to be the key counter. Jackson ranked as the no. 1 QB in EPA/Play in the pocket in 2019, despite throwing fewer passes to his receivers than any other quarterback (just 104 completions). He did rely on his tight ends at a historic rate (targeting them with 42 percent of his passes, highest ever, according to the Football Outsiders 2020 Almanac). However, Baltimore traded second-string tight end Hayden Hurst to Atlanta for a second-round pick last offseason, and then was in a tough spot when blocking tight end Nick Boyle suffered a season-ending leg injury in November, leaving Andrews as the only tight end holdover from last season. That lack of depth forced Baltimore to rely heavily on a bad receiving group.

The Ravens need to add a receiver (or two) this offseason. They can start by looking at Allen Robinson, who will be a free agent this offseason. Robinson has played most of his career catching passes from Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky, so he’d welcome playing with a quarterback of Jackson’s caliber. Will Fuller V will also be a free agent, as will Antonio Brown, Marquise Brown’s cousin. Baltimore also has plenty of options in this year’s NFL draft, including Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Purdue’s Rondale Moore, and USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown, who should all be available when the Ravens select late in the first round.

Last season, the Bills were in a similar position as the Ravens are now. Josh Allen tried to do way too much in a playoff loss against Houston, confirming Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane’s sense that he needed to get Allen more help. Beane did that by trading a first-round pick to Minnesota for Stefon Diggs. In Allen’s first two seasons, he had zero 300-yard passing games and finished last in completion percentage twice. This season he had eight 300-yard passing games and finished fourth in completion percentage, including the largest rise in completion percentage ever. If Allen can do that, it’s fair to believe Jackson could improve as a drop-back passer once he no longer needs Dez Bryant on the field. Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta may have watched this game and felt like Beane did last year about the need to improve his team’s receiver group.

The Ravens also need to get healthy. They lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a dislocated ankle in November. They also never really properly replaced right guard Marshal Yanda, a future Hall of Famer who retired this offseason. Their absences compromised Baltimore’s ability to dominate the line of scrimmage, which was obvious on Saturday night. Part of the reason Mekari kept firing scattershot shotgun snaps may have been that his attention kept drifting toward the Bills lineman he was trying (and failing) to block. Obviously, a center snapping the ball over the quarterback’s head is not a good thing, and it’s been a problem for Baltimore all season. But if Mekari’s that overwhelmed, it might be indicative of other issues on the offensive line.

There is plenty to be excited about with this team. Jackson is the first quarterback to ever run for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. Dobbins looks like a great runner, and Hollywood Brown showed glimpses of finally being an elite no. 2 receiver. The defense held the Bills’ offense to just 10 points after Buffalo averaged more than 31 points per game in the regular season. Tucker might never have a night this bad for the rest of his career. Baltimore has the bones of a great team, and considering Jackson turned 24 two weeks ago and is still the youngest quarterback in the AFC North, which includes Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, this team’s future is still bright.

But the Ravens lack a drop-back passing game to help them compete in the present and they struggle to win when they don’t have an early lead. Baltimore hasn’t come close to beating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, and just got held to three points by the Bills. The Ravens don’t really belong in the top tier of the AFC anymore, and until they add some more receiving talent, Baltimore’s chances are scattered to the wind.