Ravens Pass Catchers Through 9 Weeks
It’s 2018 all over again!
Remember 2018? For Ravens fans, 2019 is the favorite recent season.
12-game win streak!
#1 seed in the playoffs!
League-leading scoring offense – a huge departure from anything Ravens fans have been accustomed to.
But 2018 is when the Lamar phenomenon started. Lamar took over as the Ravens starter after nine games, and led the team to a 6-1 record over their final seven games. Shoulda’ been seven wins: a ref swallowed a whistle in Kansas City when Chris Moore was interfered with in the end zone on an overtime bomb from Lamar.
Remember what the team played like in those games? Lamar said the following offseason that he wasn’t yet 100% comfortable with the verbiage in the playbook. They didn’t have a blazing deep threat like Marquise Brown. Mark Andrews was there but he was a rookie, not All-Pro. The Wide Receiver threats were Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead. What they could do was run the ball and play defense. Gus Edwards was averaging 93 yards per game on 5.4 yds-per-carry. Lamar was doing Lamar things.
And that defense!
Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon were all there to rush the passer. Each had 7+ sacks. The secondary included Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and the ageless Brandon Carr, along with Tony Jefferson and Co-Cap Anthony Levine. Tavon Young played 15 games at slot corner. They had Pro Bowlers at all three levels. Eric Weddle made the Pro Bowl at Free Safety. C.J. Mosley was manning the middle, and went to his 4th Pro Bowl. And Brandon Williams made the Pro Bowl on the D-line.
They possessed the ball for over 34 minutes per game during that streak – three of those games they were over 37 minutes. They gave up 17 points per game over that span. That number would be good for 5th-best in the league this year. They scored 25 points per game, which would rank 7th this year – a couple spots behind where the Ravens are now.
It was every old-school coach’s dream of “complementary football”. The opposing defense would get more and more gassed as the game went on, leading to more long drives. The opposing offense would get a little more spastic & urgent with each 5-minute stretch they spent sitting on the bench, watching the Ravens methodically march down the field for touchdowns. The Ravens pass-rushers would have fresh legs every time they came on the field.
We’ve been thinking that the Ravens as an organization were trying to recapture the magic of 2019. Were we wrong? It looks like Eric DeCosta & co have been trying to recapture the magic of 2018. Look at DeCosta’s trade deadline maneuvers the last few years: Marcus Peters, Yannick Ngakoue, Roquan Smith. The big free-agency acquisitions of Earl Thomas and Marcus Williams: meant to fill the Eric Weddle role? In 2021 DeCosta drafted Patrick Queen, who now gets to play the Patrick Onwuasor role next to Roquan Smith, in the Mosley role. The crowd of Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, Odafe Oweh & Tyus Bowser can do most of what Suggs, Za’Darius & Judon did. This year’s group of interior D-linemen are arguably better than in 2018. Marlon is Marlon. Marcus Peters is more of a playmaking ballhawk than steady Brandon Carr was. Kyle Hamilton is a versatile defensive weapon who is just scratching the surface of what he can do.
Last week I wrote, “The trade for Roquan Smith is a bid to reestablish the kind of Ravens defense we saw from 2008-11; or at least in 2018. It’s bold and ambitious.” Boy do I feel smart.
The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec pointed out how the Ravens wore down the Saints:
Another game where the Ravens wore down the opposing defense on the ground. They had 56 rushing yards at halftime. At the 2-minute warning, they have 135 rushing yards in this half alone.
— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) November 8, 2022
It’s been one of the most durable & consistent formulas for winning football games since the dawn of the sport: dominating defense, chain-moving run game, suffocating time of possession. It’s not 2019’s explosive scoring offense. Older-school than that.
Can they win in the playoffs? After all, it didn’t work so well in 2018.
