A year ago, Lamar Jackson chilled on the bench in the fourth quarter, resting after cruising to a 49-10 lead over the Bengals. With his black shades on, he exuded an effortless cool. His look was instantly iconic.
Two games later, he roamed the sideline in the fourth quarter at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, laughing with his teammates after throwing for five touchdowns and rushing for 95 yards against the Rams. He made a habit of establishing massive leads and then relaxing on the bench for the last few drives. Robert Griffin III came in for Jackson five times last season to close out games Baltimore had won handily.
This year, instead of casually sitting out final drives because his offense has built an insurmountable cushion, Jackson is playing full games—and then some. He found himself on the unsuccessful end of a 3rd-and-17 in overtime this past Sunday. Instead of shades and catch phrases, he has a new routine: venting his frustrations during press conferences. "I feel like people want us to lose," Jackson said after the Ravens lost in overtime to the Titans, their third loss in the last four games.
After a breakout 2019 season, Jackson's stats are down across most categories. His completion percentage is down from 66.1 to 63.4. Last year, he picked up a first down on 40.2 percent of his passes—this year, 36.2 percent. He's averaging 5.6 yards per rush, down from 6.9 in 2019.
Jackson is averaging 57.5 yards rushing per game, the most significant drop-off in his numbers, down from 80.4 yards per game in 2019 with only a slight change in rushing attempts (11.7 per game in 2019 and 10.3 this year). In 2019 he picked up a first down on 40.3 percent of his rushing attempts, but this year that number has dropped to 29.1 percent.
Just one season after Jackson won MVP, is it time to worry about the third-year quarterback, his development as a passer and his effectiveness as a runner?
"I don't think so. This was pretty expected," said one NFL evaluator. "Teams are figuring out more ways to defend them and slow them. ... There is just more of a library of different ways to stop it that teams can do."
Jackson has improvements of his own to make, but his supporting cast lacks talent and has been depleted by key injuries. And in the second year under offensive coordinator Greg Roman, there are questions about whether the scheme is more to blame.
In 2019, Baltimore had the top scoring offense in the NFL (33.2) and ranked second in yards per game (407.6). Headed into Week 12 this year, the offense is 12th in scoring (26.8 points per game) and 24th in yards per game (343.9), just ahead of the Detroit Lions. The Ravens were the league's top rushing offense last season, and they still are this year, but they've dropped off from 206.0 yards per game to 160.5.
At 6-4 in an AFC North led by the undefeated Steelers, the division title is out of reach. If the regular season ended today, the Ravens would not make the playoffs. Jackson has expressed public frustrations with the offense, and the struggles are clear to see. Injuries and changes to his blockers have had a big impact. Perennial Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda retired, while All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle, the team's primary blocking tight end, have both been lost for the season with injuries.
The Ravens used two different starting lineups on the offensive line all of last season but have rotated through five combinations this year, according to Jamison Hensley at ESPN.
Opposing strategies include doubling tight end Mark Andrews, the team's leader in receiving yards (454), and spying Jackson with defensive backs who are fast enough to catch him when he runs, instead of with linebackers or defensive linemen, which the evaluator said teams used frequently last year.
"Teams have figured out that Lamar wants to throw in the middle of the field," said one pro scout whose team has played Baltimore. "If you force him outside the numbers, he will make a mistake."
Jackson's interception against Tennessee this past weekend came on a throw outside the numbers, a deep shot to receiver Devin Duvernay. Jackson's ball was just a little inside Duvernay, and Tennessee safety Amani Hooker snatched it.
The evaluator said he expected Jackson to be better as a passer but that he is not at the top of his list of concerns for a Ravens offense that is far from a lost cause.
"It's not like they have gone from 100 to zero," he said. "There are still a lot of things that they put pressure on and a lot of things you have to worry about, particularly the quarterback."
They just need to make adjustments, he said, in the same way that teams have been adjusting to them.
"I think Baltimore needs to start leaning on that running game," said the pro scout. "And they need to do it at unconventional times and not rely on Lamar in clutch spots too much."
Lead running back J.K. Dobbins and veteran back Mark Ingram II, who is being phased out of the running game in favor of the rookie Dobbins, are among the Ravens who tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be available to play Sunday against the Steelers, even after the game was pushed back from Thursday night.
