The Lamar Jackson led Ravens are 2-0 and squarely in the AFC Wild Card hunt. With Joe Flacco still not practicing, all the signs suggest Jackson will start his first road game this upcoming Sunday in Atlanta. Through two games the Ravens have not asked Jackson to do very much passing the football, while taking advantage of his athleticism and threat to run the ball in order to keep the offense moving. So far this plan has worked, but it has been aided by the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium and two sub-par opponents. At 4-7, the Falcons are in the midst of a disappointing season, but they still boast one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, so it should be a test both for the Ravens defense and for Jackson as we may see for the first time how he can perform in a pressure-filled road environment.
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Much has been written about the promising start of Lamar Jackson’s career and what it means both for the short-term and long-term of the Ravens Franchise. For John Harbaugh and the Ravens coaching staff, the only thing they are going to be worried about is how they can best prepare a game-plan for their rookie signal-caller. We saw last week against the Oakland Raiders a somewhat evolved approach using Jackson. There were still a number of different QB options, designed runs and zone reads, but they also appeared to ask more of Jackson as a passer than compared to the previous week – with mixed results.
For comparison’s sake, in week 11 against the Bengals, Jackson rushed 26 times (including kneel downs and sneaks) while only attempting 19 passes. In week 12, Jackson rushed only 11 times while attempting 25 passes. Against Oakland, Jackson was far more efficient as a runner, but the passing numbers were still fairly ugly, as he completed a lower percentage with a lower YPA than in week 11. I think it is a promising sign that the Ravens felt comfortable enough with Jackson as a passer that they increased his drop-backs as a passer. For the offense to continue to be effective Jackson will need to be able to pass the ball so opposing defenses won’t be able to just stack the box to stop the run.
Against the Falcons, Jackson and the Ravens will once again have the benefit of playing a defense that is not very good at defending the run, as Atlanta allows opposing rushers 5.0 YPC and rank 31st in run defense DVOA. This should be great news for Gus Edwards who has emerged as an extremely effective RB with Lamar Jackson. Edwards has surpassed the 100 yard mark 2 weeks in a row and is doing so at a very efficient rate, averaging 6.8 and 5.1 YPC in his first two games as the Ravens primary rusher. Edwards was a surprise addition to the injury report this week with an ankle issue, so his availability for Sunday’s game may be in question, but if he is able to go I would expect another heavy workload against the Falcons defense that is one of the worst graded tackling teams in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. Conversely, Edwards leads the league in forcing missed tackles over the past 2 weeks, making this an excellent match-up for the Ravens running back.
Atlanta also struggles defending the pass, so if they look to stuff the box and make Jackson throw the ball, the Ravens should have a plan in place to attack the Falcons. We haven’t seen many RPOs with Jackson thus far, but this week could be a good time to try to work them into the offense as the threat of the run game can suck in LBs allowing Jackson to exploit coverage gaps between the LBs and safeties. Whether it is designed play-action, bootlegs, or RPOs the Ravens should lean heavily on deception and pre-snap motion to attack the Falcons defense. As I predicted last week, we did see the Ravens implement the TEs more heavily in the game-plan, and I expect a continued commitment to getting fellow rookies Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst more involved in the offense as it seems to work well with Jackson at QB.
The Falcons are a much more effective offense than compared to the defensive side of the ball. They have struggled at times when they get in the Red Zone, but at home they are actually one of the most efficient teams in the NFL scoring TDs on 82% of their Red Zone possessions. For the Ravens to have success in this game, the defense will need to vastly improve in this area as Baltimore has immensely struggled in the Red Zone in recent weeks allowing opposing teams to score TDs 87% of the time.
The Ravens have done a very good job of limiting opposing team’s explosive plays, especially in the passing game, and because of this the Ravens lead the league in yards per game and yards per play allowed. This will be critical when playing the Falcons who are tied for 7th in the NFL in explosive plays, most of which have been through the air, which is where the Ravens defense is most effective. For Baltimore to be successful against the Falcons they will first and foremost have to limit Atlanta’s star WR Julio Jones who is having a fantastic season as he leads the NFL in receiving yards. Expect the Ravens to give Jones extra attention and force the Falcons secondary receivers to beat them.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who leads the league in passing, is prone to making mistakes when pressured and is among the league leaders in sacks taken and fumbles, but he is also among the best passers when kept clean in the pocket. The Ravens have struggled in recent weeks pressuring the QB, but last week finally broke out of a 4 game slump as OLB Matt Judon sacked the QB on three straight plays to close out the game. The Ravens will need a similar effort from Judon and the rest of the pass-rush if they hope to limit the explosive Falcons passing attack. The Falcons have one of the least effective rushing attacks in the NFL, so Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale may look to dial up the pressure packages at the expense of gap integrity in an effort to slow down Atlanta. Overload blitzes and twists/stunts up front that expose the defensive front to counters and delays may be necessary in this match-up.
This is a game that the Ravens really need to win if they want to keep pace in the AFC Wild Card race, and while Atlanta is a tough team at home, the Ravens do match-up fairly well in this one. If Baltimore can manage to keep the score relatively low, they should have a good chance to win, but they cannot afford to get into an offensive shootout in which they are severely outgunned. I think the Ravens defense will show up for this one and limit the Falcons just enough to come out with the win on the road, 23 – 20.
Gabe is an avid fan of the NFL and Ravens football. He grew up in Westminster, MD, and attended college at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biology. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a R&D Scientist developing Transplant Diagnostics assays. Gabe has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan.