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Where is last year’s Lamar Jackson?

Will the former MVP return to normal ways?

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Fans should not worry. The Ravens are currently playing like a Top-5 team in the NFL. With their only loss coming at the hands of the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens currently stand at 4-1 and look to continue to put together commanding wins over teams that should be beaten.

After giving up 517 total yards to Kansas City, Baltimore’s defense has looked more sharp and fast. They especially showed their dominance in Sunday's game against Cincinnati. Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense couldn't get anything going as Baltimore forced three turnovers, scored a defensive touchdown, held the Bengals to 205 yards, and only allowed three points. The emergence of Patrick Queen, who has been rumored to be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, has played a key role in making Baltimore’s defense as dominant as it currently is.

Still, something doesn't seem right with the Ravens.

Is it just me or does Lamar Jackson look like he’s struggling at times this year? Through five games, Jackson does not look like the MVP-caliber quarterback Ravens fans are used to seeing. Jackson has only thrown for 949 total yards whilst eclipsing the 200-yard mark only twice. His 949 yards rank 31st in the NFL. Notwithstanding the 50-yard touchdown run against the Washington, Jackson has proven to be ineffective in the running games at times.

There are a number of reasons for Jackson’s drop in play.

First, it appears that defenses appear to be scheming much better against Jackson and the Ravens offense. Cincinnati did a very fine job in limiting the effectiveness of Jackson in both the passing and running game. Jackson threw for only 180 yards and rushed for three yards. Fans should not be deceived by the 27-3 Ravens victory; Baltimore’s defense made much more of an impact for their victory than the offense.

Cincinnati also deployed a number of different zone coverage looks that clearly fooled Jackson. One of the delayed coverage looks resulted in an interception for Bengals rookie linebacker Logan Wilson. On the play, Wilson appeared to blitz, but then he disguised his blitz and dropped into coverage, which Jackson failed to recognize. The Bengals used similar delayed coverages on repeated occasions and almost came away with two more interceptions. Jackson will need to be more cerebral when locking in on his intended target.

The use of delayed coverages could become a weekly challenge for Jackson as more teams may increase their usage of it after seeing the success it had with hindering Jackson’s ability to move the ball against the Bengals.

Another reason for the drop in Jackson’s play is the inconsistency of Baltimore’s run game. Although Baltimore still remains a Top-5 rushing attack, far too often are the Ravens relying on Jackson’s arm to move the ball. I’m not sure if Greg Roman and company are trying to give Jackson as many in-game reps as possible with his pass-catchers without jeopardizing the outcome of the game, but Jackson’s arm has not been the same.

I believe more inclusion of J.K. Dobbins in the offense will only help Jackson’s passing. Gus Edwards has been a solid in-between the tackles runner, and Dobbins has capitalized on limited touches. Mark Ingram, though, has looked less explosive and decisive as a runner this season.

I am fully onboard to take away touches from Ingram and reward more to Dobbins, although Dobbins needs to improve his pass-protection if he wants to find himself on the field more. Ingram is a superb pass-protector out of the backfield and is often a big reason why Jackson throws in a clean pocket.

Still, Dobbins should get more touches as he’s shown burst and explosiveness on a few rushes and receptions.

If Baltimore can get their rushing attack in order, Jackson will reap the benefits in the passing game as the play-action can be opened up, which is one of his biggest strengths.

The final reason for Jackson’s drop in play is that teams still don’t respect Jackson’s arm. After an MVP 2019 season, teams still don't think Jackson can lead the Ravens with his arm. Jessie Bates said it himself in a postgame presser after last Sunday's loss to the Ravens.

Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews are undoubtedly Jackson’s top two targets, and teams seem to realize that. At the same time, Bates’ statement isn't necessarily false. Kansas City successfully took both Andrews and Brown completely out of the game on Monday Night Football, which limited Jackson to 97 passing yards. Cincinnati, however, failed to do exactly that as both Brown and Andrews had big games.

That being said, the fact that teams know where Jackson is going most of the time shows how good Andrews and Brown are. Despite being the focal points of stopping Baltimore’s passing week in and week out, both still manage to put up serious numbers.

Still, Jackson needs to diversify his targets and spread the ball around. Devin Duvernay needs (and deserves) more snaps on Sundays, but the sound blocking skills of Miles Boykin eat into Duvernay’s snaps. Regardless, Duvernay has been one of the biggest surprise playmakers for the Ravens, and he will inevitably earn more snaps as he continues to improve.

Greater involvement of running backs in the passing game could also help take the pressure off of Jackson to make downfield passes on a consistent basis. Compared to many other teams, the Ravens seldom use their running backs in the passing game. A little swing pass to a running back would allow for them to make a defender miss and gain an easy eight yards. This is where I see Dobbins earning time on the field. Dobbins leads the Baltimore backfield with 72 receiving yards and has broken off a couple of big plays after a catch.

Keep in mind, I’m not discounting Lamar Jackson here. I just think that there have been instances this season where Jackson hasn't looked the same. That being said, I fully expect the Baltimore coaches to critique the team’s offense and involve more young talent as depth will especially be tested as the mid-year mark for the NFL rapidly approaches.