Lamar Jackson and the Ravens edged the Bengals for a primetime divisional victory on Sunday night, and they did so -- no surprise -- by leaning on the legs of both Jackson and kicker Justin Tucker. A win is a win, they say, but in Baltimore's case, that victory over Cincinnati was yet another reminder of why the Ravens should feel compelled to adjust their offense. Specifically, it was the latest evidence that the AFC North contenders could stand to follow in the footsteps of their East Coast counterparts, the Eagles, who have successfully built around the running game while investing big money out wide.
Wait, what? Why are we comparing the Eagles and Ravens? To which we ask: why aren't we? As the last unbeaten team in the NFL, Philadelphia is our best present-day model for what's working in football. The Eagles, like the Ravens, also happen to have a running quarterback at the helm -- not just a mobile QB, a running one. Jalen Hurts leads all active QBs with 68 carries for the Eagles, while Jackson comes in second with 49. Hurts is on pace for 20 touchdowns on the ground; Jackson is two years removed from his second career 1,000-yard rushing campaign. No other teams run their QBs like the birds in green and purple.
Obviously, there are many reasons the Eagles are 5-0 and the Ravens are 3-2. Philly's defense has been magnetic to timely takeaways, getting clutch play from veterans like Darius Slay Jr. and Haason Reddick. The Ravens, meanwhile, were a sieve in the secondary before tightening up against Zac Taylor's predictable play-calling on Sunday night. But the biggest difference as it pertains to the two teams' run-heavy offenses -- in a league, mind you, where offense increasingly dictates playoff performance -- is Philly's ability to throw the ball with confidence.
Physically speaking, Jackson has a clear and obvious advantage on Hurts in terms of passing ability. He's got the gift of Michael Vick-esque touch, capable of firing a deep floater with the flick of a wrist. What he doesn't have is the luxury of a single alpha-male No. 1 target, let alone two. Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay have taken turns flashing downfield speed this year, and tight end Mark Andrews is a reliable safety valve. But none of those three are wired to be "the guy" on any given play -- the type of receiver you eye even if he's covered, with the game on the line. Marquise Brown wasn't necessarily that guy, either, but his trade to the Cardinals this offseason simply magnifies the Ravens' current lack of oomph at the position.
The Eagles, if you hadn't noticed, happily paid to possess two of those guys. After trading a third-round draft pick to the rival Cowboys to move up and select Alabama's DeVonta Smith 10th overall in 2021, they sent two of their top 2022 picks -- a first- and third-rounder -- to the Titans for Pro Bowler A.J. Brown. Never mind the complementary nature of the receivers' body types -- Smith being the slight route-runner, Brown the monstrous tackle-breaker. Both have commanded Hurts' unwavering trust, combining for 83 targets and almost 800 yards during the 5-0 start, even as Nick Sirianni retains his commitment to the ground.
Hurts has no doubt taken some of his own steps as a passer, showcasing improved timing on deeper shots. And Jackson's aerial inefficiencies cannot be pinned solely on his teammates; for example, he missed several wide-open receivers, including a streaking Tylan Wallace, against the Bengals on Sunday. But what happens in crunch time with these two contenders? Both Hurts and Jackson are built to use their mobility, and yet only Hurts appears to have the supporting cast to warrant steady confidence airing it out. The Eagles spent rather than sold out wide, and now they're reaping the rewards.
Is it possible Baltimore hasn't been able to lure certain difference-making receivers to town because of their heavy dependence on the run, which theoretically limits opportunity, as Marquise Brown alluded to? Maybe. In the end, however, Ravens brass can't blame anyone but themselves. If you can't sign a stud, then trade for one. Do whatever it takes to ensure your young, ascending QB can ascend further, in the most important area of the game, by giving him elite options. The Eagles are proving, in their roster-building and the subsequent early returns, that you can deploy a running QB, in a run-heavy system, and still invest in star receiver talent. The resulting combo, for them, has been -- go figure -- one of the NFL's best all-around attacks, simultaneously efficient and explosive.
You can't pay everyone, of course, and the Ravens still have Jackson to lock up long-term. But their investment at wide receiver is literally the smallest in the NFL. Whereas the Eagles boast a top-five run game while committing a combined $30 million per year to Brown and Smith, the Ravens are devoting just 3.59% of their 2022 salary cap to the position, with Bateman headlining the group at $3M per year. Again, these are two different organizations influenced by plenty of other factors, but unless you're willing to submit that former MVP Lamar Jackson is simply and/or clearly an inferior overall passer to Jalen Hurts, then the big takeaway here is that the Eagles, not the Ravens, are exemplifying how best to allocate resources around such QBs.
It's now up to Baltimore, for their own sake and that of Jackson, to decide when and how they can fix that.