The Baltimore Ravens scored an important win in Lamar Jackson’s first career start. Jackson’s unique skill set allowed the Ravens to run a diverse offense that pushed them to victory.
Forced to start in lieu of veteran Joe Flacco’s hip injury, rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson’s debut as a starter delivered on the hype he generated as a Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick. Though his stat line wasn’t a gaudy display of passing efficiency, Jackson was able to combine his dazzling running ability and connect on several clutch throws to propel the Ravens to victory.
There was significant interest in seeing how an offense featuring Jackson would run. Though a capable pocket passer at Louisville in an offense that featured full-field reads and timing concepts over the middle of the field, Jackson struggled on certain throws outside of the numbers due to an erratic throwing base and inconsistent touch. Still, he excelled as a variance passer who would make up for the inconsistency with chunk plays.
The preseason usage of Jackson led to mixed results. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg asked Jackson to replicate Flacco’s role as a pocket passer with the backups, and Jackson had flashes but wasn’t nearly as comfortable as he looked this past Sunday. Mornhinweg unveiled a much more diverse offense against the Cincinnati Bengals that was well-tailored for Jackson’s success.
The results were impressive and revealing of how Jackson’s gravity as a playmaker effects a defense. Mornhinweg incorporated several refreshed formations including the full house and pistol sets that allowed Jackson to begin plays with depth and keep the Bengals from overcommitting to runs.
Much attention has gone to Jackson’s record-setting rushing contributions, such as the fact he had the most carries by a quarterback in the modern era and several team records. His 27 carries for 117 electrified the team’s offense, creating easy chunks of yards throughout the day to extend drives and own the time of possession. His speed and shiftiness continually caused the Bengals angst as they could only contain him when penetrating the backfield upon the snap.
There’s concern for the workload exhibited this game and understandably so. Even as several of his 27 carries came on clock-bleeding kneels at the end of the game, and more where Jackson slid or ran out of bounds, that’s not a pace that’s likely sustainable for his own health or the efficiency of the offense.
(Interestingly, Michael Vick’s prime years as a runner led to him missing fewer games than the nicks and bruises he endured post-suspension as a purely pocket passer. Jackson is bigger than Vick, so there’s reason to believe the potential injury concerns are overblown as long as he’s not used quite as much as he was this week.)
But his usage benefitted the unit this week, and also led to a career game from rookie running back Gus Edwards. As seen in the example above in slow motion, Edwards continually had advantageous one-on-one situations with defenders. The backside of each run play saw Bengals defenders reading their run keys instead of crashing, which is something few NFL quarterbacks affect on a consistent basis.
Edwards was stellar creating after contact on his own, leading to 115 yards and a touchdown. Jackson’s presence stretched Cincinnati thin on the second-level consistently. Whenever the Bengals filled the box, Mornhinweg had Jackson perform a rollout, play-action, or read option where he could exploit the numbers difference.
Looking deeper than Jackson’s 13-of-19, 150-yard passing game revealed a promising performance as a thrower much like Michael Vick was. The Vick comparisons were formed with reason based on their collegiate performances, except that Jackson entered the league more refined and with more experience. It’s also fitting that Mornhinweg is present to usher Jackson into the league after he worked with Vick.
Taking out two throwaways, Jackson was accurate on 12 of his 17 actual passing attempts. Similar to his collegiate performance, he was consistent on short passes, with nine of 10 attempts being catchable, and the only one that wasn’t was a batted ball at the line. As seen above, he was able to show off his accuracy even when having to manipulate his arm angle to beat the coverage.
His creativity showed on the few deeper passes he attempted. While he had an interception born out of ambition and quality positioning from Shawn Williams (below), his ability to extend plays and keep defenders’ eyes trained on him was something that propelled the offense on scoring drives.
Outside of that one mistake, Jackson’s ability to extend plays and hit windows on the move compared to Andy Dalton’s issues creating impact plays was the difference the Ravens needed to win. So while it may be frustrating that he’ll hold on to the ball too long at times and can sail some throws, his poise and patience can reap greater rewards, such as this key play that set up a field goal before halftime.
It’s easy to see all of Jackson’s positive traits in this one play. He quickly surveyed the defense and found his targets staring back at him with no reasonable passing downs. As pressure started to cave, he remained alert and started to dodge possible contact.
His natural inclination was to tuck the ball and search for a rushing lane, but also important was protecting the ball in case he were to be hit from behind. While not ideal that he’s so quick to turn his back to the line of scrimmage, he does well to tuck the ball to prevent a fumble. His next decision to raise his eyes and find an open receiver who’s emerged due to his scrambling changed the course of the drive.
The few quarterbacks in the league capable of creating these specific plays is a well-regarded group: Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers come to mind immediately.
He again struck with another outside-the-pocket intermediate dart, this time leading to the winning field goal. On third and seven early in the fourth quarter, Jackson refused to settle for an easy checkdown that would’ve likely resulted in a punt. He felt the collapsing pocket and immediately scooted to the open field to his strong side.
His situational awareness and accuracy in this moment was fantastic as he hit his target in stride near the sideline. It’s exactly these plays that he must hit to fully develop into a balanced quarterback and convert scoring opportunities.
Like every rookie, defenses will surely adjust to what the Ravens put on tape this week. Jackson will have to adjust and likely hit more intermediate and deep passes. It’s a cycle that every quarterback goes through, and it’s one that eventually determines their long-term viability.
Ravens fans and skeptics alike should be encouraged by his starting debut. There’s a sentiment that what Jackson does as a passer isn’t sustainable, but it’s not much different of a process than what some of the league’s elite do.
Baltimore should continue to be committed to Jackson even if Flacco regains his health. At 5-5 and favorable home games againce Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland left, Jackson can be the missing component for this offense. He creates more opportunities for the unit due to his skill set.
Even if and when he struggles, Flacco’s own limitations would withhold the Ravens from winning anything meaningful. Their top competition for the Wild Card spot may be Indianapolis, a young team playing well at the right time of the year and with a superstar quarterback.
We’ll be sure to continue keeping a close watch on Jackson and the rest of the rookie quarterbacks as we hit the final stretch of the regular season.