It is easy to be a prisoner of the moment. Player X is unstoppable, we yell. Player Y is the future. Player Z is washed up. Until they’re not.
Lamar Jackson’s Ravens – once seen as shoo-ins for a Super Bowl run – have lost three of their last four games, and they have failed to score more than 24 points in all four. Jackson and the Ravens offense are stuck in a rut. What was 12 months ago the definition of the modern confuse-and-clobber style now looks confused and clobbered. All the razzmatazz and excitement – the efficiency and explosiveness – from a season ago has been traded for the unthinkable: predictability.
Don’t panic – this is normal. A new quarterback or offense rises; the player commits more of their idiosyncrasies to tape; opposing defensive coordinators watch and adapt; the offense stalls. It’s then up to the player and his staff to evolve, to find new avenues to success while maintaining enough of the things that made the player and team successful in the first place.
It’s the trickiest challenge a quarterback faces, shifting from the one-off, good-when-everything-goes-right player into a genuine franchise star. What Jackson is faced with now was inevitable.
The good news: Jackson is a genuine pioneer, someone who can slot into any kind of system. He is the best athlete on the field at the most important position in the sport. He pairs Michael Vick-like athleticism with all the nuances needed from a player in a traditional passing system. He also has complete understanding and authority at the line of scrimmage.
There have been plenty of players throughout NFL history who have been blessed with one or two of those traits – great athletes, precision throwers, football savants – but you can count on one hand the players that have combined all three. Rodgers. Young. Wilson. Mahomes. Players who were and are so overwhelmingly dominant that you don’t even need to say their first names. And not one of them was or is the open-field athlete that Jackson has proved to be.
Making that skill set predictable is hard. But the Ravens offense has stalled because the staff bought into an idea: Nobody can stop those three traits combined. Let’s do it again! Rather than try to offset the inevitable adjustments they would face from defensive coordinators this season – by altering the scheme or doubling down on what worked best – the Ravens have stuck, religiously, to the plan that brought the offense so much success last year.
According to ProFootballFocus, the Ravens are averaging 2.1 points per drive, a figure that sticks them right between the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins, hardly the bastions of elite offense. Last season, Baltimore averaged 2.6 points per drive, far and away the best total in the league. For context, the gap between the Ravens in top spot and the Kansas City Chiefs in second was the same as between the Chiefs and the 17th ranked team.
Opposing defenses this season have tried to stay more mobile by keeping an extra defensive back on the field against the Ravens. But they have also changed how they have attacked Jackson, or at least tried to keep him in check. Last season, teams worried about playing heavy doses of man-to-man coverage. Turn your back to chase a receiver, the theory goes, and Jackson will be able to run for joy. And once Jackson gets going, once he hits the second level and finds open grass, it’s hard to stop him.
The fear is valid. The majority of quarterback-run-heavy schemes thrive when a defense is playing man-coverage. Typically, defenses counter by dropping into zones, defending segments of the field rather than specific receivers, hoping to keep eyes on the potential rushing threat.
So when defensive coordinators planned for Jackson, the ultimate rushing threat, in 2019 they opted for zones in order to keep eyes on the quarterback. But Jackson is also a brilliant passer, he bullied opponents last year as defenses loaded up to counter his stereotype (a pure runner) rather than his skill-set (someone who can do everything).
Defensive coordinators have adapted this campaign. They’re playing less zone and more man, and Jackson has struggled. He isn’t taking off to scramble and run the ball when defensive backs turn and run downfield in coverage – only twice all season, possibly because of his faith in his arm, possibly because of injuries on the offensive line – and he has struggled to thread the needle against stickier, man-coverage with less separation. Of the 40 eligible quarterbacks this season, Jackson ranks dead last in yards per attempt against man coverage (5.0 YPA).
Baltimore need to find a solution. In order to be a serious Super Bowl threat, they need Jackson to play to his traditional supernova level, a level that has escaped him twice in successive playoff outings against exactly the kind of defenses he has struggled with over the past month.
Maybe the plan will be for Jackson to run more, particularly when he sees those defensive backs turning in coverage. Maybe it will be to spread things out a little rather than rely on the heavy formations that carried the team last year. Maybe Jackson will just have to complete more throws against difficult coverage.
Finding that solution is Jackson’s greatest challenge – figuring out what to change and what to keep the same. More immediately, the challenge is the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that has been moved from Thanksgiving night to Sunday afternoon due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the Ravens locker room.
The Steelers have the No 1-ranked defense in the NFL by DVOA, and the kind of personnel that have given Jackson and the Ravens offense fits over the past month. In their past meeting, Pittsburgh held Jackson to 5.75 yards per play, through the air and on the ground, and turned him over four times in a 28-24 win.
After Pittsburgh, the Ravens have a kind run-in. But the team need to iron out their issues before the playoffs. It’s ridiculous to suggest a player as brilliant as Jackson has been found out – he’s been middling this season rather than great. But it’s up to Jackson and the Ravens’ staff to reshape the offensive system, to counter their own tendencies, and to find the right amount of evolution. It’s going to be fun watching them try.