The NFL is a passing league. You know this. I know this. Just about everyone in the league knows this.
Because it's a passing league, quarterbacks are the most important players on the field. And just about every quarterback has that one pass-catcher he trusts more than anybody else -- the guy he wants to go to in key spots, with the game on the line. With that in mind, we're going to use this space over the next several weeks to dig into some of the league's best passing-game combinations and what makes them tick.
We began by exploring the Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, which is defined by how each player has raised the other's game since they came together. Next, we delved into Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, whose by the degree of difficulty. Last week, we went deep on the union of Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett, which is .
Everything the Ravens have done this season has been about maxing out Lamar Jackson's skill set. Jackson is the most unique talent in the league, and the way he is used reflects that.
No quarterback has ever run the ball as often as Jackson, whose 147 rushing attempts last season were already the most ever for a quarterback. He's at 140 attempts through just 12 games this season, putting him on pace for 187 on the year. His 977 rushing yards are already the second-most in NFL history by a quarterback, and he needs only 23 to become the second QB ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season and just 63 to surpass Michael Vick's all-time quarterback record of 1,039 rushing yards. His 84 designed runs have gained 623 yards, good for an average of 7.4 per carry. Those 623 yards would already rank as the 21st-most for any quarterback in the history of the league if you include designed runs and scrambles for everyone else but not for Jackson.
The Baltimore pass game is also built to maximize Jackson's skill set, with the Ravens using the second-highest rate of play-action fakes in the league. Jackson has faked a hand-off on 34.6 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and he has a 118.6 passer rating with 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions on his subsequent throws. They've mixed a ton of run-pass option concepts into the offense, with Jackson making that run-pass decision on 133 plays that have combined to gain 1,038 yards, according to Pro-Football-Reference. (That 7.8 yards per play average would lead the league by more than a full yard if the Ravens just ran an RPO on every single play.)
The Ravens also leverage the fear defenses have of the Jackson-led running game to take shots down the field, with 13.9 percent of Jackson's passes (ninth-highest in the league) traveling at least 20 yards in the air. Jackson's got seven touchdowns, two picks, and a 106.8 passer rating on those throws.
The Ravens' passing game operates on considerably less volume than most other teams in the league (they are 31st in the NFL in pass attempts as of this writing) but it is still among the most explosive in the NFL. Jackson's 25 touchdown passes are second-most in the league behind only Russell Wilson, and his 7.8 percent touchdown rate is the best in the NFL.
Jackson's favorite target is tight end Mark Andrews, who leads the team in receptions, targets, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, with just about all of that production coming on Jackson's throws. (Robert Griffin III is 2-2 for 1 yard and one touchdown on throws to Andrews.) But Andrews is not your typical No. 1 target. He doesn't even lead the team's tight end units in snaps this season, as Nick Boyle has been on the field for 568 plays to Andrews' 386. That means Andrews has only been on the field for 45.7 percent of the team's offensive snaps this season. He's yet to play more than 57 percent of the snaps in any game this season, and he's only exceeded 50 percent four times in 12 games.
But much like they have with Jackson, the Ravens have maximized Andrews' skill set about as well as they possibly can. Of the 386 snaps for which Andrews have been on the field, 263 of them (68.1 percent) have been pass plays, and he has been held in to block only five times. When he's on the field, there's a really good chance he's going out on a route. And when he goes out on a route, there's a really good chance he's getting the ball.
Andrews has been targeted 78 times this season, on just 258 pass routes. If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is. It means the ball has been thrown in Andrews' direction 30.2 percent of the time he has run a route. Among the 17 tight ends who have been targeted at least 50 times this season, that 30.2 percent rate is the single highest mark, and it's not all that close. The next-closest player is George Kittle at 27.2 percent. Kittle is also the only tight end among that group to top Andrews in PFF's yards per route run metric, which is about as good a proxy for receiver efficiency as there is right now. And Andrews isn't just good at turning his routes run into targets and targets into yards; he's also been the best at his position at turning catches into touchdowns. Seven of Andrews' 53 receptions have seen him cross the goal line, a 13.2 percent rate. That, too, is the best mark among the aforementioned group of 17 heavily-targeted tight ends.
Andrews played arguably the largest role in Jackson's opening-day destruction of the Dolphins, hauling in all eight of his targets for 108 yards and one of his quarterbacks' five touchdown tosses. Jackson threw only 20 passes in that game, which means 40 percent of them went Andrews' way. And he completed only 17 passes, so nearly half of them ended up in Andrews' arms. They made much of it look incredibly simple, with Andrews easily out-running linebackers and safeties, and Jackson dropping dimes into windows wide and tight alike.
Andrews is an enormous part of the Ravens' play-action game, with Jackson often targeting him in the space behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. Opponents are often reluctant to play man against the Ravens for fear that Jackson will scramble all over them, and Andrews has shown a knack for taking advantage of the holes left open in opposing zones. So many of these plays could just be laid on top of each other, with Jackson making practically the same exact run fake and Andrews running practically the same exact route and the defense getting beat in practically the same exact way, over and over again.
Jackson loves to find Andrews on seam routes, putting the ball up high above a linebacker or safety's head, where only Andrews can catch it. They've connected on that route for two of their six touchdowns together this year, and on several other plays as well. With so many defenses playing double-high safety looks against Baltimore, that spot on the field is wide open quite often, and they're fantastic at hitting it. Even in single-high looks, Jackson can just take the seam to one side of the field or the other, splitting the two defenders covering the deep third.
They also hurt teams with crossing routes, which they can go to when the opponent is in man or zone. Jackson is 11 of 14 for 209 yards and a touchdown when targeting Andrews on a deep cross, drag, dig, angle, or stick-nod route, per Sports Info Solutions. Among the 61 players targeted on at least 10 combined throws on those routes, the 132.3 passer rating Jackson has recorded when targeting Andrews ranks seventh-best.
It helps matters enormously that Andrews has become an excellent after-catch receiver, breaking at least one tackle on 13.2 percent of his receptions and recording at least 25 yards after the catch in six of Baltimore's 12 games. He's got enough speed to run away from linebackers, enough speed to overpower safeties, and enough athleticism to make some defenders irrelevant.
If you take a look at each of those videos again, one thing you might notice is that more often than not, Andrews is aligned not as an in-line tight end, but in the slot. The Ravens have him align there on 63 percent of his routes, per Pro Football Focus, and it has worked spectacularly well for them. Jackson is 37 of 52 for 540 yards and three touchdowns when targeting Andrews in the slot. Those 52 targets are the most for any tight end in the NFL when lined up in the slot. (The next-closest is Zach Ertz with 52.) The 540 yards are the most as well. (The next-closest is Travis Kelce with 327.) Andrews has averaged 3.46 yards per route run from the slot, which is so much better than the next-closest tight end that it's barely worth mentioning where anyone else ranks. (George Kittle is at 3.03 per route.)
The Ravens have stormed their way to a 10-2 record on the back of the most dynamic player in the NFL. They have figured out the best ways to deploy his skills and the best ways to utilize his favorite target. They have maximized every piece of their offense, and that in turn has maximized their success. There's still plenty of time left in the season, but if they're going to make it to their ultimate destination, it's going to involve continuing to use Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews to the best of their abilities.