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A Night of High Highs and Low Lows

Lamar Jackson Myles Garrett
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Well it wasn’t all flash and fireworks, but the Baltimore Ravens offense did just enough on Sunday night to pull off a key divisional victory against the Cleveland Browns in prime time. The most shocking part of this performance was that the win came in spite of Lamar Jackson having his worst game as a pro. The first half in particular was loaded with mistakes that, for all intents and purposes, should’ve put the Ravens in a much bigger hole going into the locker room.

Nonetheless, you never apologize for a victory against your most bitter rivals, especially one that had their Super Bowl ticket all but punched when we were discussing them in September (at least, if you asked the “experts”). This game played out rather interestingly, so rather than breaking down five plays in particular, this week it felt beneficial to change the formula a bit. We’ll touch on Jackson’s woes, give him his props on pulling the rabbit out of his hat, and then break down the eventual game-sealing drive of the day.

So, let’s get to it shall we?

Jackson’s Four Interceptions

There’s no denying that Sunday was the worst day of Lamar Jackson’s passing career in the NFL. Sure, we can look back at the playoff game his rookie year vs the Chargers, and Buffalo last year, but in no game so far has he given the opposition more chances to pile on than he did against Cleveland on Sunday. The Ravens were truly lucky that the defense has finally started to click, because this thing could’ve gotten ugly fast.

The defense had Cleveland dead to rights. They couldn’t get anything going whatsoever on the offensive side of the ball, and on numerous occasions put the ball on the turf resulting in turnovers. Had the offense put even just one of said turnovers into the end zone on the ensuing possessions, this game would’ve been firmly out of reach long before we had to worry about any game-sealing drives. Instead, Jackson would throw ugly interceptions three straight times that set the Browns up in excellent field position. Fortunately, they would only come up with three points total as a result.

On these throws, it was clear that he was looking Mark Andrews’ way right from the snap every time. If it’s that obvious to the average Joe sitting at home watching the game, it’s multiplied tenfold for the opposing defenders. It’s tough to explain his thought process on most of them, as Andrews was only technically even open on one of them (which Jackson threw behind him, into the arms of a diving defender). His last interception in the second half was just an underthrow that the defender made a great play on, so while we still have to mention it in this section, it was much less egregious than the first three.

Jackson now sits tied for second in the league with 12 interceptions, behind only Ryan Tannehill of the Tennessee Titans. In the first halves particularly, throwing the ball to the other team after the defense steps up has been an issue. We saw it against the Chargers following a turnover, again against Minnesota after the defense finally got their legs under them and made a big stop, and three of them on Sunday night. While the Ravens still came out victorious in all three of those games, eventually luck runs out. Something simply has to give, because a 14-3 halftime deficit after a key interception or two is a LOT harder to overcome in January than it is against Kirk Cousins in early November.

Coach Harbaugh is in a tricky spot, because like he’s alluded to, you never want to limit a player like Jackson knowing all of the tremendous things he can do. With that said, it doesn’t seem like the line between making your quarterback play a bit smarter, and completely taking away everything that makes him great, is razor thin.

With all the injuries on the offensive side of the ball, it’s understandable that Jackson feels like he has to play hero ball on every single snap. The only kicker is…he doesn’t. Not on nights when your defense is playing spectacular football, not when your only option is a triple covered tight end over the middle of the field. This isn’t an anti-Lamar PSA by any means though, so let’s get to the spectacular things he did on Sunday.

First Possession of Second Half

Now this was more like it. The Ravens came out of the halftime locker room clearly looking to make the first statement, and they did so in exciting fashion. It was a methodical drive down field, and undoubtedly their best of the evening. 10 plays, 75 yards, and a perfectly scripted mix of passes and runs to keep the Cleveland defense off balance. Even despite the running game not firing on all cylinders, the mere threat alone of the option run game forced the Browns to play a bit more carefully and give the Ravens small chunks of yardage in the process.

Then came the first of the two plays of the game. Jackson takes the shotgun snap on 3rd and 4 from just shy of the 50, and while scrambling towards the sideline throws up a prayer to the streaking Andrews 40 yards down the field.

