BALTIMORE — Lamar Jackson was not a particularly effective outside-the-numbers passer in 2019, when he was the NFL’s best quarterback and the Ravens won 14 games. Last season, Jackson’s second as a full-time starter, his range was even more limited. And still sometimes it did not matter.
In a Week 9 game against the Colts, Jackson threw 23 passes, just five of which were outside the numbers. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards offered little run-game relief, combining for 53 yards on 23 carries. Hemmed in and bottled up, there was only so much the Ravens could do on offense — but what they did was enough. Jackson finished 19 for 23 for 170 yards, the defense forced two turnovers and returned a fumble for a touchdown, and the Ravens left Indianapolis with a gutsy 24-10 win.
Still, it was as if their field had shrunk on offense. At his end-of-season news conference in January, general manager Eric DeCosta said the Ravens “don’t want to be a team that’s forced to do anything.” In their passing game, limitations had become apparent. A throw over the middle was typically a good throw. Move the target to the sideline, however, and the results would suffer. The Ravens couldn’t put the ball where they wanted to, and defenses adjusted.
There is never a simple solution for such a complex problem. As a passer, Jackson can do more; he can also do only so much. He needs help — help that, over the past two months, the Ravens have tried to provide. In March, they signed wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a productive if injury-prone outside receiver. Then, in late April, they drafted Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace, whom the Ravens’ analytics department, DeCosta said, had identified as two of the top-10 outside receivers in the class. Now the team expects dividends from its considerable investments.
“When you add talent like that, it’s really, I think, going to kind of expand our profile quite a bit, actually, to play with the kind of balance that we really want to play with,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said after Bateman was taken No. 27 overall. “I really think it will probably take some pressure off some of the guys that have been here, like Marquise [’Hollywood’ Brown], and free him up a bit as well. The field is about 53 yards wide, and I think people are going to have to defend all 53 yards of it.”
Defenses didn’t have to worry much last season. The threat of a sideline shot from Jackson wasn’t unlike that of an Anthony Davis 3-pointer — sure, it might work out, but there were far more concerning options in play.
Maybe most troubling for the Ravens was Jackson’s drop-off from his Most Valuable Player-caliber 2019. According to Sports Info Solutions, on throws outside the numbers, his accuracy dipped from 64.7% to 59.7%, his interception rate more than doubled (to 3%), and his passer rating fell from 101.7 to 85.3. (The San Francisco 49ers’ Nick Mullens, by comparison, finished 27th in overall passer rating last season, at 84.1.)
Jackson, since his arrival in Baltimore, has always been more comfortable targeting the middle. As a rookie, his between-the-numbers passing was more efficient than incumbent Joe Flacco’s. In 2019, he finished behind only the Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill in passer rating there. Even last season, a year of ups and downs, he completed over 70% of his passes and passed for 18 touchdowns and five interceptions on middle-field attempts. His season-changing red-zone interception in the playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills was a grim exception to the rule.
Part of Jackson’s disappointing 2020 could be explained by the offensive line’s regression: According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens ranked first in pressure rate allowed in 2019 (21.7%); with guard Marshal Yanda retired and left tackle Ronnie Stanley missing over half of last season, they finished 25th (34.8%).
But that accounts for only so much of Jackson’s troubles with his outside passing. 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.