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Week 17 Care/Don't Care: Behold, A Ravens Offense We've Never Seen Before In The Lamar Era | TheSportsDay Week 17 Care/Don't Care: Behold, A Ravens Offense We've Never Seen Before In The Lamar Era | TheSportsDay

Week 17 Care/Don't Care: Behold, a Ravens offense we've never seen before in the Lamar era

Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens
Lamar Jackson solidified his MVP case in Week 17. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Five things I care about

The Ravens demonstrate their complete transformation

The Ravens took down the 49ers and Dolphins, two of the best operations in the league, by a combined 51 points in back-to-back weeks. They did it on the way to clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC and vaulting their quarterback to the driver’s seat of the MVP conversation.

Statement wins don’t even begin to do this justice.

As MVP chants rained down all afternoon, Lamar Jackson predictably didn’t engage much and took a “job’s not done” approach in postgame interviews. Jackson and everyone affiliated with the Ravens don’t have their eye on MVP trophies or Week 17 wins. They want the Super Bowl, plain and simple. However, he entertained queries about the differences between this year’s Ravens and previous editions.

After the game, Jackson told Evan Washburn of CBS, “This year our guys stayed locked in,” when comparing Sunday’s win to the last time Baltimore and Miami went to battle. In 2022, the Ravens controlled the game but let it slip away in the fourth quarter as the Dolphins fired vertical shots over the top of the typically stout Ravens defense. Jackson emphasized that this group knows how to finish, something they’ve struggled with in recent seasons. They’ve proven they’re different by keeping their foot on the gas and putting away top-tier teams the last two weeks.

That’s not the only way this year’s Ravens are wildly different than previous renditions. You need only look back one year ago today to spot the contrast.

Look at that box score from 2022’s Week 17 loss and compare it with what you watched from the Ravens on Sunday. Lamar Jackson threw five touchdown passes and finished the game with a perfect 158.2 passer rating. The critical note: he activated multiple pass-catchers.

Zay Flowers finished the day with a mere three catches but those went for 106 yards and a score, the majority coming on a 75-yard deep shot with layers of YAC on top. Isaiah Likely scored twice, once on a 35-yard catch-and-run downfield play and another on a beautifully designed leak route near the goal line. Rashod Bateman and Jackson didn’t connect on a 40-plus-yard pass early in the game but the receiver put that behind him and finished with 54 yards and helped move the chains with consistent intermediate route running. Odell Beckham snared a contested catch on a go-route for 33 yards on his lone reception to move the team inside the five-yard line.

Even in the running back room, as Gus Edwards was thumping away, Justice Hill was a consistent source of big plays. He averaged 12.8 yards on his five catches and 16 yards on his three rush attempts. Not to mention a whopping 50.5 yards on his pair of kick returns.

The Ravens have never come close to being able to throw this many playmakers at an opponent. The 2022 Week 17 example is extreme but the lack of truly dangerous, much less multi-layered pass-catchers has haunted the Ravens with Lamar Jackson under center.

In one offseason, they’ve added some serious juice to the offense.

It’s important to note that, while guys like Flowers and Beckham are new faces, some of these players who are making a crucial impact are holdovers. That’s where the coaching change comes in. All of these players are being deployed in a unit with the ruthlessly creative Todd Monken at the controls. If the contrast in juice didn’t catch your eye, the night-and-day difference in the play design certainly should.

As Jackson alluded, the job isn’t done. But as this Baltimore team marches toward their desired goals, they can do so with the confidence that they have the goods that older models didn’t possess. They have all the makings of a great, modern NFL offense as they prepare for a postseason run. We don’t know how this journey will end for the 2023 Ravens but we know they’re far better prepared for the road than ever before.

The 49ers take care of business

The team that fell to the Ravens last week was able to shake off their Christmas day letdown in Week 17. The 49ers should beat a floundering Commanders team that was forced into starting the quarterback they tried to bench by double digits — and that’s precisely what they did.

As the defense created chaos on their side, Brock Purdy checked in with all his usual efficient marks. He averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and completed 78.6% of his passes. Purdy consistently connected with his top wideout, Brandon Aiyuk. A Washington defense that can’t cover a soul yet still rolls out more man-to-man than almost anyone in the league was always a plus matchup for Aiyuk.

Yet, it was the nature of their plays that mattered. Aiyuk made catches on out-breaking patterns, in tight coverage on go-routes and put the cherry on top with an improvisational touchdown when Purdy went into creation mode.

These types of plays simply weren’t present in pre-Purdy iterations of the 49ers offense.

The win did come at something of a cost, as so many fantasy managers are ready to tell you. Typically, I don’t feel bad for gamers when their RB1 touches the ball 18 times and records 91 total yards. When that player is Christian McCaffrey, I’ll allow a small touch of pity.