It’s true that the Ravens got their butt handed to them in those playoffs. A creative Defensive Coordinator (Gus Bradley) who had already played (and lost to) the Ravens a few weeks before, devised a special game plan relying heavily on the unique talents of Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram & Derwin James. They dominated the Ravens interior OL, picking on Matt Skura & Bradley Bozeman. They rattled Lamar, who that day was the youngest QB in the history of the NFL to start a playoff game, to the tune of seven sacks and three fumbles.
One thing you may not remember is that when the Ravens finally went to the no-huddle (and were able to protect the QB a little), Lamar went off. In the 4th quarter of that game, Lamar threw for ~140 yds and 2 TDs. This was dismissed after the game as the Chargers just being in prevent. That’s not what I saw: and I guarantee that they didn’t WANT the Ravens to have the ball with about a minute to play and a chance to take the lead. If that game had gone on ~3 minutes longer, the Ravens would have won; or if Harbaugh & co. had gone to the 2-min drill just one possession earlier.
I absolutely would not expect a 2018-style meltdown if this team rode that same playing style into the postseason. For one thing, the QB is a 5th-year veteran passer, not a 21-yr-old rookie. For two, the specific weaknesses on the OL that the opponent exploited in 2018, have been shored-up. If you believe that an O-line is held back by the ability of its weakest players, that “floor” is much higher now that it was then. The Ravens interior OL is a strength. For three, I’d say the current Wide Receiver corps compares favorably to the 2018 group: 31-year-old Michael Crabtree, who retired after the next season; John Brown, who made business decisions the second half of that year and was under 4.0 yards-per-target with Lamar; and Snead, who honestly played his heart out but didn’t scare defenses. That team had rookie Andrews, who was a fine player; but he wasn’t the All-Pro he is now.
Can they win in the playoffs, if this is the way they play? I guess it depends on matchups. Troy Aikman said something insightful during the broadcast Monday night. He said the Ravens are a great team, but that the style of play leads to a lot of close games. You win, but you don’t really pull away. Bill Walsh used to say that a championship contender needs “enough offense to win games easily,” at least some of the games. If you’re letting games stay close when you’re winning, then that makes you vulnerable to any big play.
These Ravens ought to be able to stuff any wild card team, and have a great shot in a divisional game. The concern is a matchup with a truly explosive passing game: Buffalo, Miami, KC, Cincy after Ja’Marr Chase comes back. The NFL rules make it nearly impossible to hold a group like that in check for an entire game. If the Ravens still had Rashod Bateman, I’d feel more confident in their ability to go toe-to-toe with an explosive passing opponent in a shootout. Without Bateman, I don’t know if they have enough quick strike ability to weather the one or two sudden touchdowns that a team like that can surprise you with.
Speaking of 2018, let’s take a look at some passing mechanics. Check out this throw from Monday night:
"Young QBs don't watch that. That is not normal. … Lamar Jackson is different."
Peyton with some words of wisdom after seeing this pass by Lamar 😅 pic.twitter.com/VHQ0DGhrEX
— ESPN (@espn) November 8, 2022
Kids, don’t try this at home. (Here is a wider view of the whole play.) Peyton said that Lamar threw without setting his feet.
But it’s interesting to compare this rep with some of Lamar’s reps from his rookie season. Lamar’s first year, he had a REAL issue with engaging his hips/lower body when throwing. He had poor lower-body mechanics with his throws. Very, very often his throws were all arm. And when Lamar did that, those throws would often sail, or die.
This throw is very different. At first glance it looks like Lamar hasn’t set his feet. But look again at the first 2 or 3 seconds of the ManningCast clip. Pause it and advance just a little at a time.
- Lamar bends his left knee and lifts his left heel off the ground.
- Lamar uses that knee bend to pull his right hip backward as he starts his windup. It’s like he points his belly button (or his groin area) to the right sideline.
- As his arm starts to come forward, Lamar jams that left foot back into the ground and snaps his hips (belly button / groin area) back to normal (or forward) position.
- As he completes his follow-thru, Lamar’s right knee bends and his right heel comes off the ground.
- He even takes a little baby-step with his right foot on the follow-thru.
