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Backs Get Involved in the Passing Game – More to Come?

Lamar Jackson throwing against the Bengals
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Welp: that was brutal.

There’s not much interesting in the Ravens’ stats from the lopsided loss to Cincy. One funny thing I noticed though: as a stats guy, I’m always struck by how game context can make stats look surprisingly distorted. When you look at Lamar Jackson’s stats from this game, and compare it to his stats vs the Chargers – his Cincy stats look better. Against Cincy Lamar had 8.3 yards per attempt, a TD with no INTs, and a passer rating of 80; against the Chargers Lamar had only six yards-per with two INT, and a passer rating of only 60. The stats in Week 7 are distinctly better.

But if you actually watched both games, against the Chargers Lamar looked in-command, navigating the pocket, throwing guys open, picking his spots to run, moving the chains. His actual game was much better than his stats. Against the Bengals, Lamar was under pressure, sacked five times, and couldn’t pick up first downs. His game was worse than his stats. You’d have to look deeper to find stats that tell the true story: sacks, success rate, first downs, etc. There’s a lesson here about small sample sizes, and the importance of looking at the actual game flow, and so forth.

In keeping with a glass-half-full attitude, I’m looking for something nice to say about the receiving stats for the game. Maybe this: again the Ravens spread the ball around, with nine targeted players. Five players with three or more targets. This makes four straight games the Ravens have used eight or more pass-catchers. That’s something. Diversity is good for the passing game.

If you’re looking for a bright spot, it’s right there at the top of the chart: Rashod Bateman got his first career start (he came off the bench last week), and had a very productive/efficient day. None of his catches went for less than 20 yards. He again showed great deceptiveness to get open, and nice evasiveness after the catch.

Bateman & Marquise Brown are a great example of why we have to include targets when we look at receiving stats. Both of them had 80 receiving yards on the day, plus Marquise had the TD, so by gross stats you might think that their production was about the same on the day; with maybe Brown’s slightly higher. But target data changes the story. It took 14 attempts to get Marquise his 80 yards; nine incomplete passes went toward him. Bateman had the better day.

The top two running backs, Ty’Son Williams & Devonta Freeman, combined to go five-for-five for 49 yds (9.8 per target). The passing game out of the backfield was working, which makes me wonder if the Ravens should have done more of it. They invested a lot of work this past offseason on using running backs in the passing game, to maximize JK Dobbins. Dobbins is unavailable, but it looks like Williams & Freeman can fill some of that role.

Cincinnati had Mark Andrews & Marquise Brown pretty well bottled-up: 6.1 yards-per-target combined, and Lamar was only able to complete eight of 21 (38%) passes to them. But Lamar & the Ravens eventually found enough “secondary” targets – Ty’Son & Freeman & Devin Duvernay & Josh Oliver were targeted 11 times in total – to demonstrate that there are useful options.  That could help in later games.

At the bottom of the chart – did Le’Veon Bell look slow to you? In previous games I thought he ran well, even though the stats weren’t there; showed some wiggle, and good contact balance to get a little more out of a play than was blocked. This was different. He looked old and slow, to me. His season receiving stats are dismal.

My unprofessional impression at the bye is that the top six guys on the chart (James Proche through Ty’Son) have produced pretty well as receivers, and throw Devonta Freeman in there too since running backs tend to have lower yards-per-target than other positions. The players lower down have not contributed much in the passing game so far (though that’s probably not fair to Latavius Murray, who’s caught four of five passes thrown his way).

Here’s a concern: only three Ravens have caught TD passes. They need more options than that. Nick Boyle has been someone Lamar has found in the red zone before; his return might help some. The much maligned Miles Boykin has also been useful in the red zone before; his TD rate (TDs per target) is by far the highest of any current Raven. Probably Bateman will be good in the red zone, as he starts to get chances.

Brown & Andrews are still among the NFL’s top 15 in receiving yards (7th & 14th). Marquise is on pace for about 1300 yards (in 16 games), Andrews for about 1200. Still looks like a Pro Bowl season for Andrews.

Lamar is still in the league’s Top Ten for passing yards (7th), and he’s 5th in yards-per-attempt. If that holds up through the second half of the season, a lot of the “not a quarterback” whispers will die down.

Next up: Bye!  I’m not looking forward to stewing on this loss for two weeks, and I’m sure the players aren’t either. But big picture, 5-2 at the bye with a share of first place in the division, is a hell of an accomplishment for a team as devastated by injury as these Ravens have been.

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