McCaffrey suffered what was announced as a calf injury in the second half of this game. Elijah Mitchell came in and ultimately helped close this thing out. He’s one of the best backup runners in the league. There’s no real replacing of McCaffrey and that will certainly be true when the competition gets much tougher than the Commanders.

That’s what makes wrapping up the NFC’s top seed in Week 17 so important, thanks to this win and a stunning Eagles loss. While McCaffrey’s fantasy season is over, his and the 49ers’ real pursuit of glory is just beginning. With the top seed all wrapped up, they can place McCaffrey on ice next week right before the whole team gets a bye during the Wild Card round. We should all — outside of fans of other NFC teams — be rooting for his total health, because as the Aiyuk-to-Purdy connection reminded us on Sunday, this offense is something we just haven’t seen before during a 49ers postseason run.

Jayden Reed

One of my favorite wide receiver prospects from the 2023 NFL Draft was now-Packers rookie, Jayden Reed. Sunday Night Football was just another example in a season’s worth of evidence for why I was so high on Reed. He’s quietly one of the most dynamic players in yet another great rookie class.

Jordan Love’s first pass of the game was a deep shot to Reed. It wasn’t the first time he looked for Reed in the vertical game as the two would later connect on a 33-yard post route. The more Reed shines in the deep game, the better off this Packers offense is. The best part of Reed’s game is that he’s multi-faceted. He can win on big-boy routes against press coverage (as the video above shows) but the Packers are comfortable working him in on designer plays underneath. His second touchdown of the day came on an explosive run-after-catch play after he ran a gorgeous route against man coverage.

I often said during the draft process that Reed was one or two tweaks away from being a high-level starting wide receiver. There are still some kinks Reed needs to work out in the contested-catch game but otherwise, as a separator and runner after the catch, Reed has made those leaps I wanted to see.

The Packers have drafted a lot of skill-position players the last two years. All of them look like they will be useful-to-very-good players in the league. With Jordan Love looking like a quality starter, we should be interested in all of them at different levels.

I said it when he was drafted and I’ll say it again: Reed will be the best of the bunch.

My only negative note from Reed’s rookie season is that he’s been dealing with many nagging injuries this season. He missed the second half of this SNF game after re-aggravating a chest injury he’s been nursing since Week 12. Part of Reed’s appeal is that he’ll handle the dirty work underneath and in the YAC game in addition to his special teams contribution. He’s going to take punishment in those areas. Hopefully, the Packers can work out how to keep him healthy for the long term and allow him to shine fully.

Jayden Reed has superstar potential. Plain and simple. He has the route chops, explosive ability and open-field instincts to be a deadly playmaker. Reed and Love’s connection is perfectly emblematic of the Packers’ hyper-fast rebirth on offense. He will be right at the top of my fantasy targets for next season.

Rams cap off an all-time fantasy waiver run

In Week 17, the Los Angeles Rams locked up an NFC playoff berth and they couldn’t have done it without the impact of two unlikely young heroes. Kyren Williams ends the fantasy football season as the RB4 in Yahoo standard scoring in just two games (RB2 in points per game) and Puka Nacua finishes as the WR6.

You were a big-time winner if you went hard at them after Week 1 on waivers.

This is purely anecdotal, but I ran into three to four teams in my own fantasy playoff runs that had both Kyren Williams and Puka Nacua. I talked to multiple people who were facing the same type of squad while giving advice. It wasn’t an utterly unseen stack. Imagine getting two elite-level difference-makers off the waiver wire.

That’s one way to push for a championship.

We might never see a situation like this again where two players from the same offense come off the waiver wire and finish as top-10 players. We can still learn two things here, however.

For one, if you can identify the value offense in fantasy football in the offseason, you gain a big edge. The Rams were not often discussed as this type of team but with a veteran high-end quarterback fully healthy in Matthew Stafford to elevate young playmakers and an elite-tier play-caller, they were a fantastic candidate.

Secondly, it pays to be aggressive with your FAAB early in the season. With the rest of the season waiting, it can be hard to blow it all right away. You know there will be some adds you can’t even consider making down the line. However, we get some of our most valuable and most surprising revelations in Week 1. If you can adequately react to the correct information, you’ll find true difference-makers worth unloading the wallet for early on. Those who went hard for Nacua and Williams are proof positive of profitable early aggression.

Mason Rudolph has been enough

Look, I said many stupid things about the ceiling of the Steelers offense. I overlooked a lot of potential pitfalls for the unit but it was because there was serious talent in the wide receiver and running back rooms. Those takes didn’t age well.

But I had no idea that Mason Rudolph was the guy we needed to get the offense unlocked.

