“Last year was historic, [quarterback Lamar Jackson] was the MVP,” said Ismail, 49, a starter on the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning team in 2000. “The two tight end offense was nearly invincible. Defenses had to make decisions: Am I going to stack the box or am I going to play an extra safety? You darn sure weren’t bringing in a nickel cornerback and you had to figure what to do against the bully ball element. Teams are more disciplined in their run angles now and they are going to stack the box until Lamar proves he is more accurate in throwing to the outside lanes.
“This year, defenses don’t have that fear without a second tight end in Hayden Hurst [traded to Atlanta] or [retired right guard] Marshal Yanda.”
“If you play bully ball, and you get those 40-yard runs, now you can do what you want. But if that doesn’t happen, then you better have some outside throws to go to.”
Right now, the Ravens don’t have the receivers or the quarterback who can make them.
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The Ravens are coming off their bye with the 31st-ranked passing attack and the least productive wide receivers in the league. Lamar Jackson has thrown two touchdown passes and two interceptions when targeting wide receivers this season, which is a significant dropoff to his numbers when throwing to tight ends and running backs (eight touchdowns and no interceptions).
What’s the best-case scenario?
Bryant becomes Jackson’s No. 3 option, behind Brown and tight end Mark Andrews. He provides what Baltimore’s passing game is lacking: a physical target on the outside who fights to win those contested catches. This season, the Ravens have made 10 catches on 26 tight-window targets (when the distance between the receiver and nearest defender is less than one yard at the arrival of the pass).
With so much young talent under center, I decided to rank the top five quarterbacks under 25 years old that I would build around.
Baltimore Ravens · Age: 23
Career stats: 37 games | 24-4 record as starter | 63.6 pct | 5,463 pass yds | 7.5 ypa | 52 pass TD | 11 INT | 103.5 QB rating | 2,247 rush yds | 14 rush TD | 7 fumbles lost
Cam Newton was the QB who ran the option better than anyone we’d ever seen until Jackson came along and said hold my beer during his record-setting 2019 season. He takes Greg Roman’s evolving option scheme to another level as a dynamic runner and improving passer who threatens defenses on the perimeter on every snap. As good a runner as Jackson is, his best quality is his spatial awareness. He’s so in tune with where defenders are on the field. He’s also getting smarter when it comes to protecting himself from hits.
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Yes, it would’ve been a big game even if the Steelers had lost in Tennessee after holding a 17-point lead. But the fact that they’re coming to Baltimore undefeated takes the occasion to another level.
They’re clearly on a mission this year, seeking to reclaim their standing as top-tier contenders after finishing six games behind the Ravens in 2019. They’ve got Ben Roethlisberger back. They’ve got a rugged defense. You know they’re sick of seeing their top rivals receive so much acclaim for having an MVP quarterback, a revolutionary offense, a 12-game winning streak last year, etc.
Few expected the Steelers to catch and pass Baltimore this year, but they’re a game up in the standings and would go two games up if they won Sunday, with a rematch coming on Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh.
The Ravens are in no mood to abdicate. To the contrary, they’ve gone all in on making big things happen in 2020, as evidenced by their acquisition of defensive end Yannick Ngakoue in a trade last week.
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Pittsburgh (6-0) at Baltimore (5-1)
Lamar Jackson might want to think about dumping his cleats for this game and wearing some track shoes instead, because I have a feeling that the Steelers defense is going to have him running for his life. Jackson only has one start against the Steelers in his career and that came last season in a game where he threw three interceptions, was sacked five times and only threw for 161 yards, and that was the Lamar Jackson who went on to win MVP. This year Lamar is not quite playing at an MVP-level, which could be an issue for the Ravens offense, because the Steelers defense is playing as good, if not better than last season.
Through seven weeks, the Steelers already have racked up 26 sacks, which leads the NFL. As for Jackson, he’s been sacked 15 times, which is the second most in the NFL for a starting quarterback on a team with a winning record. Basically, although Baltimore has had a pretty easy time scoring points this season, this doesn’t feel like a game where they’re going to be able to score at will.
To even things out, the Ravens will be bringing in their secret weapon: Yannick Ngakoue. If Jackson is going to be running for his life, it only makes sense to make Ben Roethlisberger do the same and no one is better at making Big Ben do that than Ngakoue. In three career games against Roethlisberger, Ngakoue has two sacks, one forced fumbled (that was returned for a touchdown) and five QB hits.
The pick: Steelers 26-23 over Ravens