Jacoby Jones is a fan favorite on the Ravens. He's goofy. He's electric. He's an elite dancer. He has his name etched in silver alongside the 2012 team's most famous plays at the most critical junctures. Without him, the Ravens would not have a Super Bowl, and, if not for the team's quarterback, he is probably Super Bowl MVP, too.
Unfortunately, Jones is also costing this team points every time the ball is thrown to him on the field. He is the lone Ravens receiver with a negative win probability added (WPA), meaning he has reduced the Ravens' chances of winning each game while all others have increased it. Steve Smith is leading the entire receiver group in the NFL by the way in this regard and Joe Flacco is leading all quarterbacks. But that's for later — back to Jones.
Something is not right with him, whether mentally or physically, because his play is unusually poor. His frustration on the field is evident. When Carolina kicked away from him in the return game to deny returns, Jones became visibly upset. It is clear he wants to make a play.
Examining his most egregious drops, the results are telling and it's a problem the Ravens cannot afford to ignore.
A notable, downward trend
Harbaugh alluded to the fact that Jones was making a similar error of pulling his hands in at the last second and then suggesting that he was "pressing" to make a play and it was affecting his ability to make easy catches.
He said that Torrey Smith was pressing, too, but unlike Torrey, who is being blatantly interfered with constantly and otherwise making very tough catches when he can, Jones is straight up dropping easy completions and putting the offense behind the eight ball.
Jones has 10 targets and just 3 receptions for 20 yards with an abysmal success rate of 18%. Seven of those targets came in Week 1, easily his worst game and the one that caused much of his negative WPA.
What is the root cause?
Hard to say and not really worth speculation as we are neither psychologists nor receivers coaches. However, certainly a component of it is Jones' natural and known limitations as a receiver. He has always possessed the desirable prototypical traits of a receiver (tall, muscular, thin, blazing fast) except for the hands, which has long been the knock against him. As an eight year NFL veteran, it may well be that we are seeing little more than a brutal but coincidental cold streak in a receiver who has always been limited in this capacity.
The bottom line though is that the underlying reasons don't matter that much. What does matter is understanding how Jones is harming the team's ability to win.
This was pretty obviously Jones' worst game and there's a strong case to be made that it was the difference in winning and losing even though others had their hand in it.
Jones' first drop came late in the second quarter as the Ravens were driving, down 9-0. It was a killer.
At a minimum, this is a 40-yard gain. Possibly, it is even a touchdown, though I think Leon Hall tackles him. It is also a catch a professional wide receiver of any level should make 100% of the time.
Instead of having the ball with two timeouts at the 10 and 1:16 and a myriad of options at our disposal to score, the Ravens had to dink and dunk themselves down to the 20 with eight seconds left and one timeout. In an ill-fated play, Flacco is sacked with no time remaining and, thus, no points. Suffice to say, though he was not the only one at fault, Jones was a culpable party in not getting points there, possibly even a touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens needing a touchdown to even up the score, Baltimore has second and 10 from the Bengals 20. Jones is hit over the middle on a quick slant and drops it again. It is not an easy catch but it is largely uncontested.
Instead of third and three, the Ravens face third and 10, in which they throw incomplete and settle for a field goal.
On the Bengals ensuing drive, the defense forces a punt. Jones muffs the punt and really at that point, it is a 50/50 proposition who recovers.
The ball bounces around dangerously, with players on both sides missing it, and ultimately Jones is VERY lucky to recover it himself. If the Bengals do, the game is very much probably over.
Following the two-minute warning, with Baltimore down 23-16 at the Bengals 28, the Ravens are leading a good drive to try and force overtime.
On second-and-2, Flacco hits Jones on a deep slant that would have gained 15 yards to put them at the 13 and in great position for multiple shots on the end zone. Jones has to make an outstretched reach for it but instead fails to haul it in, forcing third down. No GIF is needed for this one either — you get the picture.
Baltimore would overcome the drop and convert the third down. However, on the ensuing plays, Baltimore would get no closer than the 18, where they would be sacked twice to end the game.
Drop against Cleveland
Jones would have just one apparent target in the Pittsburgh game but little other action. He would receive minimal action against Cleveland, too, until the fourth quarter.
At the start of the quarter, Jones puts on a perfectly executed double move and gets wide open. Flacco hits him in stride for what should be at least a 30 yard gain with the safety arriving to make a touchdown-saving tackle.
Jones drops the ball in the same way, pulling his hands back early. This is when I started to wonder if Jones has a bigger mental issue going on beyond just having a bad game like he did against Cincinnati.
On the very next play, Flacco is intercepted and the Ravens nearly give up a pick-six. Fortunately for the Ravens, Cleveland is forced to settle for a long field goal, which Billy Cundiff obligingly shanks off the upright. Baltimore would overcome that nearly fatal turnover.
Drop against Carolina
In the second quarter, facing second and 10, Flacco hits Jones on a quick slant that looks to gain seven to set up a manageable third down.
That GIF makes it look more difficult than it was. Jones flat out drops it while uncontested. Baltimore fortunately overcomes a now very difficult third and 10 with a great catch by Owen Daniels to set up a touchdown. Jones would see no more targets.
Prescription for action
As much as we love Jones, he is a liability right now and the team has other options and crucial road games ahead.
The problem though is that it is not as simple as benching him. Some things Jones does VERY well. For starters, he is dangerous in space with the ball. He also has the speed to pull off lethal go-routes and double moves that only Torrey Smith can equal. To some extent, we need his skill-set as a way of challenging a defense to respect multiple receivers deep. Thus, I believe Baltimore needs to do two things:
1) Continue increasing Kamar Aiken's and Marlon Brown's workload and reducing Jones' workload, generally. To some extent they are doing this. Frankly, Brown and Aiken have both shown more so far this year, making tough catches downfield on an admittedly small sample size. The more we use them though, the more we learn about them. We know what Jones is for the most part — a KR/PR with receiver upside, not vice versa.
2) Slowly rebuild Jones' confidence by using him on low-movement, high percentage wide receiver screens. Jones' best asset is his speed and amazing improvisation skills — hence his lethality as a KR/PR. His biggest flaws are his hands and ball skills. As valuable as he is streaking deep to beat defenses, he is not making those plays. While one would think the short slants are easy completions, the minor problem with them is that they still require excellent concentration while moving one's body rapidly. Receiver screens are about as simple as it gets as you basically just stand in place and wait for the ball and blocks to develop. At this point, the coaches need to employ Jones on the easiest completions they can to get his mind right. Flacco is not going to trust a guy who drops five-yard slants and forces him into difficult third and longs. His lack of targets since Week 1 proves it.
Every receiver drops a pass here and there but not all receivers have a cold slump as bad as Jones does right now. Until he starts showing he can be a value add on offense instead of a net loss, the team needs to significantly limit Jones on routes. Winning games depends on it.