Obviously Peyton is right and Lamar doesn’t “set his feet.” Shoot me if I ever try to argue with Manning about passing mechanics. But! For a throw where Lamar doesn’t “set his feet”, there is a TON of lower-body involvement. He’s clearly working to use his hips, even without take the actual step. This reveals a ton of hard work, careful thought, and some high-quality coaching (maybe from the 3D QB guy Adam Dedeaux).
This is light years ahead of the “bad reps” from Lamar’s rookie season in 2018. Very cool to see mechanics work revealed so clearly, even on a rep with bad (or at least non-standard) footwork.
There have been “takes” generated about Lamar’s on-field tantrum and heated discussion with Ronnie Stanley, on the delay-of-game penalty. What did you think about it?
As someone who knocked Lamar for a lack of “composure” after the Giants game, I think I have a responsibility to note that I have no problem with Lamar getting fired-up about offensive mistakes during a game. Remember him yelling at Patrick Ricard on the holding penalty a couple weeks ago?
To me that’s no different from Peyton Manning’s “Goddammit, Donald!” from a few years ago:
🤣One of my favorite memories is watching Peyton Manning back in his days with the Colts run out of the pocket and scream “GOD DAMMIT DONALD!” Because one of his offensive lineman missed a block and was about to get him sacked. pic.twitter.com/0wBHwbILYf
— Mamba Forever🐍 (@UniteFor_Change) January 20, 2021
Tom Brady has yelled at his coordinator:
Tom Brady is yelling at Josh McDaniels on the sidelines pic.twitter.com/HIETtpFaPy
— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) December 3, 2017
Matt Ryan yells:
— Steve Angelovich (@angelsteve89) December 19, 2017
It’s normal. I don’t see any reason to make a bigger deal out of it when Lamar does it, than when these old white quarterbacks do it.
Hell: I’m pleased that Lamar is engaged and motivated. You don’t get a reaction like that from a player who is checked-out and disinterested. Lots of people have speculated that Lamar’s contract situation means he’s got one foot out the door already. To me, these flashpoints signal otherwise. This guy cares deeply.
The cool thing about this is how Stanley handles it. Lamar is mad at the Center and/or Right Guard: Ronnie immediately inserts himself into the middle and defuses it with placating hand gestures. Check it out, a whole drama in conflict resolution played out in about 23 seconds:
A closer look at the animated exchange between Lamar Jackson and Ronnie Stanley, with Jackson expressing clear frustration pic.twitter.com/XQggwvE9eg
— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) November 8, 2022
At the 3-second mark you see Stanley with his “hey chill” arms out. Stanley & Lamar get in each other’s faces for a bit (7 secs to 10). Moses checks in (11 secs), then Kenyan Drake (12 secs to 16). Then finally Lamar talks to Linderbaum & Zeitler (18 secs to 22). They get their shit straightened out, and the last thing you see as ESPN fades to the replay is Lamar tapping the helmets of Linderbaum & Zeitler.
Later Stanley walks with Lamar on the sideline, and Lamar vents:
Lamar Jackson VERY upset on the sidelines. This went on for 2 more minutes too. Plays weren’t coming in in time. Stanley not set. Very very frustrated Lamar Jackson pic.twitter.com/bISJZZ6a7S
— JACK SETTLEMAN (@jacksettleman) November 8, 2022
And then, for the rest of the game they didn’t do any of that “run the play clock down to zero” shit. They went ahead and snapped the ball with 5 seconds on the play clock, sometimes 10.
The Superdome in New Orleans is one of the loudest places to play in the league. Rookie center on the road, he had some trouble with the silent count. It looked to me like Linderbaum needed an extra beat (almost a full second) to get set after Zeitler would tap him on the leg. If Lamar wasn’t taking that extra moment into account, then that could lead him to signal Zeitler too late. Or Zeitler wasn’t picking up Lamar’s signal early enough. Whatever: they’ll get it sorted out.
