Rich Eisen: In Playoffs, Lamar Jackson Has to Come Back and 'Be Lamar'
With Lamar Jackson sidelined the past four games due to a knee injury, the Ravens offense has averaged 12.3 points and mustered just three touchdowns. However, thanks to a stout defense, the meager offensive output has been good enough to win two games during that span.
It's unlikely to be good enough to win in the postseason, though, especially if facing high-scoring teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Cincinnati Bengals.
For the Ravens to make a playoff run, it's imperative that they get Jackson back on the field, NFL Network's Rich Eisen said. Jackson’s status is unknown heading into Sunday's regular-season finale at Cincinnati.
"This team is a totally different animal when Lamar Jackson is behind center or in shotgun," Eisen said on "The Rich Eisen Show." "A totally different ball of wax. And he's gotta come back and he's gotta be Lamar. Because you're looking right now at the rest of the AFC playoffs: Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert are in the playoffs in the AFC, and I believe it will be Trevor Lawrence getting his first roll at it.
"Lamar Jackson has to come back. He is the ultimate difference-maker."
Eisen emphasized that Jackson needs to play his best football if and when he does return for the Ravens to have a realistic shot at beating the AFC's elite teams.
Jackson was an early MVP front-runner after throwing 10 touchdowns passes (to two interceptions) and rushing for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first three games. Over his next nine games, Jackson had seven touchdown passes, five interceptions, no 100-yard rushing games and one rushing touchdown.
"They gotta get Lamar back being Lamar and making these defenses totally confused, head on a swivel, 'who's got it, where are they going with it?'" Eisen said. "And then somebody's gotta make a play down the field."
Bleacher Report Writer Says Jackson's Return Won't Be Enough to Save Sputtering Offense
Unlike Eisen, Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski doesn't believe Jackson's return will solve the Ravens' issues on offense.
"Even with Jackson in the lineup, the Ravens aren't playing well enough to do any kind of damage in the postseason," Sobleski wrote. "The franchise built its entire approach around Jackson, and rightfully so. Good organizations are tailored to their talent, especially behind center. Baltimore deserves credit for identifying a unique athlete and properly building around him.
"Yet the downfall is an approach that's simply not working. An approach that's not likely to get significantly better to challenge the AFC's best in the short term, though the Ravens know their only hope is Jackson magic."
Sobleski contended that the Ravens' smash-mouth brand of offense is outdated.
"Baltimore's approach is a throwback to days when dominant run games and hard-nosed defenses could dictate an entire contest. It's harder than ever to do so now based on how the game has evolved," Sobleski wrote. "The rules are geared toward offenses. Chunk plays have become a staple of creative play-callers looking to minimize reps and maximize effectiveness in numerous spread looks. In contrast, the Ravens want to bash their way to a victory, even when Jackson is in the lineup.
"While this style of play helps keep the team in games, the margin for error is also far smaller. Jackson makes everything more interesting because he's such a special athlete. Yet he lacks the weapons around him for the Ravens to consistently compete with the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and surging Cincinnati Bengals. … They simply can't keep pace with teams that aren't going to succumb to their bully-ball tactics, as those teams have the type of weapons to make plays that Baltimore doesn't have."
Sports Illustrated’s Todd Karpovich agreed that the Ravens' limitations in the passing game —specifically a lack of production from their wide receivers — is holding the offense back. Baltimore wide receivers had just two catches for 18 yards in Sunday night's 16-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the unit has one receiving touchdown since Week 3.
"The passing game faced challenges early in the year and the loss of Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay to season-ending knee injuries created even more adversity," Karpovich wrote. "The Ravens don't have a wide receiver ranked in the top 75 in the NFL for receptions. … The Ravens need to add a top-tier free agent or make a trade for more talent at wide receiver next season. It has to be one of the team's top priorities."
Ravens Select Ohio State Wide Receiver in Jason Reid's Mock Draft
In addition to potentially signing or trading for a proven wide receiver as Karpovich suggested, Baltimore also could look to bolster the receiving corps via the draft.
The Ravens spent first-round picks on wide receivers in 2019 (Marquise Brown) and 2021 (Rashod Bateman), and ESPN's Jordan Reid predicted they'll do it again this year.
In Reid's first mock draft, he has the Ravens selecting Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba with the 23rd-overall pick.
"The Ravens haven't been shy about drafting receivers (eight over the past five drafts, including two first-rounders), but they really need one to work out long-term," Reid wrote. "Over the past three seasons, Baltimore is last in the NFL in WR receiving yards by a good margin (5,551, more than 800 yards shy of the next-worst team). After playing mostly in the slot during his career with the Buckeyes, Smith-Njigba is an ideal fit here in a pass offense centered around concepts built off the run game. Smith-Njigba only appeared in three games this season after battling a hamstring injury, but he went for more than 1,600 yards in 2021."
Reid ranked the Ravens' top three needs as wide receiver, cornerback, and defensive line.