Two years ago, the 14-2 Baltimore Ravens posted the best record in the National Football League, largely because quarterback Lamar Jackson exploded into superstardom. In just his second professional season, he not only broke the NFL record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback with 1,206 but also led the league in touchdown passes with 36 while throwing for 3,127 yards with a 113.3 passer rating.
The 11-5 Ravens made the playoffs again last year, but both Jackson and the team took a step backward throwing the ball, fielding the worst passing offense in the NFL. Remedying that glaring weakness was Baltimore's biggest priority in the offseason, and while the team did a good job of adding some passing-game weapons and addressing personnel losses on the offensive line, there's a flip side to those additions:
They increase the pressure on Jackson to get Baltimore's passing game on track.
The Ravens' aerial deficiencies were laid bare for all to see in Baltimore's lopsided loss to Buffalo in the divisional round. Facing a middle-of-the-pack Bills pass defense, Jackson couldn't get anything going through the air with 14 completions in 24 attempts for 162 yards and an ill-advised pick-six.
The Ravens managed just three points.
"Lamar Jackson has won a lot of football games here. Our offense has won us a lot of football games here," Harbaugh said. "We're not apologizing for that for one second. We are going to improve it, no question about it. We're going to work to make it more precise, more efficient."
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman echoed that need for improvement, noting that even Baltimore's league-leading ground game can only take the team so far without a more consistent and explosive passing game.
"There's more passing plays per year than running plays," Roman said. "We want to be great at both. There's times when people from a numerical standpoint are just going to dare you to throw it and just commit more to defend the run than you can possibly hope to have sustained success against. That's where we really want to take a big step this year. I think that's really going to be key to us taking a big step offensively."
Baltimore attempted to bolster the receiving corps in free agency, but JuJu Smith-Schuster spurned the Ravens to remain with the Steelers, T.Y. Hilton turned down a three-year offer to stay with the Colts, and Kenny Golladay signed a massive contract with the Giants.
The Ravens replaced Willie Snead with veteran Sammy Watkins, a 2014 fourth overall pick. But Watkins' last (and only) 1,000-yard season came back in 2015. He's more depth than difference-maker.
Those free-agent whiffs made it all but a foregone conclusion that Baltimore would draft a wideout early this year. Sure enough, when the Ravens went on the clock at No. 27, the team settled on Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, who averaged 20.3 yards per catch on the way to winning Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors in 2019.
Bateman—who has drawn comparisons to 2020 breakout sensation Justin Jefferson of the Vikings—has the size (6'0", 190 lbs) to play outside, the quickness to play the slot and solid route-running skills. Roman said he believes that skill set will make him a great fit.
"The thing that hits my brain is 'Right place, right time' when I think about Rashod Bateman here with the Ravens," Roman said. "Because I think he brings a style that is really going to complement the guys who are here right now."
Harbaugh told reporters at Baltimore's rookie minicamp that he has been impressed by what he has seen from Bateman so far:
"Impressions are very positive. He's a no-nonsense guy, has a nice demeanor about him. He's a quick learner. He's everything we thought he would be in terms of athleticism, the skill set. That's usually the case, but not always the case. What you see is not always what you get. You don't know until you get them out there, in really the first rookie minicamp. And I would say that he is as advertised from a talent standpoint."
In the fourth round, the Ravens also added Oklahoma State's Tylan Wallace, a hard-nosed downfield threat who piled up 3,316 receiving yards in Stillwater the past three years.
It's not the loaded receiver corps of the Buccaneers. Or even the wideout room of Baltimore's hated rivals in Pittsburgh. But the Ravens now have a youngster capable of becoming a true No. 1 in Bateman, a vertical threat in third-year pro Marquise Brown and a veteran target underneath in Watkins.
Oh, and fourth-year tight end Mark Andrews is supposed to be pretty good, too.
Baltimore's 16th-ranked offensive line from a year ago isn't markedly better in 2021, but it also isn't substantially worse. After losing Marshal Yanda to retirement last year, the Ravens brought in a capable veteran guard in Kevin Zeitler in March. The departed Orlando Brown Jr. was replaced at right tackle by Alejandro Villanueva, who was actually a slightly better pass protector last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
As he usually does, general manager Eric DeCosta has done a good job of building the roster, putting pieces in place around Jackson.
Now it's on Jackson.
Yes, some of his slippage statistically a year ago (his completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns, passing yards per game and passer rating all fell) can be attributed to receivers who struggled at times to get open. But that wasn't the whole reason. There were off-balance and inaccurate throws, missed reads and plays downfield that could have been made but weren't because Jackson pulled down the rock and took off.
Also, as Jonas Shaffer reported for the Baltimore Sun, Jackson continued to struggle last year when throwing the ball outside the numbers, even when there weren't pass-rushers in his face:
"On drop-backs without pressure, among qualifying quarterbacks, only Dwayne Haskins Jr. had a lower passer rating than Jackson (78.1) last season on throws outside the numbers, according to SIS. Jackson finished with four touchdowns, four interceptions and a 64.8% completion rate.
"For the past two years, he has been among the NFL's least efficient quarterbacks on those no-pressure, out-wide throws. Among 30 potential 2021 starters, Jackson ranks 26th in Expected Points Added per drop-back, which measures the value of a play by accounting for its down, distance and yards to goal. According to SIS, the only qualifying quarterbacks worse than him were not esteemed company: Andy Dalton, Drew Lock, Sam Darnold and Tua Tagovailoa."
Jackson has to get better in all those areas. His outside passes need to be more accurate, and when he breaks contain, he needs to keep his eyes downfield and hit open receivers when coverage breaks down.
That's where chunk plays in the passing game are born.
Part of Jackson's success in 2019 was based on unfamiliarity. He's a unique talent, and he caught opponents off guard. But as we saw in the playoffs the last two years, defenses are starting to figure it out: Take away the throws over the middle and the scrambling lanes outside, and Jackson struggles.
That has to change. He needs to adjust to those adjustments.
It can be done, as Jackson's natural ability and arm talent are jaw-dropping. It also has to be done if the Ravens are going to make the deep playoff run that has eluded them the past two years. The AFC North is the toughest division in the conference, and once you survive that gauntlet, powerhouses in Kansas City and Buffalo await.
As Shaffer wrote, Roman thinks the moves Baltimore has made this offseason pave the way for just such a run:
"There are definitely some things that we're doing right now to evolve, and there are definitely some things people are going to see from us that they haven't seen before. Our staff is working really hard and diligently on that for this upcoming season. When you really look at who you have to beat in the AFC these days, you've got to have talent everywhere. There are some really good teams out there, and I really feel great about what we're building here."
For that to occur and the Ravens to make it to Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI, Jackson is going to have to take full advantage of those additions, improve his own game and have another MVP-caliber campaign.