Ravens film study: QB Lamar Jackson’s pocket presence, defense’s play-action woes and more

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In the afterglow of the Ravens’ 31-25 overtime win Monday night over the Indianapolis Colts, it was hard not to rewrite a few narratives.

A massive home deficit had given way to a stirring rally. A much-doubted Ravens passing offense had rewritten single-game team records. And as for those who’d said quarterback Lamar Jackson couldn’t lead a comeback?

“You can’t say that anymore,” tight end Mark Andrews said after the Ravens’ fourth straight win. “Look at the last couple of games. He’s just calm, composed, and he’s a leader, man. That’s what we all look to.”

There was plenty of good — and also some bad, Andrews acknowledged. Here’s what you might’ve missed inside M&T Bank Stadium, from Jackson’s pocket presence to the offense’s changing personnel to a glaring defensive deficiency.

Changing the script

Before this season, in four of Jackson’s five highest-rated passing performances as a starter, he could play off a dominant rushing attack. When he posted a perfect passer rating against the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals in 2019, the Ravens averaged at least 5.8 yards per carry. When they routed the Los Angeles Rams and Houston Texans that season, their ground game rolled up over 250 yards.

Jackson did not have that luxury Monday. The Ravens finished with 86 rushing yards, ending their NFL-record-tying 43-game streak of 100-plus yards on the ground. Jackson had a game-high 62 rushing yards, 47 of which came on scrambles. Running backs Latavius Murray, Ty’Son Williams and Devonta Freeman combined for 11 carries and 24 yards, with a long of 6 yards.

Those struggles did not limit offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s play-action-heavy approach — Jackson was 10-for-12 for 114 yards off a run fake, according to Sports Info Solutions — but it did make the Ravens’ passing approach more conventional.

Asked to play more like Aaron Rodgers than Michael Vick, especially late, Jackson thrived. Of Jackson’s 43 attempts Monday, he delivered 41 from the pocket. He completed 36 of those throws for 434 yards and four touchdowns. Jackson’s 108.0 passer rating on throws from inside the tackle box is tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady for seventh in the NFL this season.

“He was under pressure, and he created plays with his feet,” coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson on Monday. “He threw the ball away when he had to throw it away. … When we were in that situation you’re talking about, we went into our fast mode, no-huddle, two-minute-type mode and just came alive — all of our guys did. All the guys who made plays and the offensive line, but it starts with Lamar. He deserves the credit.”

Spreading for success

The Ravens’ offensive structure changed against Indianapolis, perhaps out of necessity more than anything else. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Ravens used “11″ personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) on 50 of their 70 offensive plays. It was their first time all season using the NFL’s most common grouping on over half of their plays.

In 11 personnel, Jackson finished 29-for-34 for 358 yards and three touchdowns. In all other formations, he was more accurate (8-for-9) but, on the whole, marginally less dangerous (84 yards and a touchdown).

With the Ravens’ running struggles, and with wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Miles Boykin expected to return to the offense in the coming weeks, Monday’s game could be the first step in a new direction offensively. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Ravens used 11 personnel on 33% of their snaps through the season’s first four weeks. Their second-favorite grouping was 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers), a Patrick Ricard-reliant formation used 26% of the time.

But as the Colts stifled the Ravens’ running game again and again, Ricard’s playing time dipped to a season low. He got 10 snaps in the first half, then just six in the second half. It was Ricard’s first time this season playing less than half of the team’s offensive snaps.

For as much as the Ravens pride themselves on being able to play “smashmouth” football, they still tend to follow modern NFL trends in personnel groupings. They ran three-wide-receiver formations on over half of their plays in both 2019 and 2020, along with most of the NFL. That could be the case again this year.

Even if the Ravens start to spread teams out more than they ever have under Jackson, they’ll still need pieces like their Pro Bowl fullback throughout the season. Ricard’s receiving ability was crucial in the team’s wild-card-round win over the Tennessee Titans last season, when he finished with three catches for 26 yards.

Play-action woes

The Colts entered Monday’s game with an underwhelming offense: 21st in rushing efficiency, 26th in passing efficiency and 26th in overall efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Quarterback Carson Wentz’s ankles were finally healthy, but he did not have trusted target T.Y. Hilton to throw to or starting linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith to protect him.

Still, Indianapolis’ attack seemed to give the Ravens as much trouble as the Kansas City Chiefs’ had three weeks earlier. The Colts finished with 513 yards of total offense — their first time over 381 in a game this year, and the first time the Ravens had given up over 500 since September 2020.

Even if the Ravens get starting safety DeShon Elliott (quadriceps) and reserve outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson (reserve/COVID-19 list) back this week, they will have a lot to address. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is coming off a season-best performance (26-for-43 for 398 yards and four touchdowns), and his analytically minded coach, Brandon Staley, won’t have to look far for a potential Achilles’ heel in the Ravens’ Week 5 game tape.

Their play-action defense against Indianapolis wasn’t just bad. It was worst-in-the-NFL bad. Wentz finished 15-for-18 for 223 yards off play-action, according to SIS, the most any defense has allowed this season. Before Monday, the Ravens’ worst performance against play-action under coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale came back in 2018, when Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield went 11-for-13 for 152 yards in a Week 17 loss.

Over the season’s first month, the Ravens hadn’t especially struggled against play-action. The Las Vegas Raiders’ Derek Carr (4-for-5 for 31 yards) and Detroit Lions’ Jared Goff (6-for-10 for 81 yards) were accurate but not lethal. Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater completed just one pass off a run fake in limited action. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes went for 91 yards and a touchdown, just under his career low against the Ravens.

Wentz, meanwhile, was relentless and ruthless. On the Colts’ opening drive in the second half, he faked a handoff to running back Jonathan Taylor and found Zach Pascal wide open about 15 yards downfield for a 31-yard gain. On the next play, more of the same: another fake handoff to Taylor, another deep shot. Wentz hung in the pocket long enough to target wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who’d easily beaten cornerback Anthony Averett downfield, for a 42-yard touchdown.

“Frank Reich is a great coach,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Carson Wentz, for all the criticism he takes, he’s a great quarterback. He was on rhythm. They kept us off balance with screens, with inside runs, with outside runs, controlled passes. … We have to improve in a lot of ways. We didn’t do all the things that we needed to do, and we just have to get better. It’s a long season, and we have a lot of work to do, for sure.”

Week 6


Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 3

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