Even if this is as good as it gets, even if Lamar Jackson’s statistically modest 13-of-19 for 150 yards and one interception performance is a harbinger of weeks to come, the Ravens may have found the best solution for the remainder of the season.
Jackson started in place of the injured Joe Flacco and led the Ravens to a 24-21 win over the Bengals. Flacco has been the starter for 11 years, and it can be tough for a franchise to replace a QB who won them a Super Bowl, but the Ravens can’t go back to him now.
Right now in the NFL, the worst thing you can have is a middling offense without a run-threat option behind center—especially if that offense lacks a true No. 1 wideout who can consistently beat top-tier defensive backs on the outside. Offenses have changed the landscape by figuring out how to bring the passer back into the equation. By making football 11-on-11 again, instead of 11-on-10, we’ve seen scoring records go down at a record pace.
Creative minds who can take advantage of these mismatches are rolling. Or, without transcendent personnel, at least surviving.
On Sunday, the Ravens scored on their opening drive without attempting a pass. Their run-pass ratio was 51-to-19, reminiscent of a call sheet that once got Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg labeled as passive aggressive during his time with the Jets. Now, with an the added option flare and a bit of ingenuity, it’s smart football.
At the least, the Ravens can be the NFL’s Navy, or Army or Air Force Academy. They can be tough to prepare for. They can mold an offense that plays more effectively to their defense. They can suck up almost 40 minutes of possession time like they did against the Bengals this week, with Jackson running it 27 times for 117 yards. They can be a pothole in the middle of everyone else’s season. Ask any coach who has to prepare for an option-heavy team with good backs and a smart quarterback and they’ll tell you almost universally: It sucks.
Their remaining schedule is advantageous to that strategy. Take a look at the teams left, with their respective ranks against the run and in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
• Oakland Raiders: (30th against the run, 29th in DVOA)
• Atlanta Falcons: (21st against the run, 32nd in DVOA)
• Kansas City Chiefs: (22nd against the run, 25th in DVOA)
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers: (15th against the run, 31st in DVOA)
• Los Angeles Chargers: (18th against the run, 11th in DVOA)
• Cleveland Browns: (27th against the run, 8th in DVOA)
And this is assuming Jackson remains static. That the Ravens would not evolve around him and the offense would not grow as he grows. Of course that won’t happen. As we said throughout the preseason, Jackson seems to elevate over the course of every game. In the third quarter Sunday, down by eight points, Jackson converted a second-and-17 deep in Baltimore territory on a pass to Willie Snead, eventually leading to an 8-point touchdown drive. He was whipping sidearm passes to curve around oncoming defenders. On the move, he was plugging fastballs into his tight end’s hands just before the sideline.
He did not seem to be bothered by the laundry list of Bengals who made it a priority to jab him while running out of bounds on every designed run.
The AFC North can be quicksand. The more Pittsburgh forces teams to play to their style and personnel, the easier it seems for the rest of the division to pile in behind them, slowly losing their footing as the season wanes. What we saw from Baltimore on Sunday was different. It was something that a lot of teams on their schedule aren’t equipped to handle from here. It was draining.
And that was only, really, the beginning.
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