On Sunday, Lamar Jackson became the youngest playoff starter in NFL history, and he looked the part. Baltimore’s offense looked flightless for most of the Ravens’ 23-17 loss to the Chargers. Jackson led a late rally and threw for two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, but struggled for much of the game. The Ravens coaching staff failed, too. It seemed that John Harbaugh and Co. didn’t trust the rookie quarterback who led them to a 7-1 finish to put the ball in the air.
Through three quarters, the Ravens had three fumbles, three completions, and three first downs. With 13 minutes left in the game, Jackson had 25 yards in the air to 27 yards lost on five sacks for minus-2 net passing yards. On Baltimore’s first drive of the game, Jackson fumbled seemingly without being touched, and he bobbled an on-target snap on his next play (both were recovered by the team). He also tossed an interception when a pass went high off the hands of the leaping receiver Chris Moore and into the arms of Chargers safety Adrian Phillips.
INTERCEPTION!!! GREAT play by the #Chargers DB Hayward makes this play happen and Safety Phillips brings it home! #LACvsBAL 6-0 Rivers has a chance to put the pressure on NOW! pic.twitter.com/ZTjYxKD5SC— Steven Van Over (@StevenVanOver) January 6, 2019
This was nothing new for Jackson, who tied for the league lead in fumbles despite starting just seven games in the regular season. Ball-security issues combined with his lack of production and the ever-present pressure from the Chargers pass rush nearly led Harbaugh to bench Jackson in favor of Joe Flacco. Jackson proved in the fourth quarter that he was capable of slinging it and threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns in the final nine minutes to salvage what could have been one of the worst stat lines in NFL playoff history. But the comeback came to an end when Jackson was stripped for his third fumble of the day by Chargers rookie linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, this time losing the ball—and the game.
Jackson played poorly, period. But his performance was part of a larger lack of preparation by Baltimore’s offensive coaching staff, which did an awful job of putting Jackson and the Ravens offense in a position to succeed. After Baltimore narrowly beat the Chargers in Los Angeles just two weeks ago in a game in which the Ravens ran 35 times for 159 yards, the Chargers adjusted their defense. Los Angeles, which already plays one of the highest percentage of dime packages in the league, played safeties in lieu of middle linebackers and placed them near the line of scrimmage. Typically, more defensive backs on the field means the defense is coaxing the offense to throw, but putting them so close to the line of scrimmage was swapping speed for power and daring Jackson to throw over the top of them.
“I’ve never seen it,” CBS analyst Tony Romo said during the fourth quarter. “[The Chargers] played three safeties at middle linebacker the whole game … these are DBs, and they’re stopping the run. It’s unbelievable.”
There’s something to be said for sticking with what works, and after Jackson took over the offense, the Ravens were the best running team in football by a large margin. But the Chargers were the first team to get a rematch with Baltimore and their unorthodox offense, and they adapted with an aggressive and unorthodox defense. Baltimore didn’t adjust until it was too late. Even when the Ravens faced a third-and-4 at the Chargers 15-yard line midway through the third quarter, the team called a run play that went for no gain, which was in line with its play-calling this season, but puzzling considering the Ravens averaged less than 4 yards per rush on the day. Baltimore eventually decided to pass, and thanks to a fourth-quarter barrage by Jackson, he finished the game with more passing yards than Philip Rivers.
The loss was a waste of a masterful performance by Baltimore’s defense. The team held two Chargers drives that started in Ravens territory to a combined 19 yards and six points, and the Ravens special teams blocked a field goal attempt later in the game. Yet it wasn’t enough to overcome the failures of the offense, which looked ill-prepared for a defense daring them to throw, ill-prepared to come from behind, and ill-prepared when the offense was not dominating time of possession. (Baltimore led the league in time of possession during the season with an average of 32:27 this year, but had the ball for just 26:20 on Sunday.)
Jackson played well enough in the fourth quarter to quell the calls for Flacco to replace him in the game, and his cap situation still makes it unquestionable that Jackson will be the quarterback in 2019. Jackson is 7-2 in Baltimore, and he should only get better this offseason. Despite rumors of Harbaugh being traded to another team, he’s more than likely going to return to Baltimore in 2019. If the Ravens are going to build off of this season, he’ll need to have more faith in his young passer in 2019 than he did on Sunday.