Jackson had carried the Ravens to a 23-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals and fellow phenom quarterback Kyler Murray with a performance both breathtaking and historic. He passed for 272 yards and ran for 120 on 16 carries, making him the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 270 yards and run for at least 120 in the same game. He had sealed victory with a 41-yard heave to rookie speedster Marquise Brown that doubled as a work of art. Two weeks into the NFL season, there is not a more valuable, more fascinating, more exhilarating player than Jackson.
And there he was, sitting next to a veteran teammate, wondering and synthesizing how he could improve.
“I could have been a lot better,” Jackson said. “There’s some passes I want back, some sacks I want back.”
The notion of Jackson developing is both realistic and scary for the rest of the NFL. Using a creative, diverse scheme, the Ravens have built their offense around Jackson’s exceptional composite of passing acuity and electric running. In a season-opening romp over Miami, Jackson posted a perfect passer rating. On Sunday, he unleashed his speed and left Arizona confounded.
The Ravens may not be the second-best team in the AFC. But Jackson’s singular talent, and the way Baltimore wields it, will enable the Ravens to threaten anybody, even the New England Patriots. Jackson does not play quarterback like the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, but he is Mahomesian in the hope he provides his team: If the Ravens have him on their side, regardless of the opponent, they have a chance.
The Ravens will visit Kansas City next week for a quarterback duel worth drooling over. The meeting will give the Ravens and Jackson a chance to validate their 2-0 start against a Super Bowl contender after facing two winless teams to start the year.
In the Ravens’ Week 1 demolition of Miami, Jackson ran only three times for six yards, a departure from the Ravens’ run-heavy approach last season after Jackson took over as a rookie midseason following an injury to Joe Flacco. He ran 16 times Sunday against Arizona, a mix of designed keepers, option plays and scrambles.
“Not bad for a quarterback,” Coach John Harbaugh joked, playing off Jackson’s Week 1 barb to critics that his perfect passing day wasn’t bad for a running back.
The difference was not a function of Baltimore’s plan. It was an illustration of what makes Jackson so deadly. The Ravens entered their first two games with roughly the same strategy of how to exploit Jackson’s talent. “I just had to take what the defense gave me,” Jackson said, shrugging. “It’s the same offense.” The Ravens didn’t change; they only reacted, in a fashion that Jackson allows.
“As we talked about a lot over the offseason, our offense is very adaptable,” Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “Most of it was due just to what Arizona was doing and how they tried to play coverage. They tried to keep everything in front of them. At the end of the game, we knew they needed a stop, so they were going to play man [coverage]. Teams don’t play zone when they need a stop. They played man, and we burned them on it. If teams want to play zone, they want to play man, we’ve got a way to attack that. He ran more today, but that’s just based off what the defense gave him.”
Guard Marshal Yanda explained one reason for the change. Arizona’s defensive ends frequently crashed down to stop Ingram on handoffs rather than staying put, as they had in Miami, so Jackson kept the ball and sprinted around the edge. The Cardinals also rushed Jackson with more urgency than Miami, which gave him less time to pass but opened more lanes for Jackson to scramble. He kept multiple drives alive by squirting forward through a seam in the pass rush and bolting downfield. Jackson turns those openings into chasms — when it looks like he may pick up a few yards, suddenly he is dashing for a dozen or so.
“The quarterback being able to move makes it to where the defense has to defend 11 people, not just 10,” Griffin said. “Traditionally in the NFL, they’ve only had to defend 10. So it’s not that defenses don’t know what to do. It’s that whenever they decide to do something, there’s going to be a weakness somewhere that we can exploit that teams that only play with 10 on offense essentially can’t exploit.”
The Ravens’ first two games showed the challenge Jackson presents. Miami tried to keep him in the pocket and prevent his designed runs, and Jackson destroyed the Dolphins through the air while Ingram ran for more than 100 yards. The Cardinals tried to pressure him, and Jackson burned them with crucial rushing gains.
“It’s just going to be a real conundrum for them,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be a real challenge for them to figure that out. They’re going to have to figure it out for themselves. As Lamar well knows, they’ll be chasing our scheme.”
The Ravens’ attack is even more insidious than it looks on the surface. On many plays when Jackson can either hand off or keep, the Ravens also attach an option to pass. Jackson’s touchdown pass on a short slant to Brown against the Dolphins came off play-action; had a defender keying Jackson covered Brown, Jackson could have kept the ball and sprinted around the end.
“That just puts a lot of stress on the defense,” Yanda said. “They have to defend Lamar as a runner. They have to defend the runner. Then it’s also a pass on a lot of those, attached to those. On a given play, there’s three different things you have to defend.”
Put more succinctly, as Yanda later added: “You better be on your s---.”
The Ravens’ deployment of personnel and formations makes that even trickier. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who spearheaded the ground-up overhaul of Baltimore’s offense this offseason, gives defenses headaches before the snap. On multiple snaps Sunday, the Ravens lined up with one wide receiver and still aligned five skill players, four of them backs or tight ends, out wide. The Ravens may be the only team in the league that announces three tight ends in the starting lineup.
Brown’s presence adds to the torment. On the Ravens’ first touchdown, Brown lined up to the left and motioned across the field. At the snap, Brown continued running wide and never advanced upfield. Three defenders locked eyes on Brown, the Ravens’ first-round draft pick, who has 12 catches for 223 yards. Tight end Mark Andrews sprinted past them down the sideline. Jackson lofted an easy pass into his hands, and Andrews jogged into the end zone.
On the play that effectively decided the outcome, Brown showed why defenses must focus on him. The Ravens faced third and 11 on their own 44-yard line with 3:05 remaining. The Cardinals had no timeouts left, so a run would have exhausted valuable clock. Harbaugh considered running, but instead he decided to put the game on Jackson’s arm, not his legs.
“That’s a matter of trust,” Andrews said.
Fullback Patrick Ricard entered the game to force the Cardinals to put a linebacker on the field. He then went in motion presnap, emptying the backfield. From the man coverage the Cardinals showed, Brown knew Jackson would be coming to him. He shook Tramaine Brock at the line and blazed down the field. Jackson hit him in stride for 41 yards. The Ravens went on to kill the clock.
“Lamar is a real quarterback,” Ingram said. “People can say what they want, but he can sit back there and drop dimes.”
Jackson still has tests to pass. He has yet to play from behind, to face a situation that forces him to convert crucial third downs on obvious passing downs. He has yet to face an opponent with a credible shot at playoff contention.
But he has already proved his dynamism, how dangerous he can be. The Dolphins forced him to pass. The Cardinals invited him to run. In both instances, Jackson obliged and beat them. The Ravens will face far better competition this year, starting next week. But Jackson will give them a chance, and he plans on getting better, too.
“It was good to see how much he’s grown from last year,” said Cardinals pass rusher Terrell Suggs, a longtime Raven. “He’s an NFL quarterback now, and he’s phenomenal.”