Five Things Ravens Can Do to Get the Offense Going
In the Ravens' first game after their bye week last season, they hosted an undefeated team that had the No. 1 defense in the league.
The Ravens scored 37 points against the New England Patriots that night, as the offense shifted into a higher gear. Baltimore would score 40-plus points in each of their next three games.
The Ravens are hoping history can repeat itself when the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers and their No. 1 defense visit M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. Just like last year, the Ravens are facing a formidable opponent coming off a bye.
What does the Ravens offense — which has yet to click the way it did during the second half of last season — need to do to get untracked?
The Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer analyzed game film and used Sports Info Solutions data — including expected points added, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position — to come up with five suggestions:
Keep taking shots downfield.
"After hitting 35.6% of his 'deep' throws in 2019 — attempts where the target depth was at least 20 yards — Jackson is 5-for-21 (23.8%) in 2020," Shaffer wrote. "On passes of 30-plus air yards, he's 1-for-7, with his one completion coming in Week 1 on a pass to wide receiver Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown. He was 7-for-19 on such throws last year.
"The NFL is a copycat league, and the Ravens should expect more defenses to move up their safeties and crowd the box, eager to take away the running game. That could make Jackson's intermediate throws, where his accuracy's actually improved (65.8% on passes between 10 and 19 yards), more difficult. But with the speed of receivers like Brown, Miles Boykin and Devin Duvernay, he'll continue to have favorable looks downfield, as he often did against Washington and the Kansas City Chiefs. He just has to hit them."
Pass more on first down.
"If teams are keen on stopping the Ravens' ground game, the answer is simple and effective: play-action," Shaffer wrote. "Run fakes benefit every passing attack — just ask the Tennessee Titans' Ryan Tannehill, who turns into a Pro Bowl-level player whenever running back Derrick Henry pretends to take a handoff.
"Research by FiveThirtyEight has shown that linebackers respond to the 11th play-action fake they see in a game about as unproductively as they do their first. Until defenses respect Jackson's arm, the Ravens should capitalize on how much they fear his legs."
Fix empty-back plays or ditch them.
"In empty formations last season — only Jackson in the backfield, with five receivers typically surrounding him — the Ravens were a juggernaut," Shaffer wrote. "Jackson led the NFL in EPA per play on drop-backs, with 1,000-plus combined yards on 122 opportunities (869 passing yards on 101 attempts and 170 yards on 16 carries, plus five sacks).
"This season, the Ravens' cheat code just hasn't worked. And they've tried it, a lot: Almost a quarter of Jackson's drop-backs have come in empty formations. But only the Indianapolis Colts' Philip Rivers has been less efficient, according to EPA."
Get Jackson help vs. man coverage.
"Maybe no drop-off is more jarring than Jackson's production against Cover 0, an all-out blitz scheme in which defenders have no safety help in coverage," Shaffer wrote. "Here, Jackson still has gotten the ball out quickly, with just one sack on 13 drop-backs. But his completion percentage has fallen from 76.9% to 58.3%, and even his completions are averaging just 4.4 yards per play, down from 7.9 yards last year.
"A rebound is likely coming, but it's in man coverage where the Ravens' coaching staff and supporting pieces need to help him the most. Jackson has to identify open receivers and elude pressure, of course. But linemen have to keep the pocket clean. Receivers have to get open downfield. And if they can't, [Offensive Coordinator Greg] Roman needs to call man-coverage beaters — pick plays, stacked-receiver formations, athletic mismatches — that will help."
Use more misdirection in the running game.
"On zone-read plays, edge defenders can sometimes force Jackson to hand the ball off inside, where the Ravens have struggled at times to get a good push," Shaffer wrote. "And when Jackson's taken the ball himself and broken outside, second-level players have typically strung out his runs, not letting him turn the corner. After averaging 8.2 yards on outside runs last season, Jackson's down to 5.7 this year.
"The Ravens' use of pre-snap motion is one form of leverage; tight end Nick Boyle and fullback Patrick Ricard are good enough blockers to create gaps on the fly. But misdirection could feature more prominently in Roman's playbook over the next two months if defenses play the Ravens the same way."
Jackson on Playing Safety in Pop Warner: 'I Felt Like I Was Sean Taylor, Ed Reed'
Jackson is often compared with Michael Vick, who held the single-season rushing record for a quarterback before Jackson broke it last season, but when Jackson played football as a youth, he saw himself as Ravens Hall of Famer Ed Reed and late Washington safety Sean Taylor.
In addition to playing quarterback in Pop Warner football in Florida, Jackson also was a safety.
"My real position on defense was safety. I felt like I was Sean Taylor, Ed Reed," Jackson told teammate Mark Ingram II and New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan on their "Truss Levelz" podcast. "I used to come clean in the box. I used to try to knock heads off."
Reed paid Jackson the highest of compliments last month when he said the quarterback "has the heart of a defender."
"He's the ultimate athlete," Reed said. "I think he could've played safety [in the NFL]."
During Jackson's appearance on the podcast, Ingram asked him what it was like to be a neighborhood legend as a kid. In typical fashion, Jackson downplayed his accomplishments.
"I wouldn't say I was a hood legend because there were so many people like me where I'm from," Jackson said. "There were a lot of us like that, but we chose different paths. They wanted fast money. Looking up to older people like, 'How do you get money?' and stuff like that. … I never fell for that."
In discussing Jackson's athleticism, Jordan recalled what it was like facing him when the Saints played the Ravens in 2018.
"Lamar Jackson is the first quarterback who ever turned the corner on me," Jordan said. "I was like, 'I don't know if I'm going to get there.' I felt like I kept up with Mike Vick and Cam Newton and all these other top-tier [mobile quarterbacks], Colin Kaepernick. If I can get an edge on you, I sort of got you. By the grace of God I slapped his shoelace. I was just glad I slapped the shoelace and he sort of fell forward. He didn't take me for that 60-piece like I thought he was."
Dez Bryant's Personal Coach Says He Looks Like 'Dez Bryant of Old'
Head Coach John Harbaugh and Jackson both issued a "we'll see" response when asked about what to expect from veteran Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant, who was signed to the practice squad this week.
"He hasn't played for how many years? So, we'll see where he's at," Harbaugh said.
Said Jackson: "We just have to see if he's ready, see what he's capable of and go from there."
Bryant's personal wide receiver coach, David Robinson, expressed confidence that the Ravens are going to like what they see. He said Bryant is in better shape that he was when he received a training camp tryout with the Ravens in August.
"He looks a lot faster his first 10-15 yards coming off the football, you can tell that burst is there," Robinson said on 105.7 The Fan's "Inside Access." "The top end of his routes when he's coming out of his cuts, those first three steps out of his breaks, look like the Dez Bryant of old. Cat-quick out of his cuts.
"You can tell from the first workout to now that he's a lot more prepared. He dropped some more weight. They actually came away a lot more impressed than expected. So I'm excited because I think he's going to make a lot more impact than people think."
Robinson said Bryant has been monitoring what the Ravens have been doing on offense and feels like it's a great fit for him.
"He really loves Lamar Jackson and his ball placement in the red zone, so he felt that he could really help out in that department, and those young receivers, bringing them along," Robinson said. "He felt he'd be a great fit for the locker room. So he was excited when he got the second call to come in for the workout because he's been talking it into existence."