The exciting thing to me was Stanley inserting himself into the disagreement. He talked with Lamar, one All-Pro to another. This is one of the things we got back with Stanley’s return. It’s not “just” his terrific play (which has been at the very highest level). Back in 2019 Stanley and Lamar had serious big brother/little brother energy. A near-family connection. There’s a fun video from the Pro Bowl after the 2019 season, where Stanley is chasing after Lamar, furious about Lamar breaking his sunglasses.
In 2021, I worried that Lamar often felt he was working alone. He sure doesn’t feel that way this week. This incident was family working together to smooth things out and stay on course. If the Ravens go anywhere this season, the “family fabric” revealed here is going to be a big reason why.
If there’s bad news in the Ravens winding it back to 2018, it’s not for the won-loss record or their competitive prospects. It’s bad news for this column! Not so much to write about in terms of receiving statistics when they only throw 22 times. But let’s sift thru and see what there is to see. Here are your receiving stats for Monday’s game:
With 9 minutes left in the second quarter, Lamar threw a strike to DeSean Jackson that gained 23 yards. The play was called-back for ineligible man downfield (Morgan Moses). This first line of the table is Jackson’s day if that penalty had not been called. This gives us a glimpse of what DeSean can bring to the Ravens offense, even in a limited role. He’s a high-average field-position changer: a big-play guy.
DeSean played just 14 snaps vs the Saints. That’s close to the workload he should be at. Last year he averaged less than 20 snaps per game; only three times in 16 games was he over 30 snaps. He’s 35 years old: he can’t give you volume. But if you manage his usage, putting him in here-&-there, he can be extremely useful in short bursts.
Proche has caught 5 passes for 46 yards over the last two games. He’s another player who is not going to get high volume, but he’s an efficient chain-mover when used.
On passes to Running Backs, Lamar was a perfect 5-for-5 for 35 yards. For the season he’s 88% on passes to RBs. Mostly these are checkdowns: not high-yardage plays. But with this kind of completion percentage, maybe these should become a bigger component of the attack. Especially when Edwards & JK Dobbins are both healthy and available. Gus was absurdly productive as a receiver in 2020, and Dobbins is a big play waiting to happen (when healthy).
Isaiah Likely and Demarcus Robinson were disappointments in this game. They combined to catch 2 of 9 for 36 total yards. Also Duvernay caught only one ball, for 5 yards. It’s nice to win a game decisively when your top weapons are taken away (including the injured Mark Andrews). But these players need to be more productive.
Mike Davis with his first target on the season! He’s been the forgotten man. When he was signed, I expected we would see him more, as the 3rd-down back. He made a very nice play here, first blocking a pass-rusher than leaking out into the flat.
First RB Mike Davis (5-9, 223) blasts DE Payton Turner (6-6, 270) off the screen.
Then Lamar Jackson wisely pulls down deep shot, escapes sack, hits 7-yard check-down to Davis. Avoided a disaster, Ravens converted on the following 3rd-and-8, and later scored a TD on this drive. pic.twitter.com/nwoc7qgJGw
— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) November 9, 2022
Even with the penalty taking away his biggest gain, DeSean Jackson slides in among the top 4 for most efficient targets on the team. I think that will continue going forward.
As of Week 9, no Raven is on pace for a thousand-yard receiving season. If they really do play 2018 bully-ball down the stretch, no one will get there. (I still think Andrews is a good bet for it though.) If the wins continue to pile up while the receiving yards go down, I’ll post a list of some quarterbacks who won Super Bowls without any thousand-yard receivers. It’s been done more often than you might think, and by great QBs like Tom Brady and Joe Montana.
Somehow Lamar is still 4th in the league in TD passes and TD%, and 5th in QBR. He’s 8th in passer rating and DVOA. The Ravens are Football Outsiders #3 team in Offensive DVOA; 4th in passing, 1st in rushing. It doesn’t look like you expect, but this is a good offense.
Much better than 2018, just to pick a totally random comparison.
Next Up: Bye bye bye!