OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — In 2 1/2 seasons as a starter, Lamar Jackson has been an offensive threat unlike any in the NFL.
He won an MVP and eventually a playoff game, blending efficient passing with a running ability rarely seen in a quarterback.
About all that’s left for the Ravens is to take the next step and make it to the Super Bowl. In the AFC, that won’t be easy.
“This team is just set up perfectly to make a run,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Now, obviously, it’s hard to do, and every team wants it. There are other teams out there that’ve got just as much talent and great players, as well, so it’s going to be a battle, but there’s no excuse.”
The Ravens are 30-7 in the regular season with Jackson as the starter, so another playoff appearance this season feels like more of a bare minimum than a goal.
Whether Baltimore can finally catch Kansas City as the class of the conference remains to be seen. The Ravens also have to contend with the likes of Pittsburgh, which beat out Baltimore for the division last season, and Buffalo, which knocked Jackson and Co. out of the playoffs.
The Ravens (11-5) are one of eight AFC teams that won at least 10 games last season, so while they feel tantalizingly close to a championship in some respects, they can’t afford to slip at all.
Baltimore ranked first in the NFL in rushing last season and last in passing, underscoring the fact that with Jackson’s unique skill set, the Ravens do things a bit differently. He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, and even in a league that values pocket passing, it’s hard to argue with Jackson’s winning percentage.
When he does throw, Jackson has completed 64% of his passes for his career, with 68 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Still, there’s room for improvement.
“Michael Jordan could drive, and then he learned a jump shot. So that’s how we’ve approached it,” quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “Michael Jordan didn’t stop driving the lane. He just learned how to shoot better and more consistently. So we’re just learning how to, more consistently, throw the ball — and more accurately.”
The Ravens tried to surround Jackson with better receiving talent, adding Sammy Watkins in the offseason and drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round. Bateman has dealt with groin problems during the preseason, but if healthy, this could be an improved receiving group for Jackson to work with.
That top-ranked running game took a hit when J.K. Dobbins went down in the final preseason game with a season-ending knee injury. Gus Edwards returns after running for 723 yards last season.
“I have full confidence in the rest of the running backs that are here to pick up the load and to do a great job for us,” coach John Harbaugh said.
STILL AN ISSUE
The Ravens had major COVID-19 problems last season. A game against Pittsburgh was pushed back from Thanksgiving into December. Jackson tested positive and missed that game, and he also missed the start of training camp this season because of another positive test.
The Ravens traded standout tackle Orlando Brown to the Chiefs, and they acquired offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva. Tackle Ronnie Stanley has been working his way back from an ankle injury.
The Ravens rarely seem to have many problems defensively, and last season was no exception. They ranked sixth in the NFL against the pass and eighth against the run. The defense certainly wasn’t the primary culprit when the team lost 17-3 at Buffalo in the postseason.
Baltimore added veteran linebacker Justin Houston at the end of July.
“He’s a great leader, he sets the edge in the run game, he runs to the football like he’s a rookie,” defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “He’s doing everything that we ask him to do.”
The Ravens did lose linebacker L.J. Fort to a torn ACL.
Baltimore has five night games on its schedule, including the first two of the season. The Ravens open with a Monday night game at Las Vegas, then host Kansas City on a Sunday night. They have a Monday night home game against Indianapolis in Oct. 11, a Thursday night game at Miami on Nov. 11 and a Sunday night home game against Cleveland on Nov. 28.
Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister
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