Lamar Jackson seemed to put every question about his passing prowess to rest last season.
He was the fifth quarterback drafted in 2018 because teams feared he was more of a runner than passer, but last year Jackson led the NFL in touchdown passes (36), finished third in passer rating (113.3), and won the league’s MVP award while leading the Ravens to a 14-2 record.
But defensive coordinators have a full year of tape on Jackson now. And he is finding that Year 2 as the starting quarterback is a lot more difficult than Year 1.
Though they are 6-2 heading into Sunday night’s game against the Patriots, the Ravens are winning more because of their No. 1-ranked scoring defense. The offensive stats are down across the board, particularly the passing stats. The efficiency stats are significantly worse, too. And frustrations are starting to bubble to the surface.
Receiver Marquise Brown complained on Twitter two weekends ago after catching just one pass for 3 yards in a loss to the Steelers. Jackson doesn’t seem to disagree with him.
“I feel like we should be throwing for a lot more,” Jackson said Wednesday. “Those guys need the ball in their hands. We’ve got to call the right plays to get the ball in their hands. We should be throwing the ball downfield.”
Jackson set the NFL ablaze in 2019, his first full season as a starter. He threw for the 36 touchdowns and had only six interceptions while setting an NFL quarterback record with 1,206 rushing yards and another seven touchdowns. The Ravens had the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense, and Jackson became the youngest MVP in NFL history at just shy of 23 years old.
But 2020 has not been quite as magical.
Jackson is on pace for fewer passing yards, fewer touchdowns, and more interceptions. The offense ranks No. 16 in scoring and No. 23 in total yards. Jackson has been sacked nearly as many times in eight games (21) as he was in 15 last year (23).
The Ravens are also middle-of-the-pack on third down and in the red zone, and rank in the 20s in areas like yards per passing play and first downs.
“We’re winning the games, but it’s not where we want to be,” Jackson said.
|Offensive points per game||30.4 (1st)||24.9 (16th)|
|Yards per play||6.1 (3rd)||5.52 (22nd)|
|Yards per rush||5.5 (1st)||5.1 (3rd)|
|Yards per pass play||6.9 (10th)||5.97 (25th)|
|First downs per game||24.1 (1st)||19.8 (29th)|
|Offensive plays per game||66.5 (7th)||62.9 (27th)|
|Third down percentage||47.1 (2nd)||43.3 (14th)|
|Red zone TD percentage||67.2 (2nd)||63.0 (15th)|
Most notably, the Ravens aren’t staying on the field. Last year, they ranked seventh in the NFL in number of offensive plays. This year they are 27th.
No team punted less than the Ravens last year, just 41 times in 16 games. This year, they have the 11th-most punts, with 31 in eight games. In last week’s win over the Colts, they punted on all five first-half possessions.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Jackson is still dangerous as ever as a dual threat.
“He’s got a good touch on the deep ball, sees the field well, and makes good decisions,” said Belichick.
But the Ravens clearly haven’t been up to par in the passing game, though coach John Harbaugh is trying to maintain a positive message.
“In terms of the numbers and all that kind of stuff, I have a good feeling about where that’s going,” Harbaugh said. “We’re very positive about that.”
Jackson’s teammates may not be so sure. Tight end Mark Andrews, a Pro Bowler last year with 852 yards and 10 touchdowns, has seen his numbers drop across the board. And Brown has only 25 catches for 316 yards in his last seven games in what was supposed to be a breakout season. He finally complained about his lack of touches on Twitter two weeks ago.
“(W)hat’s the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!),” he wrote.
Harbaugh had a text conversation with Brown, who took down the tweet, but also defended Brown and said he’s “not a selfish guy.”
Harbaugh also said Jackson knows the offense could be better, and is working hard to get back on track.
“He’s very determined,” Harbaugh said this week. “He wants to learn. He listens. He works hard.
"I think he knows he doesn’t know everything. That’s probably the most important thing about learning, is just understanding that you don’t know what you don’t know, and he’s like that.
"So, he’s young; it’s a process, certainly. A growth process for all of us, but especially for him. He’s got a big curve that he’s on in terms of growth, and he’s doing a good job with it.”
Of course, the Ravens still have one of the NFL’s most dynamic rushing attacks. Jackson’s numbers in that area have dipped, as well — he’s on pace for 938 rushing yards, about 300 fewer than last year — but the Ravens are still No. 1 in rushing yards (170 per game) and No. 3 in yards per attempt (5.1).
The Patriots could be the perfect antidote for the Ravens' ailments. Last year, when the Patriots had the NFL’s No. 1 defense, Jackson threw for only 163 yards and rushed for 61, but they still couldn’t stop him, as he completed 17 of 23 passes and ran for two touchdowns in a 37-20 win.
This year’s defense is decidedly worse. The Patriots rank 31st in yards per passing play allowed (8.0), and their run defense has gotten gashed all season, ranking 25th in yards per game (131) and 18th in yards per carry (4.5).
“These guys run the ball as well as anybody in the league, so we’ll definitely get tested here,” Belichick said.
Jackson, he added, has "plenty of 20-yarders, scrambles for first downs, and you have to respect him because that opens up things for other people, as well. So, I don’t think he’s lost anything in terms of running the ball.”
But no one ever doubted Jackson’s running ability.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.