Is Ravens' Passing Game Poised To Struggle Early On?

Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens finished the 2020 season dead last in receiving yards. That’s to be expected when you consider that quarterback Lamar Jackson finished second-to-last in pass attempts of all quarterbacks who started at least 15 games. Even the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, who played in five fewer games, had almost 30 more attempts than Jackson.

Of course, there are two sides to every story. In this case, it’s that Baltimore led the league in rushing yards and finished with almost 400 more yards on the ground than the Tennessee Titans, who were second. That’s quite impressive considering the Ravens’ leader in rushing attempts was their quarterback. But it also makes Baltimore really one-dimensional on offense.

The Ravens knew that they needed to upgrade their passing game coming into the 2021 season. Marquise Brown, their lead receiver, was 42nd in the NFL in both targets and receiving yards in 2020. The second-most targeted pass catcher last year was tight end Mark Andrews, who finished ranked 56th in targets and 54th in yards.

Baltimore took steps to address the shortcomings in their passing game during the offseason. They began the free agency period signing former Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins, then began the 2021 draft taking Minnesota standout Rashod Bateman just to follow that up with another receiver in Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace in the fourth round. Were these moves enough to give the Ravens’ passing offense the shot in the arm it needed?

Looking at the biggest issues for their passing game last year, having Brown struggle to look like a true WR1 is probably at the top of the list. Since the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 2019, Brown’s on-field performance has been underwhelming. He’s had issues with his route-running, creating separation, and his aggressiveness and effort on plays to him. The latter two are especially concerning for Baltimore since aggressiveness and effort take the least practice to improve.

As a result, Brown’s production numbers have been disappointing. The Ravens promised to get him more involved after he took to Twitter to complain about his lack of targets in a Week 8 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He never ended up showing that he deserved that extra love and finished the 2020 season with barely as many yards as he had collected in the first half. His lack of separation and Jackson’s decision to seemingly force the ball to Brown two weeks later even led to an interception against the Patriots.

For a quarterback who has occasionally looked more confident in his legs than his arm, the Ravens would like to have a receiver that allows Jackson to feel comfortable making plays in the air, especially on the outer parts of the field. Over the last two seasons, less than 20% of Jackson’s total passing yards came on throws to receivers on the outside. Of his 62 passing touchdowns, only seven were to receivers that weren’t tight ends or lined up in the slot. Since Brown has yet to prove he can be the go-to guy, Baltimore will likely begin to lean on some of the talent they brought in this offseason for 2021.

Watkins joins the Ravens from a completely different offense, the pass-heavy Kansas City Chiefs. Despite time in Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes, Watkins’ production declined in his role as a WR3 behind Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. Now entering his age-28 season, the Clemson product could certainly see his targets increase, especially with his ability to create yards after the catch, something Brown has had trouble with.

Bateman, meanwhile, will start the 2021 season on the injured reserve with a groin injury that required surgery. He joins fellow receiver Miles Boykin, who’s been dealing with a hamstring injury, on the IR and will miss at least the first three weeks of the season. That means Wallace, the Ravens’ other drafted receiver, might get more playing time in the early season with a chance to impress his coaches and move up the depth chart. For now, Baltimore looks set to begin the season with five receivers on their roster barring a surprise trade or free-agent signing.

If they decide to stick with who they have, the Ravens might continue their struggles in the air for at least the first few weeks of the season. With running back J.K. Dobbins out for the season, that’s not a good sign for the Baltimore offense. Though they made some moves to improve their receiving corps over the offseason, I’m not sure it will be enough if Brown continues to underwhelm while Bateman misses time. Watkins can only do so much as a veteran guy who hasn’t been the same dynamic playmaker that he was during his 2015 season in Buffalo.

All the Ravens’ struggles could change if Brown shows real improvement, Bateman performs up to the promise of his first-round talent when he returns, and/or Wallace breaks out in his rookie year. For now, expect Baltimore to struggle with the pass during the early parts of this season.

Written By:

Jack McKessy

Staff Writer

Jack McKessy is a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism who grew up in Washington, D.C. As a student, he covered Northwestern’s football, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, and baseball teams. Previously, he was in charge of social media and contributed to both written and multimedia content creation for La Vida Baseball in Chicago. He has also assisted in the production of promotional content for the Big Ten Network. Jack initially joined the TDN team as an intern during the 2020 season. Now, he writes columns—primarily analysis of the New York Giants—and helps run TDN's YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.

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