OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Over the past two days, the Baltimore Ravens lost to their biggest rival, watched their All-Pro left tackle suffer a season-ending injury and learned their top defensive player tested positive for COVID-19.
It’s not time to push the panic button for the Ravens (5-2), who remain in the thick of the playoff race. This is just a moment when a team looks for someone to rally around.
The Ravens need Lamar Jackson. More specifically, the MVP Lamar Jackson.
For nearly half the season, Jackson has gone from being the NFL's top player to the league’s biggest mystery. Just nine months removed from becoming the second unanimous MVP in league history, he ranks among the worst passers this year and he’s played his worst two games of the season when Baltimore has needed him the most.
The Ravens have sustained hits to their AFC North title defense as well as morale. Baltimore fell two games back of Pittsburgh after Sunday’s 28-24 defeat and lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury in the process. On Monday, All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss Sunday’s game at the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) as part of his 10-day quarantine.
If injuries and the coronavirus weren't enough, the Ravens have been venting their frustrations on social media the past two days. Wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown complained in a since-deleted tweet that he's not getting the ball enough ("What's the point of having souljas when you never use them") and running back Mark Ingram has gone from shouting "Big Truss" to writing on social media, "They change up on you quickly and the love they say they have is only conditional," after Baltimore gained 265 yards with him injured.
Can Jackson reset the course of a season at a pivotal time once again?
It was around this point last season, in a Week 7 game in Seattle, when Jackson convinced coach John Harbaugh to go for it on a critical fourth down and he then powered his way for an 8-yard touchdown run. That play sparked Jackson and Baltimore to a torrid run in the second half of the season and the best record in the league.
This week represents another MVP gut-check. If Baltimore has any chance of handing the Colts their first loss at home this season, Jackson needs to rediscover his magic and lift the Ravens behind a reshuffled offensive line and with a less-than-full strength defense.
There are critics who wonder whether Jackson can rise to the occasion.
"This is becoming a recurring theme: When it’s the biggest games, when the lights are the brightest, Lamar Jackson doesn’t perform," said Ryan Clark, a former Steelers safety who is an ESPN analyst. "And it’s not that he doesn’t put up numbers or the offense doesn’t look good, but in those situational football moments, he comes up short."
Last season, Jackson dominated the NFL's best, going 6-1 against teams with winning records. He beat Russell Wilson in Seattle and defeated Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco at home.
Jackson just hasn't been the same since getting upset by the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs. He has gone 0-2 against teams with winning records this season, appearing to try to do too much at times. He threw for a career-worst 97 yards against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3 and delivered a historic tumble on Sunday.
In the loss to Pittsburgh, Jackson became the fourth reigning NFL MVP in league history to produce four turnovers and a completion rate below 50% in a game, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau. On the game's final play, Jackson threw a pass into triple coverage to Willie Snead when Miles Boykin was wide open on the left side of the end zone.
"We have respect for him, but we don't fear him," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Jackson has given defenses no reason to fear him, especially in the passing game. He ranks 29th in completion rate (60.5%), 27th in passing yards (1,343) and 22nd in yards per-attempt (7.07). His passer rating of 94.3 is 20th in the NFL, just below Gardner Minshew.
Asked if Jackson is close to being where he was last year, Harbaugh said the question was too vague and then shared a family story of his grandfather Bill Harbaugh, who he said was a terrible driver. One day, they noticed that his grandfather's car didn't have a rearview mirror. He apparently knocked it off when he parked in his old wooden garage.
"Grandpa was kind of a gruff guy, [so] he said, ‘What the hell do I need a rearview mirror for? I don’t need to know where I’m coming from; I need to know where I’m going,'" Harbaugh said. “So, that’s my answer to your question, OK? We need to know where we’re going, and that’s what we’re going to work on going forward.”
In this case, if Jackson is the one with driving, it would be a good time for him to find the gas pedal.