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Lamar Jackson and the Ravens reinvented themselves — and got scarier

Lamar Jackson has elevated his offensive numbers this season. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There is an argument to be made that Lamar Jackson is not only the best quarterback in the game right now but the best football player period. And if he comes anywhere close to maintaining his current level, we may be witnessing the greatest season anyone has ever seen.

Jackson, 25, is playing better than ever — better than during his unanimous 2019 MVP campaign — at a time when more is being asked of him. Jackson was hesitant to admit as much when I probed him about it after Wednesday’s practice, but he didn’t entirely dismiss the notion, either. Through three games, the Ravens quarterback leads the NFL in quarterback rating and passing touchdowns while also eviscerating defenses when they blitz — his supposed boogeyman — and dominating when throwing in the pocket, another supposed weakness, according to a lazy misapprehension about his game. He’s throwing efficiently from under center, too, a new wrinkle in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s evolving system that could portend even more transcendence from his most gifted pupil.

Oh, and Jackson is tied for fifth in the NFL with 243 rushing yards — despite having far fewer attempts than most top running backs — with a staggering 9.3 yards per rush, more than twice the league average. Remove his five kneel downs, and he has 21 actual rushes for 248 yards and an astounding 11.8 yards per carry while also ranking second in the NFL in air yards per pass, according to the website TruMedia. This is football’s version of Shohei Ohtani, so it was absolutely fitting that cameras captured baseball’s two-way GOAT wearing Jackson’s No. 8 jersey during the NFL’s opening weekend.

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“You kind of get used to seeing him do this stuff, but you know it’s not normal,” veteran running back Justice Hill said. “He’s a once-in-a-generation player. It’s crazy to see what he does.”

Jackson’s 12 total touchdowns are more than any NFL team through three weeks save for the upstart Detroit Lions, who also have 12. He is the first player in NFL history with at least 10 passing touchdowns and 200 rushing yards through his team’s first three games. He is the only player in history with consecutive games of both three touchdown passes and 100 rushing yards, and in Week 2 he became the first player with 300 passing yards, three or more passing touchdowns, 100 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown all in the same contest. (Somehow the Ravens still lost to the Miami Dolphins, an indictment of the depths of a once-proud defense.)

A tall task awaits Sunday with the Buffalo Bills traveling to M&T Bank Stadium, but there are reasons to believe the Ravens’ passing game can maintain this ascent — and that Jackson’s campaign will continue to look significantly different than his previous MVP season. Roman and the Ravens have reinvented themselves on first down, going from a revolutionary three-headed monster rushing attack in 2019 to a newly aggressive air approach.

In 2019, Baltimore dropped back on first down just 39.3 percent of the time, the lowest in the NFL, riding a record-setting running game that often set up Jackson in third and short. The Ravens have struggled to run the ball nearly that well since injuries to top backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards before last season. This year, Jackson is dropping back on about 50 percent of first downs — nearly the NFL average — and has the league’s best passer rating on first down.

Jackson, still playing out the fifth-year option on his rookie contract and somehow just the 15th-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL this season, is taking more deep shots on early downs in general and running more play-action looks under center. And he lit up when asked about it.

“I love it,” Jackson said, beaming. “I feel like it’s very effective because defenses don’t know whether you’re running the ball or dropping back to pass with the play action — stuff like that. So I feel like it’s helping us out a lot.”

Roman said, “I really think it adds a different dimension to what we can do moving forward.”

The Ravens still aren’t putting their quarterback under center as much as most teams, but the metamorphosis is striking nevertheless. Jackson set a career high with four passes under center two weeks ago — then set a new high with five last week. And there is every indication more is on the way.

“Greg had talked about that in the offseason, getting Lamar under center,” Coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s valuable for us. There’s a run game that goes with that; there’s a pass game that goes with that. It’s better in some short-yardage situations to be able to do that. We’ve usually done it in short yardage, but we’ve expanded it to first and second down now. So I think it’s been good for us. Like anything else, we have to keep building on it.”

Jackson was almost exclusively in pistol and shotgun looks at Louisville and said going under center in high school was not an option. “Nah, my center was too small,” Jackson cracked. The quarterback attempted 36 passes from under center in his previous four NFL seasons combined, but when you discount spikes to stop the clock and passes from goal line formations, he attempted to throw the ball downfield from under center just 18 times. This season he already is 11 for 12 when passing under center for 106 yards, two touchdowns and a sparkling 143.1 rating. He has attempted nine first-down throws under center and completed eight, a big reason the Ravens lead the NFL in yards per first-down play.

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“Being under center, it’s a lot different with your footwork,” rookie practice squad quarterback Anthony Brown said. “Lamar’s thrown himself all in. He’s been diving into it every day. We work on it pre-practice and after practice and stuff like that. Lamar is a student of the game, and he loves football, and he’s going hard at it to do the best he can ever do. … He’s able to give a great fake, which he always has been, and he’s able to draw those backers and safeties down, and he’s able to throw it over top of them or throw it to the holes they create. It’s been really good.”

Overall, Jackson has been a demon on play-action passes, especially on first down, when he has some of the best numbers in the game, including an NFL-best 156.9 passer rating. “Our offense is always evolving,” Hill noted, “and we’re always looking for ways to expose defenses. And with Lamar at quarterback, anything is possible.”

Jackson, doing all of this despite a suspect offensive line and with no proven impact pass catcher save for tight end Mark Andrews, has made big gains dissecting opposing defenses when they blitz as well. His vulnerability to the blitz was a common refrain during his injury-shortened 2021 season, and defensive coordinators leaned into that strategy. Jackson has been blitzed on 41.4 percent of his drop-backs, the most in the NFL. He has responded by going 25 for 37 for 10.27 yards per attempt (fourth in NFL) with six touchdowns (first), no interceptions and a rating of 140.8 (second).

“Just a lot of studying, a lot of work out here on the field, and it’s translating over to games,” Jackson said of his gains against the blitz. Meanwhile, all the blitzing means Jackson sees more man coverage than any other quarterback, creating ripe running lanes to exploit.

So what do defensive coordinators try now? Most young quarterbacks, even the great Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, struggle against dime coverages or exotic looks with seven defensive backs on the field. The New York Jets tried some of that Week 1 against the Ravens; it didn’t work. Jackson has among the fewest drop-backs among qualified quarterbacks with five or more defensive backs on the field — expect that to rise — but has the third-best passer rating in those situations (106.5) with six touchdowns to one interception.

All of this raised the question I posed to the man himself: Is this the best Lamar Jackson has ever played? It prompted a pregnant, possibly telling, pause.

“It’s too early,” Jackson said. “It’s too early right now. It’s only three games. It’s too early.”

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