Third-year pro Gus Edwards is next on the depth chart and will be the Ravens' lead back, which isn't necessarily a step down. Edwards rushed for a season-high 87 yards the last time the Ravens played Pittsburgh. With Dobbins added to the mix, Edwards has seen less action this season, but over the last two years, he has rushed for 100 yards in five games. The pro scout said Edwards is a respected talent, and other teams around the league have shown interest in him, particularly when he was an exclusive restricted free agent this past offseason.
Jackson's receivers are an extremely young group who often don't make his job easier, and he lacks a true No. 1 receiver like several of his peers were gifted this offseason. Kyler Murray got DeAndre Hopkins, while Josh Allen got Stefon Diggs. Jackson, who could use the help for his development as a passer, was left high and dry. The Ravens devoted most of their offseason spending to the defense.
Baltimore's 2019 first-round pick, receiver Marquise Brown, has underperformed for his second season and doesn't look like he'll ever be that dependable lead target. (Several scouting sources interviewed for this story said they didn't see Brown as a No. 1 when scouting him out of Oklahoma. They said he played "bigger" in college and struggles now to make catches in traffic.)
"He is a vertical, small WR who is really a third," said former Giants executive and NFL Network analyst Marc Ross. "He doesn't have a big catch radius, so when there are bodies around and now people know his game, he just doesn't have the ability to ascend."
Brown was catchless Sunday on three targets and played his fewest snaps since Week 4.
Then there's Dez Bryant, who the Ravens signed to their practice squad at the end of October. Bryant hadn't caught an NFL pass in nearly three years before Sunday, but this receiving corps needed some juice, and in his first game action, Bryant played 35 snaps and had four catches for 28 yards.
After a Week 9 win over the Colts, Jackson made news during an interview with Rich Eisen when he asked to evaluate his offense. "We're going against defenses, they're calling out our plays, stuff like that," Jackson said. "They know what we're doing. Sometimes stuff won't go our way if they beat us to the punch."
Eisen followed up to make sure he heard correctly, asking if Jackson is hearing defenses call out his plays across the line of scrimmage. "Yeah, they definitely do," Jackson said. "Like, 'run' and stuff like that. 'Watch out for this, watch out for that.' Sometimes that's what's going on."
Jackson's comments were controversial, seemingly pointing to Roman's scheme as the reason things weren't coming as easily this year. At the same time, the comments were striking because it's not unusual for defenses to call out "run" or "pass" for any opponent. "It's either one or the other," said the evaluator. "I didn't really understand what Lamar's point was there, like, 'We're getting too predictable, we are either running or passing.' What are you talking about?"
While he may have been exaggerating, or oversensitive to, a typical part of the pre-snap game, Jackson's comments seemed to speak to a bigger frustration with Roman's scheme. Roman has a history of designing run-oriented offenses built around mobile quarterbacks. He was the 49ers' offensive coordinator in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick and then with the Bills and Tyrod Taylor. With both teams and quarterbacks, his offenses were initially really successful but then hit a wall when defenses had time to devise different ways to stop the attacks.
"Once teams figured out how to stop Kaepernick, it's kind of the same situation," the evaluator said.
The Ravens' last big offensive performance was a 28-24 loss to Pittsburgh in Baltimore in Week 8. Baltimore rushed for 265 yards and had 457 total yards of offense, more than doubling the Steelers' offensive output. But Jackson threw two interceptions and completed just 46.4 percent of his passes as the Steelers gutted out a narrow win.
After that game, Steelers rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith hinted at the predictability that Jackson called out 10 days later. Highsmith said he picked off Jackson in the third quarter because the Ravens had run that same play in the first half. Highsmith recognized it and knew to drop deeper than he had the first time around.
"I am going to have to talk to Alex about giving the media all of his tips; that is unacceptable," Steelers All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt joked to reporters Tuesday. "If you run a certain concept out of a certain formation, and you run it multiple times a game, I feel like any veteran or even a rookie like Alex Highsmith can pick up on stuff like that. We study film, and we study as much as we possibly can, and we have analytics guys too that can help us in many ways in this football game."
Watt wouldn't give up specifics on Baltimore's offense and whether it is easier to read this year than last, but his parting line on the topic is ominous for the Ravens.
"We know a lot of things," Watt said. "That's all I'll say about that."
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.