How Ravens’ Lamar Jackson got his MVP groove back for the NFL playoffs

By | January 9, 2021

When the Ravens fell to 6-4 after their overtime loss to the Titans in Week 11, there was real concern about whether they would miss the AFC playoffs, a season after going 14-2 as the AFC’s top seed. The core question at the time was “What’s wrong with Lamar Jackson?”

No one is asking that about Baltimore’s reigning NFL MVP quarterback anymore, as the team prepares for a rematch in Tennessee in Sunday’s wild-card matchup (1:05 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN). Jackson is still looking for his first win in the NFL playoffs and must face the opponent who also eliminated the Ravens 28-12 in last year’s divisional round.

Since that regular-season rematch, the Ravens haven’t lost a game with Jackson. Since Jackson missed Week 12’s loss at Pittsburgh while battling COVID-19, he’s come back to lead them on a dazzling five-game winning streak with excellent momentum going into his third career playoff game.

Jackson’s performance against the Titans in Week 11 was his last bad one. Over the past five games, Jackson has a completion percentage of 67.0 and a passer rating of 115.8. He’s averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt. He’s also averaged 86 rushing yards per game with 15 total TDs.

AFC & NFC bracket | TV schedule | Super Bowl picks

Last season, during his MVP campaign, Jackson had a completion percentage of 66.1 and a passer rating of 113.3 while averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. He averaged 80.4 yards rushing per game. His current numbers say he’s playing at or better than that level now.

So what explains Jackson breaking out of his slump? For one, he’s simply been more accurate as a passer and has showed more decisive juice as a runner. He’s back to being confident and aggressive in his dynamic athletic skill set, vs. being tentative. Defenses have done their best to adjust to the Ravens’ unique style of offense under Greg Roman and Jackson was challenged to raise his game.

There’s good reason that Jackson wasn’t put on autopilot from the get-to to repeat his elite play from 2019. The Ravens lost one big piece of their offensive line in guard Marshal Yanda to retirement, and then saw left tackle Ronnie Stanley go down with an ankle injury in Week 8. The young wide receivers, led by Marquise “Hollywood” Brown didn’t make a big jump early and the traditional running game didn’t start out as dominant as it was wire-to-wire in 2019.

Jackson seemed to come back refocused after his one-game absence. The time off allowed him to what he needed to do better to lift the offense back up. In turn, Roman and the Ravens deserve plenty of credit for making some good changes around him.

(SN illustration)

Part of has been settling on the strongest offensive line continuity without Stanley and Yanda. It took a while for Orlando Brown Jr. to adjust playing on the left side to replace Stanley, but flipping him was smart, as veteran D.J. Fluker has been sturdy at right tackle. Both Patrick Merkari and short-term rookie injury replacement Trystan Colon-Castillo have shored up center. Ben Powers, who made his first start in that Titans game, has been the right guy to take over right guard for Yanda.

With the Ravens feeling stronger up front, Roman has called more designed runs for Jackson inside to keep defenses off balance, as he’s still capable of turning the corner for big runs, too. The Ravens also have worked to become less predictable about when they pass and how they pass, knowing the play-action package needs to be a bigger threat on early downs when defenses are geared most to stopping Jackson and their rushing attack.

With those concepts, second-year first-rounder Marquise Brown and rest of the wide receivers — per the not-so subtle request of “Hollywood” himself — have gotten more involved. Since the Titans game, Brown has caught 26 of 41 targets for 332 yards and 6 TDs in 6 games. Fellow starter Miles Boykin has only 5 receptions in the past 5 games, but 3 went for critical TDs. Tight end Mark Andrews remains his go-to force, but Jackson has done a better job of spreading the ball around in key situations.

Against the spread | Straight-up predictions

No move has been bigger to boost Jackson, however, than the Ravens’ decision to fade Mark Ingram in the backfield and let rookie J.K. Dobbins and third-year man Gus Edwards take over. That complementary duo has delivered an ideal 1-2 punch with much younger legs, leading to optimizing power and explosiveness in the rushing attack.

During the five-game winning streak, Dobbins and Edwards have rolled through defenses. Dobbins has turned 62 carries into 425 yards and 6 TDs, averaging 85 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry. Edwards has turned 50 carries into 337 yards and 2 TDs, averaging 67.4 yards per game and 6.7 yards per carry. Ingram had to see less work, after he dropped from 5.0 yards per carry to 4.2 this season.

The Titans had trouble with many aspects of the Ravens’ offense in Week 11, before everything came together and Jackson and everything else got hot again. The Titans’ defense isn’t capable of pulling what it did in last year’s playoffs, either.

The complete, best version of Jackson has yet to show up in the postseason. With a little help from his Ravens’ coaches and teammates, Jackson is in a different kind of groove this time. Getting through a midseason obstacle has made him only stronger for the playoffs.