Make Lamar Jackson look ordinary. That’s easy to type, but much harder to accomplish. The Ravens’ quarterback may not have had second straight MVP campaign, but since coming off the reserve/COVID-19 list in early December, the third-year pro has looked like more like his 2019 self than at any point in 2020.
Based on how the Titans, Baltimore’s Super Wild Card Weekend opponent (Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET on ESPN/ABC), have played defense this year, that trend should continue. However, Tennessee has been able to slow Jackson’s roll in the red zone in the past year, something the rest of the league has struggled to replicate.
“Very important to be disciplined and try to make them earn it,” said Titans coach Mike Vrabel on Wednesday. “If they’re going to beat you, you have to try to make them earn it and not have critical errors, uncover somebody, or let somebody go, or miss a run fit that allows (J.K.) Dobbins, or (Gus) Edwards, or (Mark) Ingram to crease you, to not allow the quarterback to crease you.”
Jackson has 23 red zone TDs this season (16 pass, 7 rush) and zero interceptions. Looking further back, Jackson has never thrown an INT in the red zone during his NFL career, with a TD-INT ratio of 41:0. In short, Jackson has been a wizard in tighter spaces, except for when he plays the Titans.
In their last two matchups — a Week 11 Titans victory in overtime this season and a Titans rout in the Divisional Round a season ago — Jackson led eight drives into the red zone that generated just two touchdowns, four field goals and a pair of failed fourth-down conversions.
“Playing great in the red zone will be critical in this game, trying to force them to kick field goals will be a huge key for us, like it always is,” Vrabel said.
A key to the Titans’ success is making stops on early downs, thereby forcing the Ravens into obvious passing situations. That’s basically how the Divisional Round game played out, with the Titans racing out to a 28-6 lead. Jackson responded by completing only one pass in the red zone all game, a 15-yard TD pass to Hayden Hurst to cut Tennessee’s lead to 16. Jackson’s next five pass attempts into the red zone were incompletions. So despite 530 yards of total offense, Baltimore came up well short.
“So the plan was good except for what?” said Greg Roman, the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, on Thursday. “We didn’t score points to back up our yards.”
In the regular season meeting between the two teams this year, it was more of the same. Four red zone trips resulted in one TD and three field goals. The lone TD came via the run, something the Ravens did exceedingly well all season. Their 19 red zone rushing TDs were tied for third most in the league. But again, why didn’t they have more success against the Titans? Familiarity may play a role.
“The speed of what it is coming at you, we should have a little bit of an idea (of),” said Titans OLB coach Shane Bowen, who’s the team’s defensive play caller. “It’s tough to obviously simulate in practice but having gone against it a couple times, we’re not surprised by how fast stuff is happening.”
Perhaps that’s true, but Jackson and Ravens tight end Mark Andrews think those struggles were more about themselves than anything.
“We played a pretty good game all phases there, but we have to score points when we need to,” Jackson said. “When we get into the red zone, score points. I feel like we’ll be fine. Just finish.”
“Red zone is being efficient,” said Andrews. “All 11 guys doing their jobs, making plays. You do that, you’re going to be efficient in the red zone. I think the last couple games — or five games — we have been that. It’s all about us.”
If the Ravens can continue their recent trend, then Jackson and Co. will prove prescient. If not, it will be another long offseason with more questions about where this offense is headed and, of course, about Jackson’s postseason failures.
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