Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, by many standards, is a double-edged sword. While he can slash and gash an opposing defense with runs layered with jukes, subtle stiff arms, and spin moves galore, far too often is the blade turned and sent into the heart of the Ravens when they call upon their young signal-caller to pass the ball in critical situations. While his long runs can take our breath away, his lack of consistency when it comes to his arm leaves the fans of Baltimore needing air.
Although Jackson has proven to be the Ravens’ greatest hero, his sub-par arm talent may be their biggest kryptonite. Let’s take a closer look at how Charm City’s King may be the one person who holds them back from reaching their full potential, as crazy as that might sound.
A closer look at Lamar Jackon’s 2019 season
We all know about the magic carpet ride Baltimore took in 2019, going 14-2 and setting a new precedent in terms of what a modern NFL offense can do. That said, they didn’t push the ball downfield in 2019. Lamar Jackson ranked 21st in the NFL in intended air yards. Of course, the Ravens didn’t need to push the ball downfield because their run game was one that seemingly no one could solve. They took advantage of that by using play action at the third-highest rate in the NFL and also leading the NFL in passes off of RPOs.
Now, Lamar Jackson fans will point out the fact that he won the MVP in 2019 unanimously and led the NFL in touchdown passes, both of which he did do. That said, when we closely examine Baltimore’s five biggest games of the season, Lamar Jackson didn’t exactly do well when it came to passing the ball.
Lamar Jackson’s performances during Baltimore’s most important games of 2019
The Ravens’ biggest games of 2019, in my opinion, were as follows: Week 3 at Kansas City, Week 5 at Pittsburgh, Week 7 at Seattle, Week 9 vs. New England, and Week 13 vs. San Francisco. In those five games, Lamar Jackson completed 59 percent of his passes, averaged a pedestrian 167 yards passing, and threw three touchdowns to three interceptions. His passer rating in those five games combined was 75.5 — please keep in mind that Andy Dalton finished last among starters in 2019 with a 78.3 passer rating.
Sure, Baltimore was 3-2 in those five games, but context is needed. In the game against Pittsburgh, Jackson threw three interceptions, and Mike Tomlin decided to defer in overtime — which is unheard of — because he had faith in his defense to get the ball back, which they did. The Steelers forced a three and out and were marching before Marlon Humphrey forced a fumble that gave the Ravens the ball in good field position to eventually win on a Justin Tucker field goal.
The Ravens also beat Seattle, but Jackson went just 9/20, and the Ravens had a pick-six from Marcus Peters, who had just been acquired from the Rams. The same can be said about the win over the 49ers — Jackson had just 101 yards passing, and the defense held San Francisco to just 17 points.
It’s one thing to drop 59 points on a horrid Dolphins team and put up a perfect passer rating against the Bengals, but when it comes to playing the tough teams, the Ravens were winning despite Lamar Jackson’s arm, not because of it.
Early exit from playoffs
That formula of running the ball and winning with no passing game worked just fine — until it didn’t. In the Divisional round of the playoffs, the Tennessee Titans forced Baltimore to throw the ball, and it worked to their advantage.
After taking an early 14-0 lead following a Lamar Jackson interception, the Titans took away the Baltimore run game and put the Ravens in situations where they needed to throw the ball to win — and they couldn’t do it. Jackson finished the game with a passer rating of 63.2, two interceptions, and still without a playoff win. This would become the blueprint for other teams in the future, and the message was clear: make Baltimore throw.
Lamar Jackson vs. Pittsburgh and Kansas City
The Steelers and Chiefs are the two teams that have been the thorn in the side of Lamar Jackson. While he has only played the Steelers twice, he has seven turnovers in those two games. Three of his six interceptions in 2019 came against Pittsburgh in Week 5, and he had two interceptions and two fumbles lost in the Week 8 matchup between the two teams.
Baltimore outplayed Pittsburgh in their first matchup of 2020, racking up 265 rushing yards on the Steelers, but Jackson’s inability to protect the ball cost the Ravens by giving the Steelers extra opportunities to score points.
