Can Baltimore’s lagging passing game catch up to its running game this season?

·Senior NFL writer
·6 min read

The Baltimore Ravens embarrassed defenses last season. In an era that is all about the pass, the Ravens rode Lamar Jackson’s electricity and Greg Roman’s creative play-calling to build the league’s most prolific offense in 2019, all centered on the threat of a powerful run game and play-action off that.

Even after a COVID-19-affected offseason that cost defenses valuable practice reps, few saw a slowdown coming this season. Not with Jackson, the reigning MVP, Roman and 10 starters from last year’s offense back. Given the lack of practice time and preseason games, how were defenses supposed to tackle these guys?

Yet, now that we’re midway though the season, it’s clear that in retrospect, there was one problem with that line of thinking: the Ravens’ offense needed that offseason work, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong — Baltimore is still a rock-solid 6-2, and it will definitely make the playoffs. The Ravens still have a stout defense that forces turnovers with regularity, and their rushing offense, while not overwhelming like last year, is still very good, ranking fifth in DVOA (after finishing first in 2019).

Yet, the same cannot be said for the passing offense, which has plummeted to 23rd in DVOA in 2020 after ranking first in 2019. The dissection of this had understandably become a thing this week, especially after Jackson admitted Wednesday that defenses are getting a handle on some of their offensive concepts pre-play.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson plays during an NFL game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was the unanimous MVP last season, but somehow, the Ravens' passing game has taken a step back in 2020. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

“They’re calling out our plays, stuff like that,” Jackson told “The Rich Eisen Show.” “They know what we’re doing. Sometimes stuff won’t go our way if they’re beating us to the punch.”

Jackson’s admission made waves, but it didn’t surprise me very much. Under any circumstances, it was always going to be a lock that defensive coordinators would spend all offseason grinding the tape for weaknesses and tendencies, leading to some inevitable regression from the offense. It happens all the time with great offenses. That’s why so often, when quarterbacks have career years, there’s regression the next year.

It happened with the 1999 Vikings, who scored 157 fewer points than the year before (Randy Moss’ unstoppable rookie season).

It happened with the 2008 Patriots, who scored 179 fewer points than the year before (Tom Brady’s magical 50-touchdown season).

It even happened with the 2019 Chiefs, who also scored 114 fewer points than the year before (Patrick Mahomes’ John Wick-like MVP season).

Ravens’ o-line regression, same passing concepts are problem

Add that inevitable regression to a worse offensive line, which badly misses All-Pro right guard and future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda (he retired before the season), and while the regression of the passing game in Baltimore is disappointing, it’s not necessarily shocking, likely not even to Roman.

“Calling out plays on the defense is nothing new. I can talk about Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, every play, they’re trying to guess what play you’re going to run based on what they’re seeing. That’s the chess match,” Roman said Thursday. “That’s kind of where it gets interesting, because if you’re not good at anything, you have no tendencies. So, you really want to work to be good at everything.”

The Ravens are good at running the football, and while teams are taking steps to account for it, it says plenty that the Ravens still have the league’s fifth-best rush offense despite it.

But as for the passing game, well ... yeah, it needs more work. Baltimore, like most teams who are enjoying the benefit of continuity, has leaned mainly on the same concepts it bludgeoned defenses with last season. Those defenses are much more prepared for it this season, often packing the middle of the field and forcing Jackson to throw outside the numbers.

The primary way that great NFL offenses counter defenses having a better grip on their tendencies is by diversifying their plays. But altering a passing game isn’t all that simple, especially when a team misses dozens of OTA practices due to a pandemic.

“If you’re in the best possible situation, you can do basic things very well and people still can’t stop you,” Roman explained. “I think that’s what you’re always striving to do, but that doesn’t always work in the NFL. That doesn’t work all the time; you have to change it up.”

Indeed, and with Jackson’s comments making national waves before a Sunday night game against the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick, now would be a great time to try.

The loss of starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley and starting right guard Tyre Phillips won’t make things easier, and yes, it’s also important to recognize that the Ravens have almost as many drops through eight games this season (nine) as they had all of last season (10). Every member of the Ravens’ offense, player and coach alike, can do more to help the passing offense get out of its slump.

Lamar Jackson still has enough talent to win a Super Bowl

Roman is a competent offensive coordinator, and as such, he holds the key to jump-starting this whole thing again. With his name constantly being floated for head coach openings, now would be a great time to shut down talk about the Ravens’ struggling passing offense, which is why some adjustments are likely coming. Baltimore has had success using a more up-tempo style in spots, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Roman starts mixing that in a little more to keep defenses on their heels, for instance.

The biggest reason I’m confident the Ravens can get their passing game figured out in a significant way — if not this year, then next year for sure — is Jackson. Don’t jump off the Jackson train yet, folks. You might be setting yourself up to look silly in the long run.

Now, does the reigning MVP need to continue to improve as a passer? Yes, and he’s even told me as much. His accuracy needs to improve. But he’s also the same motivated, dynamic threat he always was, the same guy who loves football and wants to be great.

Plus at 23 years old, he’s still among the league’s youngest starting quarterbacks, so his best football is ahead of him.

The Ravens can absolutely win a Super Bowl with Jackson, and I look forward to watching him prove it one day. When that day comes, I bet we’ll likely look at the midway point of the 2020 season as a slight bump in the road, one where Jackson himself says he gained even greater motivation to get better.

Still, NFL teams have to live in the moment. And right now, Roman possesses the keys to making sure the current moment remains nothing more than a bump for his still-developing star quarterback.

“We’re very aware of our tendencies,” Roman said. “We’re aware that there are some now, and that’s, again, where it gets interesting. When you’re good at something and you can keep pressing that button, then you have the opportunity to flip the script at some point moving forward.”

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