Why Lamar Jackson's Season Still Matters
As the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium, reality began to set in. After a historic regular season with Super Bowl aspirations, the Ravens were headed for a shocking divisional round exit, down 28-12.
It didn't take long for the takes to start rolling in.
Some people want to see Lamar Jackson fail, publicly and privately. We've highlighted the countless hot takes and narratives surrounding the second-year quarterback since he came into the league in 2018.
While there was criticism following a disappointing loss on Saturday night, pundits emphasized that it doesn't take away from Jackson's MVP-caliber season.
"2019 was the year the Ravens decided to go all-in on Jackson, and the results were overwhelmingly positive," The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia wrote. "He delivered an MVP season, and the team went 14-2. It doesn't take much to squint and envision a scenario — one, two, three, four years down the line — where Jackson is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and talking about how much his first two playoff losses motivated him."
"Jackson's performance isn't a referendum on him or his ability to play quarterback in the league," The Undefeated's Martenzie Johnson wrote. "By all accounts, it was an ugly showing. The criticisms will (rightfully) come for him. But for those who try and argue 15 games' worth of evidence is all negated by 60 minutes are mistaken. This season, Jackson threw for more than 3,000 yards, ran for more than 1,200 and accounted for 43 touchdowns. He ranked first in QBR and third in passer rating; in other words, a wide receiver Jackson is not."
It's important not to let the loss overshadow Jackson's accomplishments. After all, it might be one of the greatest regular seasons we've ever seen by a quarterback.
"This loss doesn't discredit everything Jackson did this season," Johnson added. "Teams were still foolish to have passed on him in the 2018 draft. Any scout who said he needed to change positions still needs every sobriety test at our disposal as human beings."
If anything, it serves as a sign that Jackson is just getting started.
"Baltimore, like any good team, will take a long look at this game and what went wrong," SB Nation's James Brady wrote. "Very little of what the Ravens find will be Jackson's fault. If anyone wants to make a prediction about Jackson's future, here's a safe bet: The Ravens will be back in the playoffs soon, and Jackson will be the only person they want leading the charge."
Titans Follow Bills' Blueprint to Contain Ravens' Offense
If you look strictly at the final box score, you would think the game was a completely different outcome. The Ravens outgained the Titans 530 to 300, ran 39 more plays, and controlled the time of possession for almost five more minutes. Yet, they still lost by 16 points.
"What's clear is the NFL's top-scoring offense face planted, while the Titans followed a familiar blueprint to success, accomplishing everything the Ravens didn't — they forced turnovers, controlled the ball and bludgeoned Baltimore on the ground," Penn Live's Aaron Kasinitz wrote.
Cornerback Logan Ryan said the Titans used the Bills as a blueprint to contain the Ravens' high-powered offense after Buffalo held Jackson to 145 passing yards and 40 rushing yards in the Week 14 matchup.
"We wanted to give [Jackson] loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game," Ryan said. "We were either playing with a loaded box and man to man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano, or we were going to play a zone defense, a quarters defense similar to what Buffalo did. And Buffalo played them well. Buffalo just didn't score a lot of points on offense.
"We had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it's hard to run the ball. We pretty much did that and we got a lead. And once we got a lead, they had to go to the pass game and that's our strength with the [defensive backs] we have and having the ball skills we have. When we get a lead, we can get some interceptions."
Ryan and safety Kevin Byard combined for 24 total tackles while defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Jeffery Simmons dominated the trenches against a strong offensive line. They sacked Jackson four times and totaled seven quarterback hits.
"The Ravens came in with the most productive rushing offense in NFL history and a stellar offensive line led by Pro Bowl selections Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda," The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker wrote. "But the Titans, without a single Pro Bowl selection on their front seven, made life miserable for them from the start. They smothered inside running lanes, holding Ingram and Edwards to a combined 42 yards on nine carries. They pressured Jackson without having to blitz on every snap and stuffed him on two fourth-down runs. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey was particularly dominant with four tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble."
Dean Pees deserves credit for drawing up a great defensive game plan, but the Ravens also suffered self-inflicted wounds. Jackson's pass intended for Mark Andrews was tipped and intercepted by Byard on their opening possession. On the ensuing Baltimore drive, Jackson was stuffed short of the first down on 4th-and-1.
After going a perfect 8-for-8 on 4th-and-1 during the season, the Ravens went 0-for-2 against the Titans and saw eight drives stall inside of the Tennessee 36-yard line.
Injuries to Mark Ingram II, Andrews and Nick Boyle left the offensive supporting cast less than 100 percent. Notable drops from Ravens receivers, including what could have been a touchdown from Seth Roberts, also attributed to the struggles.
Pundits Debate Rust or Rest After Slow Start
The Ravens' first three offensive drives against the Titans ended in an interception, turnover on downs, and a punt. It was uncharacteristic for one of he NFL's most efficient first quarter teams.
Naturally, the slow start sparked debate about Harbaugh's decision to rest some of the starters in Week 17 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It should be noted that Jackson had the flu and Andrews was dealing with an ankle injury when the Ravens took on the Steelers in Week 17, so they likely wouldn't have played regardless. And players who did play in the regular-season finale contributed to the slow start.
Harbaugh was asked after the game whether he thought rust was an issue.
"It's unanswerable," Harbaugh said. "Our guys practiced really hard and did the best they could, but we didn't play a sharp football game, for sure. What should you attribute that to? I guess you can theorize a lot of different things."
CBS Sports' David Amendolara didn't buy the notion that rust was the sole cause of the Ravens' struggles.
"That's part of it, but it can't be what you point to as the reason the Ravens lost," Amendolara said. "Because number one, that does not take into account how good the Titans were … The Ravens being unable to stop Derrick Henry is not because they were rusty, and that's a huge part of yesterday's game.
"The Ravens falling behind by 14 points, part of that is Jonnu Smith ends up with an unbelievable one-handed catch. There's perfect coverage, corner of the end zone … That's not because the Ravens are rusty. To simply say, 'well the Ravens didn't play their starts in Week 17, that's why they lost,' is unfair to the Titans and unfair to what happened in the game."
Amendolara added that he hates the "oversimplified narrative" that resting starters directly attributes to rust because there are examples against it. And even if Harbaugh decided to play all the starters for even a quarter or a half against the Steelers, there's no guarantee it would have helped.
"Of course, if Harbaugh had played the likes of Jackson in a meaningless game against the Steelers and if the likes of Jackson had gotten injured by a hard-hitting arch-rival that entered the game with a playoff berth still a possibility, Harbaugh would have been relentlessly criticized," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote.
Reasons for Optimism Heading Into the Offseason
There was disappointment among players on Sunday as they cleaned out their lockers earlier than expected, but the Ravens enter the offseason with reasons for optimism.
"Baltimore isn't a team that's going to lose a majority of its starters," NBC Sports' Andrew Gillis wrote. "In fact, the opposite is true."
There's a strong core returning on both sides of the ball. The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec noted that Roberts is the only offensive contributor not signed through the 2020 season. Although, there's uncertainty about Yanda's future.
"Defensively, the Ravens have most of the key players in their secondary returning," Zrebiec wrote.
General Manager Eric DeCosta made a concerted effort to lock up the Ravens' young talent for the long haul. That still leaves them with cap flexibility, around $33 million, according to Russell Street Report's Brian McFarland.
The Ravens' 2020 draft position is now locked in too. They'll have pick No. 28, one of seven before compensatory picks are factored in.
"In any case, DeCosta should have plenty of resources with which to work this draft season," Kasinitz wrote.
- In case you missed it, check out Jackson's interview with NFL Network's Steve Smith Sr.