In 2020, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson extended a red zone streak to 47 touchdown throws without an interception, led the NFL with 6.3 yards per carry, became the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 30 career wins, finished seventh in QBR, and reached the playoffs for the third time in as many seasons. This was, allegedly, a down year.
The fastest way to send your head spinning in the NFL is to try to tackle Lamar Jackson in the open field. The second-fastest is to follow the general Lamar Jackson/Ravens discourse.
On December 2, the Ravens were 6-5 after losing to the Steelers in a game that had to be postponed three times due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Baltimore. Robert Griffin III started that game after Jackson—along with nearly two dozen other players—was sent to the reserve/COVID-19 list, and the Ravens lost 19-14; it was their fourth loss in five games. It had been 10 days since Baltimore had a day with no positive COVID-19 test results returned but the Ravens’ issues went far beyond health. A team that had been a trendy Super Bowl pick had lost to the Patriots and blown a lead against the Titans in the two games before its delayed contest against Pittsburgh. Most importantly, Jackson wasn’t playing well—opponents were using more man coverage and playing more defensive backs against Baltimore, and Jackson was struggling to make them pay for it by completing tight-window throws or by scrambling effectively.
Baltimore’s 2019 season felt like a distant dream. That 14-2 year ended in playoff disappointment (more on that later) but, until that game, the Ravens were hot, exciting, and seemingly unstoppable. This year, though, the issues popped up early. Starting safeties Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark got into a fight in training camp that led to Thomas’s release three weeks before the season started. In Week 2, Baltimore’s top slot cornerback, Tavon Young, suffered a season-ending knee injury. In November, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley was lost for the season with a fractured and dislocated ankle days after Baltimore signed him to a massive contract extension. Over the course of the season, the Ravens have had more players go on the reserve/COVID-19 list than any other team.
The Ravens’ problems felt especially dramatic because they’d reached such lofty heights in recent memory. They also felt especially dramatic because, well, the Ravens are especially dramatic. If they do not win the Super Bowl, the Ravens will at least take home the prize for 2020’s most emo team. “It looked like that team wanted it more than us,” Jackson said after blowing the lead to the Titans in November. “What’s the point of having souljas when you never use them,” receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown tweeted after their first loss to the Steelers, which came a month before the postponed game. “Thanks for the memories,” said—no, wait, that was Fall Out Boy.
What was at the root of the Ravens’ struggles and is now at the root of their resurgence is fairly simple: Jackson has started playing again like the MVP he was last season. Since that second loss to the Steelers, Baltimore has won five games in a row to close out the year 11-5, with Jackson posting a passer rating of 115.8 in those contests. He’s generated 1,239 yards of total offense and 15 touchdowns and the Ravens have outscored opponents 186-89 in those games. Baltimore’s plus-97 point differential over the last five weeks is shaded by the fact that four of those games were against the Cowboys, Jaguars, Giants, and Bengals, but the team’s season-long plus-165 point differential is still the best in the NFL.
One way Jackson has regained his form is by scrambling more often and more effectively. According to Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina, after averaging 5.6 yards per carry over the first 10 games of the regular season, Jackson averaged 7.7 over the last five (Griffin started the 11th game). Jackson’s carries led to a first down or a touchdown 28 percent of the time during the former period and 46 percent of the time in the latter and his passer rating on throws outside the pocket jumped from 52.5 to 78.3. In short, Jackson scrambled to throw and scrambled to run more often and with better results.
This helped him, and the Ravens overall, take advantage of the man coverages teams were playing more and more of against them. According to Galina, Jackson had more scrambles against man coverage in the last five games—seven for 61 yards—than he did in his first 10 when he had five for 39.
Jackson is at his best when he’s a conundrum to defenses: play man, and Baltimore can win with athleticism, but play zone and risk giving up easier throws into more comfortable windows. The Ravens offense wasn’t doing enough earlier in the season to discourage opponents from playing man-to-man and using lighter personnel packages, but they’ve found a way to do that more often over the last five games heading into the playoffs.
That’s primarily because of changes Jackson has made, but also can be attributed to some key changes the Ravens have made. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has leaned more heavily on younger running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards instead of veteran Mark Ingram, and Dobbins and Edwards have been better at taking advantage of space on the outside in Roman’s spread run game. Meanwhile, other young players like center Patrick Mekari and right guard Ben Powers have helped stabilize the offensive line. The defense has been fairly steady all season, but young players like linebacker Chris Board and cornerback Anthony Averett have developed nicely, as well. The Ravens finished the season with the second-fewest points allowed in the NFL.
As quickly as Baltimore has gotten back on the upswing, another downturn could come if the Ravens can’t win their wild-card game against the Titans on Sunday. That game is scheduled just a day before the one-year anniversary of Baltimore’s 28-12 loss to Tennessee in last year’s divisional round, the first time a no. 1 seed had fallen to a no. 6 seed since 2010.
Right now, that loss, and Baltimore’s playoff loss to the Chargers the year before it, are as much a part of the Ravens’ and Jackson’s story as their stellar regular-season record is. Jackson is 0-2 in the playoffs and trying to avoid becoming the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lose a playoff game in each of his first three seasons—Andy Dalton being the first.
Jackson’s career QBR in the regular season is 72.3, which trails only Patrick Mahomes’s 79.8 among active starters, and he has 85 touchdowns and 23 turnovers in 37 games. In the playoffs, however, Jackson’s 21.6 total QBR is the lowest of any quarterback with multiple playoff starts since 2006 (which is as far back as QBR goes), and he’s had five turnovers and just three touchdowns. The Titans’ offense is still formidable, but what was the 18th-ranked defense by DVOA at the end of last season is now the 29th. It should be a good matchup for the Ravens but, as much as they’re matched up against Tennessee, they’re also dealing with their own history.
“Definitely trying to erase that narrative right there,” Jackson said Wednesday. “That’s the no. 1 right there on my mind.”
If the Ravens do win Sunday, they’ll erase that narrative and be one of the hottest teams in the NFL heading into the divisional round. If they don’t, three playoff losses will loom over all of their regular-season accomplishments. In either case, the narrative will probably carry more weight than it should, either because of the quality of defenses Baltimore has faced or because a few postseasons does not a career make—just ask Andy Reid. The Ravens’ ups and downs make every result feel more extreme, but the constant for Baltimore is that they go as Jackson goes. Since December, that’s been a very good thing.