All you had to do was scroll through Twitter or peruse the comments section of any article about the Baltimore Ravens’ divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans to see the strong takes.
“Lamar Jackson folds in the playoffs.”
“The way that the Ravens play won’t work in the playoffs.”
“Great regular-season team, can’t produce when the defenses tighten up in the playoffs.”
It’s true that the Ravens have lost their first playoff game in each of the last two seasons and that this season’s loss was tougher to swallow given how dominant they were over their 12-game winning streak heading into the game against Tennessee. And yes, Jackson didn’t look like the MVP-caliber quarterback who tore through defenses during the regular season. The flashes were there, but too many mistakes and inaccurate passes came along with them.
That doesn’t mean that there is a fundamental problem with this Ravens team, one that will prevent them from winning in the future. They’re built to suit their strengths, and they led it with one of the most forward-thinking coaching staffs in the NFL; they made decisions that went against conventional thinking to give their team a better chance to win games. That was a winning strategy in 2019, and it will be a winning strategy in 2020, postseason included.
Ravens were most efficient running and passing
Setting the single-season rushing record isn’t going to fly under the radar for the Ravens, but it wasn’t just a result of the volume with which they ran. The Ravens’ expected points added per running play was over four times that of the next closest team, and it would have ranked higher than 20 passing offenses in the league. They had volume and efficiency.
Jackson played a big role in that, earning PFF’s highest rushing grade regardless of position and picking up first downs or touchdowns on a ridiculous 38 percent of his rushing attempts.
Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram also ranked in the top 10 among players with 100 or more carries in first down/touchdown percentage, as 35 percent and 26 percent of their rushes, respectively, ended up moving the chains. That’s how you get a rushing offense that is more efficient than over half of the league’s passing offenses.
Concealed by the fact that they passed for only 3,350 yards in the regular season (29th among NFL offenses), the Ravens also owned the league’s best EPA per play on passing plays. They were the only team to pass on fewer than 50 percent of their plays on the year, but when they did pass, no team was better. Their first-place ranking was a massive improvement over where they were a season ago — 21st in the NFL.
Jackson’s growth as a passer paired with a scheme that utilized more play-action than any other in the league made that possible.
The middle of the field was Jackson’s playground when he dropped back to pass. When throwing between the numbers, he recorded a league-best passer rating (133.3), a top-five mark in yards per attempt (9.8) and a whopping 23 touchdown passes. No other quarterback tallied more than 15 TDs between the numbers this season.
An offense that was more efficient than any other in the league doesn’t appear to be an offense that is ill-suited for the playoffs. Just several weeks ago, we were calling it unstoppable.
Great offenses can have bad performances, and that’s what happened to Baltimore this past weekend. I would still bet on them if that game were to be replayed, and I’d be willing to bet on them in 2020.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman did an outstanding job this season at maximizing the roster’s talent. Coaching matters, and with him not moving on to fill one of the head coaching vacancies elsewhere, he should be back to scheme up more success in 2020.
We still don’t know enough about Lamar Jackson playing from behind
In the regular season, the Ravens ran just 198 offensive plays when trailing. That was fewer than every other team in the NFL by 65. When looking at potential ways to slow the Ravens’ offense, PFF’s Kevin Cole found that the Ravens exceeded expectations when their expected win probability was at 25 percent or higher, but they performed below expectations when their expected win probability dipped down below 25 percent. In other words, they weren’t a great team when they got behind, but they were better than every other team in the NFL at not getting behind and maintaining leads.
The Ravens nearly ran half as many plays from behind (85) in the divisional round as they did in 16 regular-season games. The Titans were able to jump to an early lead and control it for the entire game with the Ravens’ offense failing to exert the same dominance that Baltimore showed all season.
It’s a small sample size, but Jackson was significantly worse when the Ravens got behind this season. Including the playoffs, he went from an overall grade of 92 when tied or leading, first among 32 qualifying quarterbacks, to an overall grade of 68.2 that ranked 17th when trailing.
At the risk of sounding like Booger McFarland, it’s different playing with a lead. Teams that are behind tend to press and can get taken away from what they like to do. It’s difficult to draw conclusions from a sample as small as the Ravens’ this season, but it appears that could be the case with Baltimore. Through two seasons, Jackson hasn’t displayed a reliable ability to bring his teams back from behind, just like Patrick Mahomes did against the Houston Texans last week or like Russell Wilson has shown on multiple occasions.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be that guy. We saw Jackson take a big leap from 2018 to 2019, and he could make a similar progression in 2020. Even if he doesn’t, he is still an unbelievable talent who led the best offense in the NFL this season and is going to win MVP in just his second season of play. It’s time to pump the brakes on saying that he can’t win a playoff game with how he plays.
The Ravens don’t have to make wholesale changes this offseason; in all likelihood, they just need to run it back to be back in this position again next year. And when they do get there, they should have no qualms with Jackson behind center.
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