Sports

Lamar Jackson’s absence delays critical growth of Ravens’ passing attack

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After the news circulated that Lamar Jackson had tested positive for COVID-19, a fan tweeted Wednesday morning that he was boarding a flight from Los Angeles to see Jackson at training camp and the former NFL MVP was not going to be there.

Jackson responded with the images of five broken hearts.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh wouldn’t disclose how many days Jackson would miss. What is known is Jackson’s absence will delay the growth of the NFL’s worst passing attack from last season.

What’s the emoji for utter disappointment?

The Ravens remained positive, or as positive as a team can be when you begin training camp without your star quarterback. The players talked about next man up. Harbaugh said the situation is one “you almost kind of rejoice in” because it gives an opportunity for others to step up.

But this was a critical training camp for Jackson and this offense. Baltimore invested heavily in upgrading its weapons and pass protection this offseason after producing only a field goal in the 17-3 divisional-round loss at the Buffalo Bills.

The Ravens added two new wide receivers, drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round and signing Sammy Watkins in free agency. Baltimore revamped its offensive line, bringing in free agents Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva in addition to selecting Ben Cleveland in the third round.

All of that money and draft capital generated plenty of chatter and optimism around the city for the start of training camp. Over 1,000 fans poured into the first practice, which was supposed to be the unveiling of Jackson and the new offense. On Saturday, a crowd of over 30,000 is expected to watch practice at M&T Bank Stadium, where many wanted to see Jackson slinging the ball all over the field to his new targets.

But any notion that the Ravens moved past the pandemic and returned to normalcy ended when Trace McSorley, Tyler Huntley, and Kenji Bahar were the only quarterbacks suited up for Baltimore.

What’s the emoji for buzz kill?

The Ravens know how valuable every training camp practice is. Last year, no offseason practices and a shortened camp due to the pandemic played a factor in Jackson not matching his 2019 MVP season.

Baltimore beat the odds by going 11-5 while throwing for only 171.2 yards per game. The Ravens became the fourth team since the playoffs expanded to 12 in 1990 to make the playoffs despite finishing last in passing yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Harbaugh has dismissed the No. 32 passing ranking, pointing out Baltimore attempted fewer passes than any other team. But the Ravens understand that Jackson has to throw the ball better and the offensive line has to block better in order for them to make an extended championship run.

Now, Jackson will have a reduced number of passes that could help him build chemistry with Bateman and Watkins, who are projected to be among his top three wide receivers. He’ll also have fewer snaps with his new center Bradley Bozeman and the rest of the new-look offensive line. He’ll also have reduced time working under center and throwing to running backs, both of which are wrinkles being implemented into the passing game this year.

As Ravens tight end Mark Andrews put it this week, training camp “is where, as a team, you kind of find out what you’re about and what you’re made of.” If Jackson is sidelined 10 days — that is the protocol for unvaccinated players who test positive — he would miss eight practices and join the team one week before the preseason opener.

“Of course having reps with [Jackson] means a lot,” said Ravens wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Jackson’s closest friend on the team. “But, as a receiver, if we’re out here working and wide open, he’s just going to have to come back and get us the ball. While he’s out, we’ve got to do the best we can to make sure we’re better for him.”

The Ravens were surprisingly impressive without Jackson on Wednesday. McSorley and Huntley, who are battling for that backup job, had their best practices with the team. They stretched the field and put the ball in tight windows. Not having Jackson will allow Baltimore to have more tape to evaluate who will become the No. 2 quarterback.

“Those guys had all the reps, and they did well, didn’t they?” Harbaugh said. “It’s only going to bolster those two guys and make those guys stronger than they would have been otherwise. That helps our team get better.”

For the Ravens to get better in their passing game, Jackson has to be out on the field throwing the ball. That might not happen until the end of next week.

What’s the emoji for frustration?

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