Friday, January 28, 2022

Ravens have winning formula with Lamar Jackson: Can they withstand his biggest flaw to reach the Super Bowl?

BALTIMORE — John Harbaugh couldn’t stop raving about the defensive clinic his team put on Sunday night. The Baltimore Ravens held the Cleveland Browns — the NFL‘s top-ranked rushing attack — to just 40 yards (the lowest in a game under Kevin Stefanski), forced two fumbles, and pressured Baker Mayfield 18 times in a dominant performance. 

Baltimore held Cleveland to 10 points, despite the four interceptions thrown by Lamar Jackson. The Ravens defense continued to frustrate the Browns and what they were trying to execute on offense, showcasing their power in the AFC North. Baltimore is going to be a tough out in the AFC and a Super Bowl contender — again. 

Yet the same issue persists with the Ravens in Year 4 of the Jackson era: Can the Ravens win the Super Bowl with Jackson’s arm instead of his legs?

It’s no secret Jackson is the most dynamic athlete on the field and the hardest player to contain. Even in a four-interception night, the Ravens quarterback still made the play necessary — a 13-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews — that helped the Ravens seal a 16-10 victory over Cleveland. That’s the aspect of Jackson’s game that’s so frustrating for opposing defenses, especially against a defense that has allowed 16 points or less in five of their last six games. 

Can Jackson’s arm carry the Ravens past the divisional round of the playoffs, even if Baltimore gets the lone bye in the conference? Jackson’s passing numbers are not exactly where they’ve been the previous two years. His 64.2% completion rate is his lowest in a full season as a starting quarterback while his touchdown rate of 4.4% is a career-low and interception rate of 3.5% is a career-high. 

Jackson has averaged 261.2 passing yards per game (by far a career-high) as the Ravens have been more reliant on his arm with the season-ending injuries to their top-two running backs, but he already has 12 interceptions through 10 games — his first double-digit interception season. The same questions remain regarding Jackson as they did when Baltimore was blown out by Tennessee in the 2019 AFC divisional playoffs. 

No matter the mistakes, Jackson vows to correct them. Harbaugh seems to be okay working through his quarterback’s flaws, knowing the potential reward.

“Lamar is a guy who makes so many plays for us,” Harbaugh said Sunday night. “The interceptions … One of them was tipped, whatever, but he wants those plays back. He’s mad about them. He’s a massive competitor, yet he doesn’t let it take control of him. Alright? He’s able to push it aside, and he’s able to play the next series and give you great football. 

“It’s really a rare trait. To me, that’s one of the things that makes him the quarterback that he is. That’s why I’m so excited that he’s on our team, one of the reasons.”  

Jackson is still on pace for his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, extending his NFL record for a quarterback. Those numbers are also down too, as his yards per carry average is “only” 5.7 (the lowest of his career) while he’s rushed for two touchdowns — a career-low. The Ravens are also relying on Jackson’s legs more, as the 70.7 rushing yards per game are a career-high. 

Baltimore needed every bit of Jackson’s arm and legs, in spite of the turnovers, to win a hard-fought game against Cleveland. Jackson is the key that makes the Ravens offense go, making Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews valuable threats in the passing game. His presence creates hole for Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray in the running game — two aging backs that are having resurgent seasons thanks to the zone-read scheme and Jackson’s ability to create a big play at any time. 

This formula has worked well for the Ravens over the past three years, The Ravens are second in the NFL in points per game (29.3) while being the only team to rush for 8,000 yards since the start of the 2019 season (no other team has more than 7,000) — averaging 5.31 yards per carry. Baltimore has allowed the second-fewest points (19.2 points per game) and third-fewest rushing yards in the league (96.7 per game) since the start of 2019, along with the sixth-fewest yards (326.6 per game). 

Baltimore has won 33 games since the start of that season. Their 33-10 record (.767 win percentage) is the second-best in the NFL, on par with the Kansas City Chiefs and just behind the Green Bay Packers (35-9). Regardless, the Ravens have just one playoff win to show for it. 

The biggest concern with the Ravens still exists — and will only be magnified in the coming weeks. Baltimore will rely on Jackson to take them as far as he can, even if he doesn’t have the numbers he’s accustomed to having. 

They’ll ride or die with Jackson, banking the same formula that wins games in the regular season takes them toward greater postseason success. 

“We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better in every aspect, but we’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Andrews said. “We believe, we trust each other, and we’re going to come each and every day to work, to get better, just trying to be the best team we can be. 

“I think if we do that throughout these weeks, we’re going to reap the benefits of that. It all leads to No. 8. He does everything. He’s the head honcho, and we’re all just trying to play off him.”

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