NFL

Baltimore Ravens: Receiver questions loom large after Lamar Jackson's step back

By Sports Desk March 31, 2021

The Baltimore Ravens entered the 2020 season out to silence the doubters having posted the NFL's best record in 2019 only to fall to a shock playoff defeat.

After a frenetic regular season that they ended with a five-game winning streak to reach the playoffs, the Ravens avenged that loss to the Tennessee Titans with a Wild Card Round win.

Yet they finished the campaign with more questions to answer in 2021 after the Ravens were throttled by the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round, exiting the postseason at the same stage as in 2019.

With a former league MVP calling the shots, the Ravens should be better equipped to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC, and those waiting for clear signs of progress in terms of their ability to truly contend for the Lombardi Trophy may be growing impatient.

What do the Ravens need to do in the remainder of the offseason to ensure they are set up to challenge for a third Super Bowl title in 2021? We used Stats Perform data to answer that question by analysing their 2020 performance and their moves in free agency.

Offense

Regression from Lamar Jackson was always likely after his spectacular 2019 season that saw him named as the league MVP.

His completion percentage dropped from 66.1 to 64, his net yards per passing play from 7.13 to 6.41 and his touchdown percentage from 9.0 to 6.9.

Meanwhile, Jackson's interceptions increased from six to nine and he was slightly less effective as a runner, his yards per carry average falling from 6.9 to 6.3.

Yet even with Jackson's drop-off from MVP form, the Ravens still finished 10th in yards per play with 5.85, with his abilities with his legs helping Baltimore finish first in rushing yards per play with 5.53.

Where the Ravens continue to have issues, however, is in making explosive plays down the field in the passing game.

Jackson had 37 pass plays of 20 yards or more in his 15 regular-season games in 2020, putting him 20th in the NFL.

His passer rating on throws of 21 or more air yards (89.1) was 17th among quarterbacks to have attempted at least 25 such throws.

The Ravens' passing game was not helped by protection issues, with Jackson sacked on 7.16 per cent of his drop backs, the 11th-highest rate among quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks.

Baltimore did not waste time in making a move to address the weaknesses that were apparent on the offensive line in 2020.

However, if their offense is to jump from top 10 to top five in 2021, Jackson will improved support from a receiving corps that featured just one wide receiver (Marquise Brown - 769) who topped 500 yards in 2020.

In an increasingly imposing division, Baltimore must give their AFC North rivals more reason to fear their aerial attack.

Defense

The offense may have taken a step back, but the Ravens stayed consistent in terms of being one of the better defenses in the NFL.

Having allowed 5.22 yards per play in 2019 - good for 11th in the NFL - Baltimore finished seventh in that same category in 2020 with an average of 5.19.

That marginal improvement was largely a product of the Ravens' strength against the pass. Baltimore gave up 5.57 yards per pass play, with only three teams conceding fewer. 

However, the Ravens were substantially more susceptible to the run game.

Opponents put up 4.55 yards per carry against the Ravens, well above the average for playoff teams of 4.19.

Additionally, while playoff teams gave up an average of 44 rushes of 10 yards or more, the Ravens conceded 50, bettering the league-wide rate of 51 by the finest of margins.

Yet the Ravens' defense should remain in the top half of the NFL if it continues to excel at limiting opposing passing attacks.

Only seven teams forced more negative passing plays than the Ravens (51), with Matt Judon's ability to pressure the quarterback and some stellar play in the secondary contributing to that tally.

Judon led the team with 21 quarterback hits while Marcus Peters recorded four interceptions and Marlon Humphrey led all cornerbacks with eight forced fumbles to go with his 11 pass breakups.

But with Judon and Yannick Ngakoue each heading for pastures new, the Ravens will need to reinforce their defensive front if their pass defense is to be as effective in 2021. 

Offseason

The Ravens will see Ngakoue go against them when they face the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021 while Judon will attempt to help the Patriots enjoyed a bounce-back year after signing a lucrative deal in New England.

Baltimore is unlikely to miss either of them given the Ravens' proclivity for successfully developing pass rushers.

Their faith in their own ability in that regard was illustrated by the four-year, $22million contract handed to Tyus Bowser, who had only two sacks last year but whose 27.5 combined knockdowns and hurries were just nine fewer than the tally of Judon, who played 20 more defensive snaps.

An increased role for Bowser, along with the infusion of some rookie depth, could help the Ravens fill the void left by Ngakoue and Judon.

On the other side of the trenches, head coach John Harbaugh will have been delighted to land guard Kevin Zeitler, who was signed after being released by the New York Giants. Zeitler, who has not allowed more than two sacks since 2014, should improve Baltimore's interior protection.

Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr's desire to seek a trade so he can play left tackle may force Baltimore to prioritise the offensive line in the draft, and wide receiver should still be prominent on their to-do list despite the signing of veteran Sammy Watkins on a one-year deal.

Watkins is still a dependable third receiver but his career-low yards per reception average of 11.4 in 2020 hinted at declining big-play upside. A rookie who can be an immediate focal point of the offense is a must in the draft.

The slight step back Jackson experienced in 2020 may not have come as a shock, but there will be significant questions asked of those running the Ravens if it carries into 2021.

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