The Ravens did plenty of winning with Lamar Jackson at quarterback, but it wasn’t because they were prolific in the red zone.
In 2018, the Ravens ranked 20th out of 32 teams in red-zone efficiency (55.74 percent). For the Ravens to improve offensively in 2019, they need to become better at finishing drives inside the 20-yard line with touchdowns instead of settling for a Justin Tucker chip shot or not scoring at all.
Through the first four weeks of the 2018 season, the Ravens were the NFL’s best red zone team. They set a league record by scoring touchdowns on their first 13 red zone trips.
However, that was all done with Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback. As the season progressed, the Ravens struggled in the red zone whether Flacco or Jackson started. By Week 11, when the quarterback change was made, the Ravens had dropped from No. 1 in the league in red-zone efficiency to No. 9. They converted on 66.7 percent of their chances.
Jackson became the starter and sparked the Ravens to a 6-1 record over the final seven regular season games. But the red zone struggles continued. With Jackson, they dropped to a 42.3 conversion rate.
During the final weeks of the regular season, only the Jacksonville Jaguars (20 percent) converted less in the red zone than the Ravens (22.2 percent). New Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman is aware of that, and so is Jackson.
“As far as that particular part of the field, I definitely think this offseason is going to be big for us with Lamar really zoning in on specific things that we want to focus in on with him,” Roman said. “When you make a transition like we did, I do think that's one of the things you've got to narrow down a little bit at that point in the season.”
The Ravens’ red zone struggles nearly cost them a playoff spot. In the Week 17 AFC North-clinching win against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens led, 20-7, but came away empty just before halftime after having first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Baltimore went with an unorthodox play on first down, handing the ball to tight end Maxx Williams, who was stopped for no gain. Then, after Jackson was stopped just short of the goal line on second down, he lost a fumble on third down as he tried to reach the ball over the goal line and had it knocked away.
Ultimately, the Ravens hung on for a 26-24 victory. But throwing away points in the red zone can mean the difference between victory or defeat.
With a full offseason to redesign their offense, the Ravens have time to put their red zone woes under the microscope. During the draft and free agency, the Ravens could target a wide receiver or running back who they believe will make them more efficient near the goal line. They expect tight end Hayden Hurst to become more of a red zone threat in his second season. Hurst suffered a foot stress fracture during training camp last year and was never really 100 percent.
The Ravens believe they will evolve into a more dangerous red zone team with Jackson as the starter. He can put pressure on defenses that less-mobile quarterbacks cannot. If you don’t account for his speed and elusiveness, he becomes more of a threat to scamper into the end zone. If you assign a defender to shadow Jackson, it leaves one less defender available to deploy in pass coverage. Jackson ran for five touchdowns last season.
However, part of the Ravens’ red zone success or failure depends on Jackson’s development as a passer. He completed just 9 of 24 passes in the red zone (37.5 percent), the lowest percentage among quarterbacks who threw at least 20 passes. Many young quarterbacks struggle in the red zone, where the throwing windows are tighter, and where linebackers and defensive backs can close quickly on quarterbacks attempts to run.
Roman believes Jackson will excel in the red zone as he gains more experience. But becoming more precise in that part of the field is a priority for next season.
“We will have an opportunity now to really build something with him in the red zone this year,” Roman said. “That's one of the last places a quarterback really hits his stride, so we’ve got to work on that.”