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Lamar Jackson's Looming Return Won't Be Enough to Save Sputtering Ravens Offense

Brent SobleskiJanuary 2, 2023

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - JANUARY 01: J.K. Dobbins #27 of the Baltimore Ravens runs with the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on January 01, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens aren't the Baltimore Ravens without Lamar Jackson pulling the strings. Even with Jackson in the lineup, the Ravens aren't playing well enough to do any kind of damage in the postseason.

The franchise built its entire approach around Jackson, and rightfully so. Good organizations are tailored to their talent, especially behind center. Baltimore deserves credit for identifying a unique athlete and properly building around him.

Yet the downfall is an approach that's simply not working. An approach that's not likely to get significantly better to challenge the AFC's best in the short term, though the Ravens know their only hope is Jackson magic.

"The way we feel, the sooner we can get him back, the better," Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman told reporters Thursday. "Especially heading into the playoffs, [we'd] love to get some work in before then, but you can't rush Mother Nature. We have to make sure he's right at the same time."

Jackson continues to nurse a sprained PCL, and Tyler Huntley has started the last four games. During that stretch, the team has averaged 12.3 points per game, and Huntley hasn't thrown for more than 138 yards in any of those contests.

The eventual return of the 2019 NFL MVP will bring an added dynamic, though Jackson wasn't exactly lighting the league on fire prior to his injury.

After throwing for 10 touchdowns in Baltimore's first three regular-season contests, Jackson added only seven over the following eight games and one more on the ground. His completion percentage dipped below 60 percent on five different occasions as well.

Is the in-season regression entirely the quarterback's fault? Of course not. But it does point to the flawed makeup of the Ravens roster. Sunday's 16-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers showed how little fight Baltimore had in it, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

"We let them do what they wanted," head coach John Harbaugh said after the game, per The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec. "It wasn't good."

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on the sideline during Sunday's contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on the sideline during Sunday's contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers. AP Photo/Nick Wass

Baltimore's approach is a throwback to days when dominant run games and hard-nosed defenses could dictate an entire contest. It's harder than ever to do so now based on how the game has evolved. The rules are geared toward offenses. Chunk plays have become a staple of creative play-callers looking to minimize reps and maximize effectiveness in numerous spread looks. In contrast, the Ravens want to bash their way to a victory, even when Jackson is in the lineup.

While this style of play helps keep the team in games, the margin for error is also far smaller.

Jackson makes everything more interesting because he's such a special athlete. Yet he lacks the weapons around him for the Ravens to consistently compete with the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and surging Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens have three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews and...

J.K. Dobbins has played well over the last four games with 397 rushing yards. At the same time, the offense hasn't mustered much overall. Why? There is no legitimate outside threat.

Though Baltimore is effective running the ball, running plays only produce big gainers when the defense misses tackles. And with the Ravens rarely manufacturing big plays in the pass game, this offense lacks explosiveness.

On Sunday, Baltimore's wide receivers combined to snag two passes for 18 yards. In fact, no single receiver on the outside has produced more than 52 yards in the last five games. The group has mustered only two 100-yard performances all season, and one of those came from Rashod Bateman, who had season-ending foot surgery in November.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Demarcus Robinson
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Demarcus RobinsonAP Photo/Nick Wass

Demarcus Robinson, a 36-year-old DeSean Jackson and a castoff Sammy Watkins don't strike fear into any secondary, and it shows based on how the Ravens are continually defended.

"We got to get his fixed," right guard Kevin Zeitler said. "Otherwise nothing good is going to happen."

As a result, the Ravens have become more and more reliant on a resurgent defense that's played extremely well since the acquisition of linebacker Roquan Smith. As ESPN's Mina Kimes noted, entering Sunday Baltimore's D allowed the lowest yards per play when not getting pressure since the Smith trade.

Correction: The group had played extremely well until the Steelers punched it in the proverbial mouth by playing a physical brand of football and made plays with the game on the line. Pittsburgh doesn't exactly feature a complete offense, either. But Mike Tomlin's squad is resilient and getting better each week with rookie Kenny Pickett behind center.

Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 34 carries and 177 rushing yards.

To provide an idea of how Pittsburgh walloped Baltimore in the trenches, the Steelers' average distance to go on third down was only 3.9 yards heading into the fourth quarter, according to Sharp Football's Warren Sharp.

Ultimately, the outcome was decided on the Steelers' final offensive drive in which Pickett maneuvered around the pocket and delivered three critical throws, including his only touchdown pass of the night—a 10-yard dart to Harris out of the backfield.

NFL @NFL

What a play by the rookie! <a href="https://twitter.com/kennypickett10?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@kennypickett10</a><br><br>📺: <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PITvsBAL?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PITvsBAL</a> on NBC<br>📱: Stream on NFL+ <a href="https://t.co/K8OMv0nWCp">https://t.co/K8OMv0nWCp</a> <a href="https://t.co/bBM96rHBct">pic.twitter.com/bBM96rHBct</a>

"We preach finishing, and right there, we didn't finish or do what we needed to get off the field," Ravens safety Chuck Clark said.

Like the offense, Baltimore's defense should receive a boost once its leader is back on the field. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell couldn't go Sunday because of a knee injury. His absence proved to be significant as the Steelers offensive line did its job by consistently winning at the point of attack.

Campbell and Lamar Jackson coming back can only do so much, though.

The Ravens aren't built like the AFC's best squads. They've repeatedly chosen to limit their investment in wide receivers—such as not signing marquee free agents and trading Marquise Brown—and that's been a detrimental plan.

The inability of general manager Eric DeCosta to place the caliber of weapons to complement a historically good ground game and amazing offensive playmaker at quarterback will continue to be the downfall of the Ravens once they reach the postseason. They simply can't keep pace with teams that aren't going to succumb to their bully-ball tactics, as those teams have the type of weapons to make plays that Baltimore doesn't have.

Jackson is an amazing talent. He can't carry the entire offense. Nor should he be asked to do so, especially coming off an injury.


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.