The Ravens have long sought balance under quarterback Lamar Jackson, in all the ways his unique talents can express it.
In 2019, they had offensive balance, finishing with the NFL’s most efficient rushing and passing attacks, according to Football Outsiders. In 2020, they had backfield balance, adding a second speedy, shifty weapon in rookie running back J.K. Dobbins. In 2021, they have strived for receiver balance, signing Sammy Watkins and drafting Rashod Bateman, two high-impact outside targets for a passing offense mostly concentrated over the middle.
“When you add talent like that, it’s really, I think, going to kind of expand our profile quite a bit, actually, to play with the kind of balance that we really want to play with,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in April. “The field is about 53 yards wide, and I think people are going to have to defend all 53 yards of it.”
A month into the season, Roman’s prediction has come true. Jackson’s range as a passer has widened considerably. Entering Monday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts, he’s not only throwing outside the numbers more than he ever has, but also, more improbably, throwing more accurately there than he is over the middle.
The expansion of the Ravens’ offense was obvious throughout Sunday’s 23-7 win over the Broncos. Over its first three games, according to Sports Info Solutions, Denver had held the combined passing attacks of the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets under 60% accuracy on outside passes from the pocket, allowing just 7.2 yards per attempt.
Jackson, despite missing two days of practice last week, finished 10-for-12 (83.3%) for 117 yards on outside-the-numbers targets, nearly 10 yards per attempt.
“Working hard, a lot of consistency,” Jackson said Thursday of his growth. “We’re doing it in practice.”
About 90 minutes later, he was back at practice, preparing for a Colts team that provides a convenient benchmark for his aerial progress. In a gritty Ravens win in Indianapolis 11 months ago, Jackson did not often miss, finishing 19-for-23 for 170 yards.
But he also rarely looked toward the sidelines. Even by his standards, he was happy to focus on his sweet spots over the middle. In 2019, on throws from the pocket, Jackson averaged 8.3 outside targets per game. In 2020, that rate dropped to 6.1 per game. Against the Colts, Jackson attempted just five passes outside the numbers, completing four for 24 yards.
This season, Jackson has upended the narrative about where he can and can’t place the ball. Over his first two years as a starter, Jackson completed 65.6% and 59.3% of his outside passes from the pocket, respectively. He finished with a passer rating of 99.7 in 2019 (sixth among quarterbacks with 50-plus such targets) and 76.4 last season (36th).
Through four games this year, Jackson’s averaging 10 outside-the-numbers throws from the pocket per game — or about one of every three attempts overall — and lighting up defenses in the process. In starting out 32-for-40 for 491 yards on sideline shots, he’s on pace for career highs in completion percentage (80%), catchable-pass rate (89.7%), on-target rate (89.7%) and yards per attempt (12.3).
“I can’t believe people were saying he couldn’t throw,” wide receiver James Proche II said after Sunday’s win. “That’s crazy, right? That’s wild. Barbaric. That’s like saying water is dry. It’s just crazy, man. I mean he just puts in work, dude.”
Unlike most quarterbacks who struggle to consistently throw outside, Jackson has always had the arm strength to hit every kind of pass. His early-career struggles were largely due to inconsistent mechanics and suboptimal personnel.
Both were addressed this offseason. Jackson credits quarterbacks coach James Urban and Adam Dedeaux, a throwing-mechanics expert he worked with this offseason, for his improved delivery. And he has the Ravens’ front office to thank, in part, for the upgraded help out wide — not only the new faces at receiver but also the offseason advances spurred by first-year assistant coaches Tee Martin and Keith Williams.
Even now, in Year 4 for Jackson, every opponent seems to arrive with an unseen defensive game plan, a new code for the Ravens to crack, he said Thursday. Last season, in the team’s divisional-round loss to Buffalo, the Bills flooded the middle of the field, almost daring Jackson to beat their zone coverages where they were softest.
Asked about the lessons he learned from that game, Jackson dismissed the question, preferring to focus on what’s ahead. But if Jackson can reliably hit running backs on swing passes, tight ends on out routes and wide receivers on deep sideline shots, defenses will have only so many viable strategies to choose from.
“People have defended us a certain way,” coach John Harbaugh said Thursday. “I think we’ve responded well to some of the things they’ve done, but it will be different next week and the week after. It’s always going to be different. You always have to be ready for all the different things you can get, because in any one game, there can be something that can really give you a problem. I really think Greg and those guys do a great job with that. We try to stay on top of that and try to anticipate what we’re going to get.”
Even if Jackson’s outside effectiveness is due for a downturn — only the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray has been more accurate throwing there this season — Ravens coaches shouldn’t worry much. Jackson’s middle-of-the-field passing has been below his usual standards (57.6% accuracy from the pocket), and he’s been unlucky not to connect on more passes like the 49-yard moon shot he threw to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown on Sunday.
With Miles Boykin and Bateman expected to return soon, the Ravens will not lack options out wide. If having a balanced offense means throwing 40 times a game, picking on defensive backs all over the field, Jackson won’t mind.
“Whatever it takes to win, that’s what we’re doing,” Jackson said. “Coach calls it out, we’re going to do it. We’re going to handle it that way, and that’s what it was this past Sunday. They wanted to stop the run, [so] we had to throw the ball. I hope teams do it a lot. Just let us throw the ball around, let our playmakers make plays.”