How the Ravens Can Get Lamar Jackson Back to MVP Form This Season
Make no mistake, the Ravens are still one of the top teams in the AFC. The fact that they're two games behind the 8-0 Steelers in the AFC North doesn't mean they can't catch them and certainly doesn't mean they still can't be a Super Bowl contender.
But if the Ravens are going to reach those heights and realize their full potential, they need a return of the 2019 version of Jackson. Most teams would take the 2020 edition of the quarterback. But gone are the video game numbers of yesteryear.
For instance, the Ravens got past a tough Indianapolis Colts defense in a 24-10 win in Week 9. However, much of the credit for that win belongs to the defense, which kept them in the game while the Ravens only had 54 yards of offense in the first half, scored their first touchdown on a fumble recovery and set up the second touchdown with an interception.
Jackson finished the game with 170 yards through the air with 58 more on the ground and a touchdown.
They will need much more from the offense and their franchise quarterback if they want to challenge the Steelers down the stretch and shake the postseason reputation for not getting it done.
Outside of Jackson simply playing better, here are a few things the Ravens can do to help him get back to his MVP level.
Spread the Ball Around
Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown were a big factor in Jackson's 2019 MVP campaign. The Oklahoma products commanded 39.8 percent of the targets as Andrews posted a breakout season, and Brown was Jackson's best deep-ball threat.
This season, the offense has shifted even more to Andrews and Brown. The two account for 44.7 percent of the targets share, a number that was reflected in Week 9 with the tandem getting 10 of the 23 targets. It's worth noting that Jackson was 13-for-13 when targeting any other receiver against the Colts.
Andrews has seen a dip in production this season. He's significantly less efficient, with 6.8 yards per target (8.7 in 2019), 37.1 yards per game (56.8) and 11.4 yards per reception (13.3).
Brown has voiced displeasure with his usage this season and, in a display of good leadership, Jackson took the blame for it after the Week 8 loss to the Steelers.
"That's one of our key players to our offense," Jackson said about Brown's complaint, which came in the form of a since-deleted Tweet. "I want to get him the ball, the easiest way and fastest way we can. I have to do a better job of getting it to him."
Perhaps the best way to get Brown the ball is to get target him less. As it stands, secondaries focus energies on Andrews and Brown. A more even distribution to receivers like Willie Snead, Devin Duvernay and Nick Boyle—who have all been efficient with their looks—would lead to more opportunities to hit Brown over the top.
Get the Running Game Going
While Jackson was undoubtedly special last season, the Ravens offense was predicated on a run game that few teams could stop. The quarterback was obviously a big part of that, as he contributed 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
But the Ravens were committed to the ground game, especially on early downs. According to Sharp Football Stats, they ran the ball on first down more than anyone in the league last season and boasted the third-best success rate on such plays despite the high-volume.
This season, they are eighth in first down run percentage and ninth in success rate. Those are numbers that won't help Jackson regain his form from a season ago.
With a strong rushing attack setting him up with favorable second down situations, Jackson did his best work on second down. He registered a passer rating of 123.9 on 142 attempts on second down. This season, he's been at his worst on second down with a passer rating of 80.0 on 79 attempts through eight games.
Jackson has been less explosive in the run game, averaging a full yard less per carry this season. But the problems go much farther than him. Mark Ingram has been dealing with an ankle injury, and neither Gus Edwards nor J.K. Dobbins was able to get much going against a stingy Colts defense.
If the Ravens are going to unleash the full potential of Jackson, the running game has to get better first.
Switch Tempo More Often
Part of Jackson's problem is that defenses are finding ways to neutralize some elements of his game. He's seeing more spies from linebackers or defensive backs. The passes are being funneled to the middle of the field, and teams have more film to pick apart some tendencies.
It's the natural punch-counterpunch between NFL quarterbacks and the defensive coordinators charged with stopping them. Trying to simply revert back to last season won't do.
Instead, Greg Roman and the Ravens offensive staff need to find new wrinkles, and they may have found it in the second half of the Colts game. After struggling in the first half, the Colts picked up the pace and put up over 200 yards of offense in the final 30 minutes.
Coach John Harbaugh credited the up-tempo pace with the second-half success.
"That was just something that we talk about a lot and something we talked about at halftime," Harbaugh said, per Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun. "To me, that's something that we have in our—it's always in our game plan, and I'm glad we did it. I thought it was a good move, and our guys executed those plays really well. We practice them often, so that made a big difference in the game."
Last season, the Ravens were 32nd in just about every pace stat that Football Outsiders offers. With the offense less able to simply dominate up front and establish the run game, the Ravens might be better off to force personnel groupings they like to stay on the field and allow Jackson to make plays on the fly.
At this point, it's worth giving a shot, as the Ravens won't get to their ultimate goal without Jackson playing at the highest level possible.