I’m being a bit sarcastic, but there’s no denying that Rudolph has given the Steelers their most productive play behind center in 2023.

Rudolph has a passer rating north of 100 in back-to-back games. But more importantly, he’s been far more (wisely) aggressive than either of his predecessors.

In Week 17, Rudolph had a 2.8 time to throw and averaged 8.0 air yards per pass attempt. He’s willing to stand in under pressure and fire the ball downfield. George Pickens has come alive in the last two weeks. He recorded another 131 yards after taking over the game in Week 16. Even the customarily target-constricted Diontae Johnson hauled in multiple deep receptions against Seattle.

While I don’t think Rudolph is anything close to the answer for Pittsburgh’s future questions at quarterback, I at least owe him an apology for completely writing him off. He’s shined a light on the mercurial talent in this receiver room by simply giving them accurate chances downfield. At the very least, he’s served as a reason to be in on these wideouts again in 2024 if the Steelers are serious about upgrading the offensive coordinator and quarterback spot. For that reason alone, he’s been enough.

Five things I don’t care about

Previously-held limitations on CeeDee Lamb

Prior to 2023, there had been a general sense of “wanting more” from CeeDee Lamb’s statistical output. As this season winds to a close, those sentiments are ancient history.

On Saturday, he put on a complete and utter show against an overmatched Lions secondary. By the time the game ended, Lamb had locked up his spot as the Cowboys franchise leader in receptions (122) and receiving yards (1,651). He’s currently the top-scoring wideout in fantasy football.

Lamb was one of the right answers.

I have folks asking me if he should be in the Justin Jefferson tier in dynasty fantasy football — and even ranked ahead of the Vikings wideout. If you don’t play in that format, the gravity of that sentence may not hit but essentially Jefferson’s place atop the receiver rankings was nearly untouchable. Maybe I’m being a prisoner of the moment but I think it’s worth a conversation.

Lamb has more than graduated into the elite tier of NFL wide receivers. He’s among the best in the game and is a spectacular separator against every form of coverage at every level. Unlike Jefferson, I know for sure who will be throwing him the ball next season and can project his partnership with Dak Prescott for multiple seasons to come.

Final note on this: CeeDee Lamb made noise after the 49ers loss, stating that he wasn’t getting enough work. It’s hard to remember now but this Cowboys offense was not making him the focal point of the passing game to start the season and the on-field product was suffering. It was clearly an issue and the receiver called it out. His opportunity was not in line with his ability. Targets aren’t just earned — they need to be assigned and Dallas wasn’t doing a good enough job there. It was easy to see.

So let this serve as a reminder when we want to criticize receivers for making noise about their lack of opportunity. Sometimes, these guys are right and they can help their team win by getting more work. That’s especially true when said receiver is an obvious stone-cold baller who is almost always open like CeeDee Lamb. What an incredible season for the fourth-year receiver.

The Eagles’ talent

A few weeks ago, in this very same column, my stance on the Eagles was that even if they were playing below their record while beating subpar teams, they’d eventually be fine because they have better players than most of their opponents.

At this point, my stance has well since changed.

The warning signs have been building for weeks. A Week 17 loss to the now 4-12 Cardinals that dramatically helps their NFC rivals sounds the panic alarms.

The Eagles offense had their moments. Jalen Hurts tossed three touchdowns, including two to Julio Jones. They had an efficient day on the ground in a plus matchup. But they weren’t perfect; they haven’t been on that side of the ball all season. We know that’s a massive issue for the Eagles at this stage of their season because the defense gives this team zero margin for error.

Kyler Murray became just the latest quarterback to tear apart the Eagles’ pass defense. His 116.7 passer rating was easily his best since returning to the NFL field in early November. He hadn’t completed over 67% of his throws in any game. He checked in with 80.6% in Week 17. Murray had gone under 6.5 yards per attempt in all of his previous four games. The Eagles afforded him a 7.5 average.

Murray and the Cardinals found this level of passing success without their No. 1 receiver in Marquise Brown and their breakout tight end recording just 48 yards on seven targets. Eight Cardinals caught a pass against the Eagles. They could burn this defense in any such way.

Again, none of this is new. The Eagles’ pass defense has been an issue all year long. The more troubling part is that the run defense has completely fallen apart as the season comes to a close.

James Conner became the latest bell-cow back to barrel through this front seven. He took his 26 carries for 128 yards and a score. Even backup running back Michael Carter averaged a whopping 8.7 yards per carry. The Eagles employ many proven veterans and several highly drafted players in the front four. And yet it was Arizona that controlled the line of scrimmage.

