Remember that young Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback who struggled in the playoffs a year ago? Say hello to the much-improved Lamar Jackson.
On Thursday night in Baltimore, the New York Jets have the unenviable task of trying to slow down the league’s highest-scoring teams and the most exciting player in the league this season. And while stranger things have happened, it’s hard to believe that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his unit will be able to limit the team tied for the best record in the NFL to nothing but field goals.
Of course, the subject is John Harbaugh’s AFC North leaders. The Ravens have totaled an NFL-best 430 points and on offense have been led by second-year signal-caller Lamar Jackson. A season ago, he was the last pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Call it a going-away present of sorts by then-general manager Ozzie Newsome, who traded back into the first round to grab the former Louisville superstar.
It was obvious that Harbaugh and his staff wanted to get him on the field in any number of ways. Veteran Joe Flacco was still the starter but Jackson added a little something extra to the offense. He made an appearance in each of the team’s first nine games in 2018. But with the Ravens nursing a 4-5 record and Flacco suddenly hobbled by a hip issue, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner got the nod in Week 11 and made his first start behind center.
The team tailored the offense to take advantage of his skills. His pedestrian passing numbers were offset by his play-making ability via his legs. Baltimore transformed itself into a ground-oriented attack that would wind up finishing second in the NFL in rushing yards per game. The club won six of their final seven contests and captured the AFC North. However, the club was one-and-out in a 23-17 home playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
A closer look at Jackson as the starting quarterback shows a less-than-impressive resume. Including the playoff loss to the Chargers, he completed less than 60% of his passes in six of his eight showings. He never attempted 30 passes in a game. He threw a combined seven touchdown passes compared to four interceptions. But over that stretch, he fumbled a combined 13 times and lost five of those drops. And he looked overwhelmed in the Wild Card setback to the Bolts despite some late heroics.
This offseason, Greg Roman was promoted to offensive coordinator and let the revamping begin. And it’s hard to ignore the results. Jackson has connected on a steady 66.3% of his throws, good for 2,677 yards and 28 scores. He’s been picked off just six times in 13 games and three of those came in an overtime win at Pittsburgh. He’s already run for a team-best 1,017 yards and seven more touchdowns. The Ravens lead the league in rushing (200.9 yards per game), their offensive unit has produced 47 touchdowns and Jackson has been involved in 35 of those trips to the end zone.
As previously mentioned, Harbaugh’s club owns the NFL’s longest current winning streak. And Jackson and company seem to be getting better at what they’re doing on both sides of the ball. Consider that in the team’s last seven wins they have faced their share of formidable opposition. Over that stretch, the Seattle Seahawks (30-16), New England Patriots (37-20), Cincinnati Bengals (49-13), Houston Texans (41-7), Los Angeles Rams (45-6), San Francisco 49ers (20-17), and Buffalo Bills (24-17) have been outscored by a combined 150 points (246-96).
Still, the story here is Jackson. He was allowed to slowly adapt to the NFL thanks to those special packages from a year ago. Roman was on Jim Harbaugh’s staff in San Francisco from 2011-14 when Colin Kaepernick was doing his thing for the 49ers. You will recall he was also part of some special plays before taking over for Alex Smith after he suffered a concussion. He eventually took over as the starter and was paramount in the team’s appearance in Super Bowl XLVII.
It is obvious Jackson is benefitting from his early playing time as a rookie. He was able to acclimate to the speed of defenses. A lot of work has been put into his game and the Ravens are reaping the benefits. How far Harbaugh’s team goes this season is anyone’s guess. But the 32nd overall pick in the 2018 draft doesn’t look anything like the quarterback who couldn’t hang onto the ball against the Chargers in last year’s playoffs.
Now, Adam Gase and his Jets are expected to get a long look at Jackson on Thursday night despite the fact he’s nursing a quad injury. Perhaps the only questionable thing about this matchup is whether Williams and his defense have any answers for a player who appears destined for NFL MVP honors.