Hidden beneath the Ravens’ 24-point victory against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday was the erratic performance of an offense that has lost its identity from a year ago. Its only consistency is its inconsistency.
Go ahead, celebrate the victory.
The Ravens had seven sacks against a rookie quarterback with an awful offensive line. They held the Bengals to 205 yards of total offense and three-for-16 on third-down conversions. They had a 17-point advantage at the end of the first half and limited Cincinnati to 12 first downs while scoring 14 points off two Bengals turnovers.
But there is still an uneasy feeling about this team and its offense. It’s fair to give the Ravens the first four weeks of the regular season to show progress, but there hasn’t been much. Last season, they produced the strongest running game in the history of the NFL featuring a quarterback that had some of the most explosive moves since late Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers in the 1960s.
Lamar Jackson was so dynamic that he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, beating out stars such the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. Yet after Sunday’s performance, it’s fair to wonder, who are these masked men on the Ravens offense, and what in the world are they trying to accomplish?
The Ravens had 332 yards of total offense, but they were out of sync. Of their 11 offensive possessions, excluding the final kneel-down to end the game, only one lasted more than seven plays: a 15-play touchdown drive in the first quarter. Thanks goodness for the defense.
“We need to get back to how we were last year,” Jackson said after the game. “We go out there, and we perform at a high level like we do. I’ll say we’re fine though. We’ll get to practice, and we’re going to regroup and watch film, and we’re going to get right.
“I would say the little things right now. With us on offense — just keep getting first downs when we’re on third down. Converting — that’s probably what I would say is our biggest downfall — is converting and finishing drives. We get better at that, [and] we’re going to be good.”
This offense will go only as far as Jackson takes them. On Sunday, he performed poorly. Very poorly. He practiced once last week because of a knee injury, so he deserves some slack. There are more problems with this offense than just Jackson’s struggles. But when he feels the pressure, he resorts to old habits, such as dropping his elbow when he throws.
When anxiety sets in, Jackson holds onto the ball too long. Or he’ll start throwing passes across his body into the middle of the field, a major no-no in the NFL. Or he’ll just toss it up and hope his security blanket, tight end Mark Andrews, can fetch the ball out of the sky.
Jackson completed 19 of 37 passes for 180 yards with two touchdowns and one interception Sunday. He could have easily had three more passes intercepted if the Bengals defenders could catch.
“I feel like that’s just how the game progressed, really,” Jackson said of his pass attempts. “It wasn’t game-planning to be like that. I’ll say game plan, it was 50-50 [run-pass]. But we got out there, and it was just a different defense, I would say.”
But let’s not put all the problems on Jackson’s shoulders. There is enough blame to go around.
Cincinnati entered the game with the league’s 27th-ranked run defense, allowing almost 5 yards per carry. If the Ravens were going to gain some momentum and get their running game on track, this should have been the game to do it. The Ravens should have had 37 runs and 24 passes. Instead, they flipped the script.
The Ravens finished with 161 rushing yards, but one carry netted 42 yards and another 34. They didn’t exactly pound the Bengals into oblivion. Instead of nurturing the big lead and forcing Cincinnati into submission with a strong running game, the Ravens kept allowing Jackson to throw.
That kept the Bengals in the game. Here’s proof: Up 17-0 and taking over at the 50-yard line after a Bengals turnover early in the second quarter, the Ravens ran four straight passing plays, including on fourth-and-6 from the Bengals’ 46.
If the Ravens defense hadn’t given the offense a short field several times, they might have won only 10-0.
In an ideal world, Jackson should throw only 25 to 30 times a game. When he passes more than that, it’s usually a sign of trouble because he isn’t accurate throwing the long ball, especially outside the numbers.
Opposing defenses have caught on to the Ravens. Opponents are spreading out to take away Jackson’s option lanes on the outside. Without his rushing ability, the Ravens aren’t fast enough to get to the edge, so Jackson needs to start looking for the alleys inside the way he did on that career-long 50-yard touchdown run against Washington last week.
Or the Ravens just need to pound running backs Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards inside. Teams are crowding the line of scrimmage, but that wasn’t the problem Sunday. The Ravens took their offense out of the game with their play-calling.
“Every win is a blessing, and whenever you can get one, you have to take that and run with it,” Andrews said. “But there are times when our offense isn’t clicking, and we need to get better. So, it is what it is.”
NFL games are like chess matches, but not Sunday. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman wants to be prepared for the future, but he didn’t even need to counter any of the Bengals’ moves.
If he wants to make future arrangements, he should pick a lead running back. If it’s Ingram, Edwards or rookie J.K. Dobbins, give them a chance to get into the flow of a game instead of substituting so often, especially early. Let one of them get in sync with the offensive line.
The Ravens also need to get rookie receiver Devin Duvernay more involved in the offense. They can use him in motion or out of the backfield, similar to what Kansas City does with speedy receiver Tyreek Hill.
More importantly, the Ravens need to do what this team does best, and that’s run the ball. They have basically the same personnel as last year with the same coaching staff.
Two things we know for sure: This offensive line isn’t good at pass blocking, and Jackson isn’t ready to carry the offense with his arm yet. Maybe he will in a year or two, but not now. It’s been clearly evident in the playoffs during the past two years.
Do we need to see it again?