The Eagles defense is beyond a problem. It’s a key part of their identity and a crippling factor in their disappointing season. The offense has to cover for it and nothing that side of the ball has shown this season over the last two months gives you faith they can be that dominant of a group. And with No. 2 receiver DeVonta Smith leaving the game on crutches in a walking boot, that assignment is only going to get more complicated if he has to miss time.

Talent can trump all when that talent is available and playing to the height of its power. That just hasn’t been true of the 2023 Philadelphia Eagles.

Bucs offense when they’re off-script

Of course, the week I made a big deal about Baker Mayfield being my biggest miss of the 2023 season on the podcast, the Bucs laid an egg against an inferior Saints team at home. That said, I don’t think this offense is the biggest concern around this team. That would be the defense.

The Bucs can still win the NFC South if they merely beat the lowly Panthers next week. They should get the job done and overall, are still the best option to represent this division in the postseason. They have the most intriguing ceiling when the offense is cooking. There’s just next to no shot anyone can take them seriously against playoff-level competition with that defense.

Even if the Cowboys and Eagles, the two teams they’d likely face in Round 1 of the postseason, have their issues, both teams have the skill-position talent to rip apart that defense. Maybe with the serious concerns the Eagles are facing with their own stop unit the Bucs would have a chance to win in a shootout but it’s a stretch.

This Week 17 result was a reminder that when you can push the Tampa Bay offense behind the action by multiple scores in negative game script, you won’t get their best in return. Turnover creeps into Mayfield’s game and what’s starting to develop into a solid run game with Rachaad White becomes irrelevant.

Justin Fields’ flaws

Justin Fields is not perfect. Anyone can see that. He takes too many sacks and isn’t always perfectly in rhythm in the underneath passing game.

I care about those flaws, but not enough to dissuade a quarterback-needy team that isn’t in a position to take a top rookie prospect from a pursuit of the soon-to-be former Bears passer.

With the Panthers’ loss today, Chicago officially netted the first overall pick in the draft. It’s nothing short of a coup to acquire a future first and for that pick to become the top selection. Twists of fate don’t always bend to this level of fortune. The Bears know that and will likely cash in that lottery ticket to restart the quarterback clock. Fields is a known commodity and the rookies are not but the upside of Caleb Williams or Drake Maye will be too enticing to pass up.

That will put Fields on the move and they can get a decent return for him. Sam Darnold was once traded for a future second-round pick and additional selections. This would be a similar type of swap out for young quarterbacks but Fields has been much better than Darnold was in New York to start his career.

Fields appears to be ending the 2023 season on a high note. As Week 17 comes to a close, he is second behind only Lamar Jackson in quarterback rushing yards despite only playing 12 games, and more importantly, he vaulted DJ Moore to a career season. Moore sits at 1,300 yards receiving and nine total scores, both career-high marks. Fields and Moore were excellent at slicing apart man coverage, an excellent signal for the passers’ future endeavors.

Fields isn’t the picture-perfect franchise solution for his next team but he’s some level of an answer. There will be teams out there that aren’t in range for a difference-making rookie who should come calling on Fields. Some of those teams will actually offer superior offensive line play, offense-centric coaching staffs and perhaps a deep set of wide receivers — the Bears got next to nothing from anyone beyond Moore — than what Fields experienced in Chicago.

The Jaguars win

I shouldn’t be so hard on Jacksonville. I often say that blowout wins can tell us something and great teams demolish bad teams. Well, the Jaguars indeed swept away the Panthers with relative ease. However, I’m not sure beating a team this deep into chaos, where their owner apparently throws drinks into a crowd, moves me much.

Any good vibes Carolina enjoyed last week in an upset win while Bryce Young put up career-best passing numbers were quickly wiped away this week. Even if Jacksonville’s offense struggled to move the ball, the Panthers just went nowhere on their side. They officially sent the No. 1 overall pick to the Chicago Bears with Sunday’s result.

The Jaguars were able to get a big play out of the run game with Travis Etienne Jr. on a 62-yard touchdown scamper. That was a welcome sign for a team that’s struggled to run the ball for months. The run blocking has been a mess at times but much like the issues in the passing game, you can chalk up most of the issues to overall design. Etienne got out in space on this run, where he’s at his best. There just hasn’t been enough of that this season.

At least he closed things out for his fantasy managers. His fantasy numbers have mostly been a mirage and not even close to indicative of the health of Jacksonville’s run game. Nevertheless, he rewarded gamers with a hammer shot in Week 17.

Given the matchup, I just struggle to put much stock into a new wrinkle like this. It would be great to see more of this from Jacksonville as they head into a postseason push. So, do it again. Go out and run on the Titans, who so often sell out to stop ground games, in Week 18. Make a statement before heading into the NFL playoffs — because doing it to the Panthers just doesn’t move the needle.

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