Last December, Lamar Jackson was out and the rest of the AFC North was catching up. For the past three years, the Ravens star had been the division’s crown jewel quarterback, its only passer to make the Pro Bowl. But Jackson, for the second straight winter, was injured, and with every loss to a rival, parity seemed closer and closer. There were new shiny things outside Baltimore.
In Week 15, the Ravens lost to the Browns and Deshaun Watson, who’d shown flashes of becoming the superstar Cleveland had paid $230 million for — finally, maybe, kind of. In Week 17, the Ravens lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kenny Pickett, the No. 20 overall pick who over the second half of last season would pilot one of the NFL’s better offenses. In Week 18 and then again in the playoffs, the Ravens lost to the Cincinnati Bengals and Joe Burrow, who’d ended his 2021 season in the Super Bowl and would end last season on the short list for NFL Most Valuable Player honors.
“Our first goal every year is to win the division, so those are the guys that we have to study in the offseason, and we have to win those games,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said in June. “It’s a huge challenge. There are obviously great quarterbacks.”
If the Ravens expected quarterbacking excellence, they must be pleasantly surprised. An AFC North expected to carry the banner for the position has quickly turned into a one-man parade. There is Jackson, back to earning MVP buzz for the division-leading Ravens, and then there is the rest, mired in mediocrity and injuries, the light at the end of the 2023 tunnel barely flickering in Cincinnati and Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
For the Steelers (2-2), who host the Ravens (3-1) on Sunday, things are especially dark. Pickett has followed a flawless preseason with a listless start. He’s No. 30 among 33 qualifying passers in QBR and has two of the NFL’s six worst single-game passing performances this season, as measured by success rate, a metric of down-to-down efficiency.
If Pickett plays Sunday, as he said he expects to, it would be on a banged-up knee; he left Sunday’s 30-6 loss to the Houston Texans with a bone bruise. If he doesn’t, Pittsburgh would turn to backup Mitchell Trubisky, who threw three interceptions after replacing an injured Pickett early in a home loss to the Ravens last season.
“When you look at each player that’s in the division, you look at the quarterback and the talent that is around the quarterback that makes them better,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said Wednesday. “So all the quarterbacks in our division are great quarterbacks.”
That was the preseason thinking, anyway. The state of the division’s quarterback play has soured quickly over the past month, and the Ravens share some responsibility. On Sunday, their defense was nightmare fuel for Browns rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The fifth-round pick, starting on short notice for Watson, finished 19-for-36 for 121 yards and three interceptions. His 3.4 yards per attempt were the second lowest by a starter in a game this season. (Fittingly, the only quarterback to finish with a lower average was Burrow, in a Week 1 loss to Cleveland.)
Having Watson would have helped Cleveland. It might not have changed much. Before a resurgent performance in Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans, when he hurt his shoulder, Watson ranked second to last in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks in expected points added per drop-back, according to TruMedia. His QBR this season (46.1) is only a slight improvement on his 2022 mark (40.4), which itself was only a slight improvement on Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson’s dreadful 2022 mark (38.7).
But such is the state of AFC North offenses that neither Watson nor Pickett is the division’s most disappointing quarterback. That distinction goes to Burrow. Limited by a lingering calf injury, he is on track to post career lows in completion percentage (57.6), yards per attempt (4.8), passer rating (69.1) and passing yards per game (182.0). The 1-3 Bengals are last in the league in total offense (944 yards) and rank 29th in passing offense, an unlikely perch for a team with two Pro Bowl-caliber wide receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.
“The biggest thing we can do as a team right now is learn from these last four games,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor told local reporters Monday. “Just focus on tomorrow.”
Injuries haven’t helped. The Browns have lost two offensive stars, running back Nick Chubb and right tackle Jack Conklin, to season-ending knee injuries. The Steelers will likely take the field Sunday without wide receiver Diontae Johnson, a 2021 Pro Bowl selection now on injured reserve, and tight end Pat Freiermuth, a second-round pick in 2021, both of whom are dealing with hamstring injuries. Higgins left Sunday’s blowout loss to the Titans with a rib injury.
But no one has had to do more with less than Jackson. Running back J.K. Dobbins, wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Tyler Linderbaum have combined to play in just nine of a possible 20 games this season. Tight end Mark Andrews only recently got up to full speed.
And yet the Ravens rank 10th in the NFL in offensive DVOA, according to FTN, 13 spots higher than the Bengals, their closest competition in the division. The Ravens are also fifth in success rate, 21 spots higher than the runner-up Browns.
“He’s the full quarterback,” Andrews said Sunday of Jackson, who scored four touchdowns against a Browns defense that had allowed just one over its first three weeks. “He’s not only just a full quarterback; he’s able to do so many other things that other quarterbacks can’t do. That’s a beautiful thing. Lamar Jackson’s second to none.”
Especially in this AFC North.