Ravens need to improve pass protection for Lamar Jackson to succeed

afc north, alejandro villanueva, Baltimore Ravens, bryan edwards, dee ford, gruden, lamar jackson, maxx crosby, myles garrett, national football league, NFL, nick bosa, orlando brown jr, penei sewell, ravenssteelers rivalry, sports, taylor, the nfl, tj watt

What happens when it’s TJ Watt?

What happens when it’s TJ Watt?
Image: Getty Images

Monday night’s tilt between the Ravens and Raiders brought about one of the wackiest endings to a game we’ve ever witnessed. There were last-minute field goals to send the game into overtime, some late-game heroics from receiver Bryan Edwards, a touchdown called back and placed at the 1-yard line, an end zone interception to keep the game going, a fumble by the team that made the interception to practically gift their opponents the win, and a walk-in, walk-off touchdown. I can only begin to imagine the rollercoaster of emotions that several Ravens and Raiders fans went through in the final minutes of that game. The most surprising thing to come out of that game though was a Raiders win.

Not only did the Raiders pull out the victory, but they made Lamar Jackson look like just an average NFL quarterback. The Raiders’ pressure forced several missed throws from the former MVP and limited Jackson to just one passing touchdown, all while recording three sacks and six quarterback hits. Yeah, that’s a solid amount of pressure the Raiders were putting on Jackson. It’s kind of ironic. During the broadcast, the announcers poked a little fun at the Raiders’ defensive woes in the Gruden era. They even had an animated graphic ready to let everyone know just how bad the Raiders have been on defense.

Funny enough, the Raiders forced multiple turnovers after that graphic aired. Talk about an announcer jinx. Those turnovers were a big reason the Ravens came out of Vegas holding the ‘L’.

However, the performance of one Maxx Crosby, or should I say, the poor performance of one Alejandro Villanueva may be even more to blame.

Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby was pretty damn solid on Monday. He recorded two tackles for loss to go along with two sacks. He was a regular in the Ravens’ backfield and an absolute menace on the right side of the Ravens’ line. It earned him an AFC Defensive Player of the Week award.

That right side of the line is where the newly acquired Alejandro Villanueva plays. Villanueva was brought on by the Ravens after trading away their two-time Pro Bowler tackle, Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs. Villanueva had a productive 2020, but struggled in the run blocking department, and his age has clearly slowed him down a step from where he was several years ago. Crosby is a good pass-rusher, but he’s not exactly the fastest or strongest guy out there. He plays with a lot of heart and seemingly never gives up on any given play, which is obviously a great personality trait to have, but he’s not the most talented edge rusher in the AFC. That distinction belongs to either TJ Watt or Myles Garrett, and wouldn’t you know it… both of those guys play for teams in the Ravens’ division.

I don’t want to overreact to what we saw on Monday. It was Villanueva’s first game in a new system and at a new position from what he’d played his entire career. Hopefully, he can learn the position better before he has to go up against any of the game’s elite pass-rushers. However, if we’ve learned anything this offseason regarding offensive line play, it’s that swapping from one side of the line to the other is much more difficult than it seems.

Take Penei Sewell for example. Sewell was one of, if not the most, highly-touted O-linemen in the most recent NFL draft. He was selected seventh overall by the Detroit Lions and was asked by his new team to swap from left tackle to right. That ended up being a much bigger problem than initially anticipated. On the offensive line, when you’ve conditioned yourself to step back with your right foot and get set from that position, you become comfortable using that foot, and setting up in that way on every pass protection snap. That’s a big reason why Sewell continued to struggle at the right tackle position, but as soon as he was swapped back to left tackle after Taylor Decker’s injury on Saturday, despite Sewell taking very few snaps in training camp at the left tackle position, Sewell looked how we all expected him to. He was getting set quickly and consistently beating strong edge-rushers like Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. Sewell didn’t win every snap, but held his own, and that’s very promising.

The same goes for Villanueva, and maybe to an even larger extent. Where Sewell is a rookie with lots of time to develop, Villanueva has already gone through his development process. He’s been a left tackle since he joined the Steelers in 2015, and it may be too late for the Ravens to transition him to the opposite side of the line. After six years in the NFL, he’s trained himself to protect the quarterback’s blind side. He’s become comfortable getting set on his left foot. Now, he’s being asked to throw all that out the window, and that could lead to serious struggles in the Ravens’ passing game.

I still love the Ravens. I think they’re tremendously talented and have a great opportunity to win their division, but if Villanueva doesn’t figure out his issues at the right tackle position, the AFC North will likely fall into the hands of the Browns or Steelers.

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