The Baltimore Ravens always seem to click at just the right time to make a late-season playoff run. Last season, an injury-depleted team finally got healthy enough to become a Super Bowl-caliber squad.
This year? It’s the recent offensive improvement that is giving the Ravens hope of making the playoffs yet again, making it six years in a row.
For the defending champions, the offensive line is beginning to look serviceable, the running game is slowly improving and the wide receivers are stepping up their game at just the right time.
One receiver who has finally had the light bulb turn on in recent weeks is Jacoby Jones. After a forgettable start to the season that included missing four games due to injury, Jones has quickly become one of Baltimore’s key offensive pieces.
Prior to Week 12 when the Ravens played the New York Jets, Jones’ highest receiving-yard total in a game was just 42. In the past two weeks, Jones has eclipsed the 42-yard mark twice, totaling 103 yards against the Jets and 53 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He is beginning to look like more than a deep threat for the Ravens, which is a promising sign. Jones is still the inconsistent receiver he has always been, but if the past two weeks are any indication of what is to come in December (and possibly January), Baltimore’s pass attack may be ready to take off, especially with the looming return of tight end Dennis Pitta.
Let’s take a look at how Jones has made an impact in the passing game in recent weeks.
All season, Jones has been his typical deep-threat self. The only problem is quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t been able to connect with Jones despite Jones getting past the entire defense.
Against the Jets, Jones’ well-documented touchdown showed what he is still capable of.
The Jets play zone coverage with two deep safeties – one of those safeties being Ed Reed. Translation: easy pickings for the Baltimore offense.
Jones easily splits the cornerback and Reed.
Neither cornerback Dee Milliner nor Reed are the fastest of defensive backs, and at this point, it’s all about Jones’ speed in order to get enough separation to make the play.
He gets just enough space between himself and the two defenders to make a play (with a little help from a poor effort by Reed).
Against zone defenses with poor safeties, there’s no better play in the playbook for the vertical-happy Ravens than a deep pass to Jones, his best route. When facing man-press coverage, he often fails to gain separation, which makes his speed useless.
But when facing soft coverage, all Jones has to do is be faster than the man in front of him, which he usually is.
Against the Steelers, Jones faced a one-on-one situation with cornerback William Gay, who gave Jones ample space off the line.
With no safety help on this play, it’s a prime opportunity to take on the slower Gay.
Jones feasts on the opportunity, easily slipping past Gay in enough time to give Flacco a prime opportunity for a touchdown.
BUT there’s one problem.
Flacco underthrows the ball, which falls incomplete. Usually these types of plays draw a pass interference call, which is just as good as a catch on some occasions. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Gay played the ball enough to not draw a penalty (AGAIN).
The purpose still persists, though, as yet again Jones beats the defense deep for a would-be touchdown. He’s become more of a sacrificial lamb instead of a touchdown machine however, as he has drawn more pass interference calls than he has caught touchdowns off his deep routes this season.
What has made Jones increasingly valuable in recent weeks are his contributions in the middle of the field.
Later in the game against the Steelers, Jones showed a high level of field awareness that he usually doesn’t display.
On a crucial third down, the Steelers free Jones up down the seam, where there is a defender waiting in the middle of the field.
The pocket collapses quickly on Flacco, which forces him to improvise.
Jones – a player who hasn’t shown the ability to reroute and keep his eyes on the quarterback to make a play regularly – would have usually been a non-factor at this point in the play.
However, he keeps his eyes on Flacco and successfully adjusts his route.
Jones then mirrors Flacco toward the sideline, where he makes the rare in-traffic, acrobatic catch to pick up 34 yards and a first down.
A rare and welcomed sure-handed play by Jones.
For Baltimore’s playoff run to continue chugging along, the offense will need crucial catches like this one in order to stay alive.
If the last two weeks are any indication of what’s to come for Jones, he may be in for a prime late-season performance.
As long as no coaches get in his way, of course.