…head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman re-organise the team’s playbook. Or at least open it up a bit.
Quite a bit.
OK, so the Baltimore Ravens were playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who remained perfect for the 2020 NFL season with a 19-14 win at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in a game that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said his team played… well, substandard.
And Harbaugh’s team was missing superstar starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, out due to the coronavirus, along with three teammates currently on the COVID-19 list.
And also missing starting running back Mark Ingram and starting wide receiver Willie Snead, among a total of nine total starters – counting Jackson – on either side of the line of scrimmage.
And the Ravens and Steelers finally got around to playing, six days and three COVID-mandated postponements later, after the teams’ original Thanksgiving night fixture was stymied by a COVID-19 outbreak.
By? Guess who? Yes, the Ravens’ camp.
But enough excuses.
Truth is, over the last several weeks, despite having the reigning NFL MVP at the controls – before Jackson’s falling afoul of that virus – Baltimore’s offence had never looked all that great, relying too much on the run-pass options from Jackson’s legs and arm, in that order.
And without him? They looked worse, despite the prospect of having another former Heisman Trophy winner – and experienced NFL quarterback – in Robert Griffin III at the helm.
Ahead of the game against the all-conquering Steelers, Jackson had led the Ravens to nine touchdowns over the last four games, passing for five of those touchdowns, running for another, while also throwing two interceptions.
Jackson also averaged only 203 yards passing and 57 yards rushing out of Roman’s offensive schemes around Jackson’s RPO’s, as the team averaged nearly 24 points per outing over games in November.
Not exactly setting those games alight, as the Ravens went 1-3 in that span.
Alas, against the Steelers, Griffin was even worse.
The former Washington and Cleveland quarterback led the Ravens on a touchdown drive in the opening quarter, but only threw for a mere 33 yards on 7-of-12 passing and ran for 68 yards on seven carries before exiting the game midway through the third quarter with a hamstring injury.
The gimpy Griffin made way for Trace McSorley, holder of many passing records in college at Penn State but without a passing attempt in the NFL to his name entering the game, and did his best to rally the Ravens, throwing for 77 yards and a touchdown pass on 2-of-6 passing, and 16 yards on three rushes.
McSorley’s touchdown pass, to be fair, was more to the credit of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s running after taking a pass from the third-string quarterback on a 15-yard “hitch” route, and did the rest of the work.
It also accounted for 70 of McSorley’s 77 yards passing.
And – probably more to the point of how sluggish their offence was, minus Jackson – it accounted for the Ravens’ only first down on a downfield pass.
For the entire game. One first down converted, via a pass.
“Hollywood” Brown, as he showed on that touchdown, can be a gamebreaker when given the chance – which isn’t often.
Even less frequent has been getting Dez Bryant involved in the Ravens’ attack – as the ex-Dallas Cowboys deep threat has only played two previous games, and a total number of 37 snaps between them, since the Ravens added him to their extended roster in late October.
Looking at the Ravens’ wide receivers’ statistical outputs for 2020, through eleven games:
Brown – 36 catches, 516 yards, three touchdowns
Snead – 28 receptions, 379 yards, three touchdowns
Devin Duvernay – 18 receptions, 199 yards, no touchdowns
Bryant (in limited duty) – four catches, 28 yards, no touchdowns
One can argue that “Action” Jackson needs better weapons – and he does – but where’s the tendency to actually go downfield?
Case in point: Bryant was targeted twice by Griffin, and had no catches. So Harbaugh and Roman stopped calling plays that would have seen him catch passes in good positions.
Is this any way to set up your gamebreakers, and those who can assist the likes of Jackson, Griffin, or even McSorley?
At 6-5 after the loss to the Steelers, perhaps it’s time to change that, even with Jackson’s multi-faceted threats.
Lamar Jackson is never going to be a traditional pocket passer. Not his style – we get that. But he has a strong enough arm to hit targets 15, 20, 30 yards downfield, and greater.
Give him credit for that. Allow him to make plays with his arm first, and his feet second, not the other way around.
Harbaugh’s defence, it’s strong – but it’s not good enough to win games on its own.
With five games remaining – home against the Cowboys, away to the Browns, home against Jacksonville and the New York Giants, and finishing up against the Bengals in Cincinnati – it’s time to take chances.