BALTIMORE — The Lamar Jackson era arrived Sunday in Baltimore.
Or Jackson made a successful first NFL start as a temporary fill-in for the injured Joe Flacco.
That can be sorted out later. For now, what matters is that Jackson, the quarterback chosen with the final pick of the first round of this year’s NFL draft, had an eye-catching performance as a dual threat and kept the Ravens’ season from unraveling any further. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 24-21, at M&T Bank Stadium to end a three-game losing streak and get back to .500.
“We came out with a win,” Jackson said when asked to assess his NFL starting debut. “It was pretty good, I guess.”
Jackson was electrifying as a runner, with 117 rushing yards on 27 carries — an astounding volume for a quarterback. He was okay as a passer, connecting on 13 of 19 throws for 150 yards. He threw an interception and didn’t have a touchdown pass. And that, combined with the 115 rushing yards on 17 carries provided by rookie running back Gus Edwards, was good enough for the Ravens.
They evened their record at 5-5 in a season in which they probably must reach the AFC playoffs to save the job of Coach John Harbaugh. This has been characterized as a win-or-else season for both Harbaugh and Flacco. But now even a postseason run might not be good enough to preserve the starting status of Flacco, the Super Bowl winner who was on the inactive list Sunday because of a hip injury.
That injury opened the door for Jackson to make his first NFL start. He was the last of the five quarterbacks taken in the opening round of this year’s draft to do so. But unlike the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield and the Arizona Cardinals’ Josh Rosen, Jackson became the starter for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations.
“I thought he played spectacular,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he played winning football. … For a first-time-out rookie in an environment like that to have all those operational things go well speaks to his intelligence, his studiousness, just his ability to run the show. After that, the playmaking, that comes from God.”
Eventually, Harbaugh must decide whether to stick with Jackson as the starter or go back to Flacco. After the season, the Ravens will have to decide whether to trade Flacco and trust that Jackson can be the centerpiece of the offense.
For now, at least, Jackson is the starter. Harbaugh said he knew all week that would be the case for this game. There was a brief scare when stomach pain sent Jackson to the hospital Thursday, but he was back at practice Friday. Harbaugh acknowledged Sunday that it’s unlikely Flacco will be ready to play this coming week.
Jackson showed Sunday that he clearly can give a defense trouble — particularly a unit with as many issues as Cincinnati’s. The Bengals entered the game ranked last in the league in total defense and 31st in scoring defense, and Coach Marvin Lewis just had fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and taken over control of the unit. Lewis also employed the help of Hue Jackson, the recently fired Browns head coach who joined Lewis’s staff this week.
The Ravens tweaked their offensive approach, taking advantage of Jackson’s running skills and trying to mask his inexperience in the passing game. Jackson made few risky throws down the field.
“I didn’t envision the game being that close. … I didn’t think I’d run the ball that much,” Jackson said. “But whatever it takes to win.”
That approach probably is not sustainable, Harbaugh conceded.
“I don’t believe it’s going to take that many carries every week,” Harbaugh said. “That’s not what we’re going to be shooting for, by any stretch. But if it takes that many, we’re going to do it. He took some hits. I thought that they knew the quarterback was running the ball. They were going after him a little bit, as you would expect. That’s something that we’ve got to look at going forward.”
The Ravens ran the football on each of their first 13 plays Sunday. That included an 11-play touchdown drive on their opening possession on which Jackson ran for 46 yards on five carries. According to the NFL, it was the first time since 2003 that any team had no passing attempts on an opening scoring drive with at least 10 plays and covering at least 75 yards.
A 56-yard field goal by Justin Tucker as time expired in the first half sent Baltimore to the locker room with a 13-7 lead. After the Bengals game back, the Ravens tied the game at 21 late in the third quarter on a touchdown and two-point conversion by Edwards. Tucker provided a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter, and Baltimore held on from there, aided by a missed 52-yard field goal try by Cincinnati kicker Randy Bullock.
The Bengals, playing again without injured wide receiver A.J. Green, lost for the fourth time in five games to drop to 5-5. They’re tied with the Ravens for second place in the AFC North. But the two teams emerged from Sunday’s game with far different outlooks. For the Ravens, it was a day of optimism about what could be to come.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Harbaugh said. “It wasn’t perfect. But it was us. It was the Ravens.”