Despite being completely draped all over by safety Ronnie Harrison, Andrews readjusts and keeps his frame between the defender and the ball, hauling it in with one hand in the process. The ball was placed perfectly by Jackson despite being thrown out of desperation. There aren’t too many quarterbacks who can make that kind of throw while drifting out of bounds, and it just goes to show that until the whistle is blown, the play is never over with #8 under center.

Then, just three plays later, we saw even more of Lamar being Lamar. On 3rd and 10 he takes the snap and immediately feels the rush from the Cleveland defense. He drifts back a good 10 yards to evade the incoming pass rushers, plants his feet, and lofts up a perfect ball to Andrews in the end zone to give the Ravens their lone touchdown of the day. Go figure, on a day where Jackson had his worst professional game through the air, he also has perhaps his most impressive drive of the year. The duality of Lamar…

Through 11 games, there isn’t a tight end in football who’s playing better than Mark Andrews. We’ve discussed how it appears that he’s put his issue with drops in the past, and this now makes three straight games where he’s made highlight reel one-handed catches to bail the Ravens out of down and distance situations. This is almost assuredly the reason why Jackson felt the need to force his interceptions into Andrews, but “our tight end is too good and I trust him to make plays no matter what” is a good problem for your quarterback to have. As long as Jackson can clean up the turnovers and not over-target #89 to a fault going forward, there’s no reason why Jackson-to-Andrews shouldn’t be looked at as the best QB-TE combination in football come the end of the year (sorry Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce).

Game-Sealing Q4 Drive

Up by six with 6:27 left to play in regulation, we finally once again saw a glimpse of the record-breaking rushing attack we’ve come to expect in the Jackson era. Against one of the best defensive fronts in football, the Ravens lined up their biggest guys on the Browns’ biggest guys and said “sorry, this is our game and you aren’t taking it from us.”

It started with a power run to the left for 11 yards from Jackson, and from there it was a slow grind. Devonta Freeman finally managed to find some room on this drive as well. He picked up nice yardage on two straight carries, including one first down, and almost ended the game completely later in the possession (if not for a Ben Powers holding call).

Marquise Brown also had a nice 10-yard grab for a first down that at first appeared would be short of the marker. Brown managed to slip through the tackle of Harrison, maintained his balance, and picked up the extra two yards he needed to move the chains. It was a quiet game for Brown overall, but all a player can do is what’s asked of them. This time it wasn’t a long bomb for a touchdown, but picking up the first down that would cause Cleveland to start using their timeouts was just as good in a game as tight as this. Against a patchwork Steelers secondary, he’s likely to return to his WR1 ways this weekend.

After the aforementioned holding call, the Ravens decided to play it safe with a couple handoffs to Freeman and another short pass over the middle to Brown. When you have the best kicker in football history, and a defense that’s playing lights out, sometimes Superman can take off his cape.

Props to Jackson for not trying to do too much on 3rd down. After a day of forcing passes and trying to do it all, he made the smart choice when it counted most and took the safe completion to set up the field goal attempt. With the Ravens up 6, and the Browns having to go the length of the field with just over one minute on the clock and no timeouts, this game was all but over. Sprinkle in a little defensive motivation from the press box courtesy of Ray Lewis on the ensuing drive, and the result was a 16-10 victory that has the Ravens once again sitting as the #1 seed in the AFC.

Wrap-Up

Hopefully now all of you fine readers can see why today’s breakdown was structured a bit differently than usual. Between the four interceptions, the two Jackson-to-Andrews connections on the touchdown drive, and the game-sealing offensive possession, it just felt as if these three specific aspects needed to be discussed in their entirety in order to fully paint the right picture. It was a lot to cover, but when you’re discussing a crucial inter-divisional victory it makes everything just a bit easier to digest.

Hopefully things will be a little more clear cut after Sunday’s tilt in Pittsburgh, but one thing we know about the AFC North is that it only tends to get messier as we progress towards the playoffs. We’ll see how it all shakes out from the giant ketchup bottle next time, as we break down the five most important plays from the Ravens offense…or something like that!

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