At the start of each NFL season, a favorite from coachspeak lore returns.
Teams are warned to beware “unscouted looks,” one current NFL head coach estimating that about 30% of a team’s scheme changes from year to year. If a team makes drastic changes to coaching or personnel, inflate that estimate still further.
Playing in the first third of the NFL season, then, is important but not the most reflective of how well a team matches up. How teams, and especially successful teams facing one another, play as the season advances? That says more about their postseason viability.
Mid-October games are beginning to say more about how well players can execute their 2023 schemes, and how well those schemes can withstand their variable opponents.
Which is why the Baltimore Ravens’ decisive 38-6 win against the Detroit Lions sends a message about the viability of the Ravens’ revamped offense.
Baltimore hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken in the offseason from his national champion Georgia Bulldogs. Monken’s job: craft an offense that continued to incorporate quarterback Lamar Jackson’s athleticism while emphasizing his passing game ability more effectively than predecessor Greg Roman had.
Against the Lions, who fell to 5-2 Sunday as the Ravens improved to 5-2, Jackson showcased that skill set.
Before Jackson sat out the final 10 minutes of a comfortable win, he completed 21-of-27 (77.8%) for 357 yards and three touchdown passes for a 155.8 passer rating just shy of the perfect 158.3 mark. Only once in 77 regular-season games has Jackson thrown for more yards.
“Lamar Jackson looks as comfortable as a passer as we’ve remembered now in the last couple years,” three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said during the Fox broadcast. “He is operating at a high level. And for a guy who gets the bulk of his credit for his athleticism and his flash plays, he’s on fire right now in the passing game.”
Jackson would rush nine times for 36 yards and the lone touchdown on the day as he leaned on the pass. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh called the performance “wall to wall.”
“Lamar, in and out of the huddle, executing the way he did,” Harbaugh said. “How about the pass protection? I mean, the offensive line deserves a ton of credit.
“We have playmakers. Nobody’s surprised. We just want to keep stacking it.”
Ravens couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop vs. Lions
The Lions were facing their toughest opponent since upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs in the season opener. Detroit entered the game four in offensive DVOA and third in defensive DVOA.
Those units allowed 38 points while managing six. And perhaps as notable: The deficit wasn’t the result of unusual fluky plays, or defensive and special team touchdowns, or any of the other certainly legitimate but nonetheless more uncommon routes to victory.
The Ravens just kept moving the ball and scoring. The Lions just kept faltering, opening with three consecutive three-and-outs and then coming up short on four more possessions en route to a scoreless first three quarters. Give credit to Baltimore’s defense, which entered Week 7 tied for the league lead in sacks and now holds a four-sack lead over the Buffalo Bills after the Ravens sacked Detroit quarterback Jared Goff five times.
The Ravens’ offensive performance quickly built leverage.
The Ravens won the coin toss and elected to receive due to wind conditions, per Harbaugh. Jackson found three different targets on his first three passes (all completions), including a 46-yard pass up the middle to rookie receiver Zay Flowers. Three scrambles later, the Ravens faced fourth-and-1 from the Lions’ 7. Jackson didn’t just convert; he scurried about the left end and then inward as left tackle Ronnie Staley cleared the path for Jackson to score untouched.
Next came an 11-play drive, Baltimore’s patience epitomized when facing third-and-3 from the Lions’ 12. Jackson dropped back, continued to survey the field, and then spun out of the pocket to the right. Just as Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes closed in, Jackson released toward the back of the end zone. Receiver Nelson Agholor caught the 12-yard touchdown that extended a lead the Lions would never catch.
The interplay between Jackson and his offensive line was elite, buying Jackson 9.24 seconds to throw – the most time on a touchdown pass since 2018, per Next Gen Stats.
By halftime, tight end Mark Andrews had scored his first of two touchdowns on the day while running back Gus Edwards followed right tackle Morgan Moses into the end zone for another.
The Ravens compiled 503 yards of offense even as they tapped the brakes in the fourth quarter. Taking out a 5-second possession before halftime, Baltimore scored on five of their first six possessions. The lone exception came on a fumbled handoff from Jackson to running back Justice Hill that Lions star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson recovered.
Coming out of the half, Jackson floated a well-placed ball between two defenders to Andrews as he streaked across the back of the end zone on second-and-7. Andrews fell clutching the ball for the 8-yard touchdown and 35-point lead.
“He was slinging it, man,” Andrews said of Jackson. “He was on the money. All day. Money Lamar. At times just extending drives if he had to, but ball placement was incredible.”
Everyone celebrated Lamar’s day … except for Lamar
Jackson’s feel for the Lions defense and his timing on plays fueled an efficient, productive outing. But Monken’s scheme, which is opening up the Ravens’ playbook and requiring defenders to hesitate on account of the high volume of ways they should fear getting burned, deserves its hefty share of credit, too.
Baltimore knew that.
Harbaugh gave Monken a game ball for how he prepared his players to showcase their potential. Monken also addressed the postgame locker room with what Harbaugh described as “a few choice words for the guys, which was fun, as you can imagine.”
The win offers a template for the Ravens.
“That kind of creates a vision for what we can be,” Harbaugh said. “But let’s go be even better.”
Jackson, after one of his best career outings, emphasized the latter part of that sentiment. He approached the podium for his media conference subdued, prompting a question from a reporter about why he didn’t seem too happy. He’d just guided a productive, efficient day for a decisive win against a team that arrived tied for the NFL’s best record. Baltimore had thoroughly confounded a team that had beat the Chiefs, whom the Ravens may need to pass on the way to their goal. What was on his mind?
“I believe when you play regular-season games, you should be OK with winning,” Jackson said. “We made strides for improvement from last week and earlier on this season. I believe we did. But it’s just one regular-season game.”
Jackson also pointed to the fumbled handoff as reason for humility.
“Little stuff like that, that’s why I’m not pleased with the win,” Jackson said. “We always try to strive (that) every drive we want to score, put points on board. But we didn’t because of the fumble.
“But it’s pretty good. We got the win. I’m satisfied.”
The Lions will be fine on their playoff road, their remaining 10 games including just one team that currently enjoys a winning record.
But the Ravens? Sunday was the latest indication that they should be legitimate contenders with their pick-your-poison offense and a defense with a pass rush that Harbaugh defined well in noting its “real viciousness.” Their defense already demonstrated this last year, top-10 in both scoring (third) and total yardage (ninth). But the offense is morphing, its new iteration looking like a more successful one.
Jackson will withhold judgment until January and beyond. He doesn’t believe the Ravens have peaked.
“We just showed a glimpse today,” Jackson said. “When we do what we’re supposed to do, the sky’s the limit for us.”