Are the Ravens actually holding Lamar Jackson back?

Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson
Photo: Getty Images

Lamar Jackson is one of the most dynamic players in the history of the NFL. He runs and moves like a race car, and has always been stronger than he’s given credit for — though he has put on some muscle this offseason.

When defenders are one-on-one in the open field against him, their likelihood for success wouldn’t decrease if they tried to wake up the turf monster as opposed to attempting a tackle. He averaged more than six yards per carry in both 2019 and 2020. His average dropped slightly last season, but he still would have rushed for 1,000-plus yards if he hadn’t missed five games.

WIth Greg Roman entering his third season as the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator and additions made to the offensive line, it appears that Ravens’ offense will once again be centered around the running game. It’s certainly a logical decision. The Ravens’ entire running back room was injured in 2021, and they were forced to rely on Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray. By Week 11, they were still one of the best teams in the NFL at 8-3. Then they lost a one-point game to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jackson was injured the following week against the Cleveland Browns and missed the rest of the season.

Defenses knew every week that the run was coming and still were not consistently effective in shutting it down. ESPN’s Mina Kimes said on her podcast that the Ravens faced the most loaded boxes in the NFL in 2021, yet their EPA per play running into loaded boxes was fourth-best in the league. Why should the Ravens try anything else, especially with J.K. Dobbins returning to the lineup, and Gus Edwards eventually joining him?

The one problem with this dynamic rushing attack is that it hurts the passing game. The Ravens pre-snap looks and motions result in a less-complex passing offense than many NFL teams. Last season the Ravens had so many injuries that it was inevitable that they would struggle, and their passing offense certainly did, with Jackson throwing for the most interceptions of his career, 13, despite only playing in 12 games.

“The Ravens have doubled down again on being the most sophisticated running game in football, and they have been mowing through regular season opponents for a long time with this most sophisticated running game,” Steve Young said Thursday on ESPN. “My position is they will never get to championship football without a sophisticated passing game. That’s not anything to do with Lamar Jackson.”

Young is certainly right that it’s not Jackson’s fault. He ran a more pro-style offense at Louisville with Bobby Petrino as coach. Jackson has not yet attempted 400 passes in a season in the NFL, even though in college he attempted 409 passes during his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2016, and 430 the next in 2017. He did that playing fewer games, and with only one of his wide receivers from those two seasons getting drafted into the NFL, Dez Fitzpatrick.

Roman was an offensive coordinator twice in the NFL before being hired by the Ravens. He was with Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills for 2015 and most of 2016, and was Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-13. Neither of those offenses were known for their dynamic passing attacks, whether Alex Smith, Colin Kapernick, or Tyrod Taylor was the quarterback.

While Roman seems like the logical fit for a team with Jackson at quarterback, I can see why Young believes he is not taking full advantage of Jackson’s talents. As great of a runner as he is, Jackson has proven time and again that he is a very good passer from the pocket. He sees the field well and has a rocket arm. Jackson struggled with accuracy on outside routes earlier in his career but even that is coming around.

If he were working in an offense that was more focused developing a feared passing attack, he would be even more dangerous than he is now. A defense being forced to manage an intricate route tree, and then still have to worry about Jackson being able to score with his legs from any spot on the field — that is a truly terrifying offense.

But it’s not what the Ravens will have this season. They’re expecting Rashod Bateman to be healthier and, at minimum, to replace what they lost with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Combine that with a healthier offensive line and Jackson should turn the ball over less, but as long as Ravens center their offense around the run they are placing a limit on just how good their offense can be.

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