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Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Offense Need a Hard Reset

Jackson and Co. were exposed by the Steelers defense on Sunday, and it’s clear they have plenty to address if they want to compete for the AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

There are few rivalries capable of routinely producing compelling drama like Steelers vs. Ravens, and the series’ latest installment more than lived up to that standard. Sunday’s game came down to the final play, one that pitted strength against strength: Lamar Jackson against the vaunted Pittsburgh defense. But as was the case for much of the afternoon, the Steelers defenders got the better of the league’s reigning MVP, stifling his efforts to get a go-ahead score and extending Pittsburgh’s unbeaten start to the 2020 season. Now, the Steelers sit at 7-0 with a two-game lead in the division, and a battered Ravens squad is left needing to address its stunning flaws.

Jackson had an atypically uneven outing on Sunday, but with under a minute left, he still had a chance to win the game. Down 28-24, the Ravens got the ball at their own 37-yard line and started to drive. They marched all the way to the Pittsburgh 23, but with five seconds left, Jackson zipped a pass to Willie Snead in the end zone that fell incomplete after Pittsburgh defensive backs Justin Layne and Minkah Fitzpatrick crunched into Snead as the ball arrived.

Jackson’s final throw probably wasn’t the only pass from Sunday that the third-year signal-caller wishes he could have back. Just 54 seconds into the first quarter, Jackson was picked off by Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane on his second attempt of the game, and Spillane returned the ball 33 yards for a touchdown. After Baltimore took a 14-7 lead, Jackson’s mistakes helped undo it. The Ravens QB finished the game 13-for-28 with 208 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. He fumbled the ball three times and lost two of them. Pittsburgh scored off of two of those miscues—a significant impact in what ended up being a four-point game. Jackson told reporters after the loss that with no turnovers, he felt the Ravens would have won.

“The turnovers, I feel, are the reason we lost the game,” Jackson said. “I put that on me.”

Despite being in his third season, Jackson did not enter the game with much experience against the Steelers. He’d made just one previous start against Mike Tomlin’s squad: a Week 5 game last season when Jackson finished 19-for-28 with one touchdown, three interceptions, and a career-high five sacks. That October meeting was an outlier in what was an otherwise sterling season for Jackson, who captured MVP honors and threw only one interception throughout the rest of the regular season. Earlier this week, Tomlin was asked about how to keep Jackson in check as a scrambler, and he said he didn’t have an answer for that. Perhaps he just didn’t want to give his answer away.

Jackson’s issues haven’t just been limited to this week, though. This season, he hasn’t been as prolific—neither as a runner nor a passer—as he was in 2019. Part of that is because Jackson is getting pressured more frequently than last year, and that was especially true on Sunday. Pittsburgh sacked Jackson four times, marking the third time this year Jackson has been sacked that many times. The Steelers succeeded in reaching Jackson without having to blitz, registering nine QB hits and forcing Jackson to attempt tough throws: 21.4 percent of his attempts were made into tight coverage (where a defender is 1 yard or less from a receiver at the time of a pass), which is 5 percentage points higher than his season average (16.3), according to Next Gen Stats. Jackson, one of the NFL’s best scrambling QBs, rushed 16 times for 65 yards (4.1 yards per attempt), his third-lowest yards per carry output this year.

“We have respect for him,” Tomlin said of Jackson afterward, “but we don’t fear him.”

Pittsburgh’s victory highlighted an issue that’s been apparent throughout the first half of the season: The Ravens are not as dominant an offensive unit as they were last season. Baltimore’s rushing game was effective Sunday—rookie tailback J.K. Dobbins rushed for 113 yards (7.5 yards per carry) and Gus Edwards rushed for 87 (5.4 yards per carry) and one touchdown with starter Mark Ingram out. But the passing game hasn’t been nearly as effective as it was last year. The Ravens entered this week ranked 19th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA ratings—still in the upper tier of rushing attacks (fifth) but in the bottom half in passing (21st). Jackson is still exceptionally dynamic, but he has strides to make as a consistent passer; his 60.5 completion percentage is 2.9 percent below expectation, which is the eighth-worst mark among NFL passers this season, per Next Gen Stats.

To remedy this, Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman could tweak or revamp the passing game to better highlight Jackson’s playmakers. That likely starts with finding a way to get 2019 first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown more involved, as the wideout was targeted a season-low two times on Sunday and made just one catch (a 3-yard touchdown). After the game, Brown appeared to express his annoyance on Twitter, saying, “what’s the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!)” (the tweet was later deleted).

There are more issues facing the Ravens moving forward, too. Star left tackle Ronnie Stanley—who just earlier this week signed a five-year contract extension worth up to $112.9 million—suffered a season-ending broken ankle injury after being rolled up on by Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt during the first quarter. Jackson has been sacked 19 times so far this year; he was sacked 23 times through 15 starts last year. Keeping Jackson upright now poses an even bigger challenge for Baltimore. “It’s a tough loss,” John Harbaugh said of Stanley’s injury. “I feel bad for Ronnie.”

The present gap between the Steelers and Ravens is a bit wider than Stanley’s absence, though. Despite a sound game from Baltimore’s defense, which entered the week ranked third in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA (behind no. 2 Pittsburgh), the offense couldn’t produce when it mattered most. These two teams won’t meet again until Thanksgiving, but unless Jackson and Baltimore’s offense can get back into gear by then, the Ravens will have a tough time beating their biggest rival.