Jackson is 0-3 against the Chiefs, and they have had his number in each of those three games. He is completing just over 52 percent of his throws while averaging just 170 yards and netting three total passing touchdowns.
The biggest embarrassment of the three games, though, was the Week 3 matchup on Monday Night Football, where Jackson netted just 97 yards passing and a 73.1 passer rating. The Chiefs copied the blueprint that Tennessee had used in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and took away the run on early downs, forcing the Ravens to throw on third and long situations, to which they showed they could not do.
Baltimore will not be able to take the next step and get to the Super Bowl if they can’t perform against the best that the AFC has to offer, and Lamar Jackson has shown, at least up to this point, that he shrinks when the lights are the brightest.
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson in 2020
It’s abundantly clear that the Baltimore Ravens QB and 2019 MVP has taken a step back. In eight games this season, Lamar Jackson has completed less than 60 percent of his passes in four of them, one of which he completed just 46 percent of his throws against Pittsburgh. Of those four games with less than 60 percent completions, three of them came consecutively, where he totaled five touchdown passes while averaging 191 yards per game and turning the ball over five times.
Jackson ranks 26th in completion percentage this year, completing just under 62 percent of his passes. He also sits at just 27th in passing yards with 1,513 — less than the likes of Nick Foles, Daniel Jones, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Gardner Minshew.
It’s also clear that Baltimore isn’t trying to throw the ball downfield. Jackson ranks 24th in intended air yards and is 27th in on-target throws. He also leads the NFL in rushing attempts out of RPOs. Frankly, Baltimore is showing that they don’t want to throw the ball downfield. Is that in part because John Harbaugh doesn’t believe in the arm of Lamar Jackson? I feel like that is a fair question to ask.
What’s next for the Baltimore Ravens and their QB?
The Ravens need to have the ability to pass the ball downfield in order to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They can throw underneath as much as they want — teams will give them that. And sure, they can just keep playing ground and pound and not passing the ball nearly as much as every other team, but that will only get them so far, and there is proof of that.
When they get to the playoffs and face the Chiefs or face the Steelers, two defenses that are well-coached and loaded at nearly every position, Lamar Jackson will have to make plays with his arm — that means throwing downfield successfully.
Teams like Kansas City and Pittsburgh have shown how to beat the Ravens — make them uncomfortable and make them pass. The Steelers may have given up over 260 yards on the ground, but it was clear that every time Jackson stepped back to throw, he wasn’t comfortable. It showed on the stat sheet as well. The Steelers picked him off twice and forced him to fumble three times, recovering two. The Chiefs basically said that they were going to put up 30 with the arm of Patrick Mahomes and dared the Ravens to match them — they couldn’t.
Does this mean the Ravens are done? Of course not. But it does mean something needs to change sooner rather than later. We are in Week 10, which means that the playoffs are coming. The Ravens still have to play the Patriots on the road and the Titans before going back on the road to Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night, and they still have their second meetings with the Browns and Bengals, both of which are on the road, as well.
Right now, the Ravens are the second-worst passing offense in the NFL, better only than the Jets. If that stays constant, the Ravens are more than likely to be eliminated very early in the playoffs once again, and the murmurs will turn to screams as everyone starts questioning if the Baltimore Ravens QB can win a big game.
What about beyond 2020?
One thing that the Ravens desperately need is another receiver. Marquise Brown is good, but he needs a complement opposite of him to take some attention away. No offense to Dez Bryant, but a 34-year-old receiver with an injured Achilles who hasn’t played in three years doesn’t exactly scream a reliable target. Devin Duvernay has shown glimpses and bursts of solid play but isn’t quite WR2 caliber for an NFL offense, and Willie Snead is nothing more than veteran depth at this point.
The tight ends are good, the running backs are good, the offensive line is good — they just need another legitimate target opposite of Brown.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t matter who is out there if Lamar Jackson can’t consistently push the ball down the field. We can make all the excuses in the world, but eventually, this all comes back to him. He needs to be better in the pocket, and he needs to be better at throwing outside the numbers.
Right now, Jackson is a great football player — but the Baltimore Ravens need him to become a great QB. If he can’t do that, the Ravens’ Super Bowl hopes will be nevermore.