After half a season of waiting, we finally got our first full dose of Lamar Jackson in the NFL on Sunday. With starting QB Joe Flacco injured, the first-round pick and former Heisman winner at Louisville battled past a stomach illness to take advantage of the opportunity, leading the now 5-5 Ravens to a 24-21 win over the Bengals.
Whether Jackson outplayed Flacco or not is mostly a matter of perspective. Yes, he reversed what was a three-game Baltimore losing streak, but those defeats came against the tough competition of Pittsburgh, Carolina, and New Orleans. Jackson’s passing—he went 13-of-19 for 150 yards, no TDs, and a pick—was less of an overall factor then Flacco’s usually is, though it was a tick more efficient. However, Jackson blew his fellow QB away when it came to running the ball—27 rushes for a game-high 117 yards—and in doing so, he proved that he is a lot more exciting to watch than Baltimore’s long-time vanilla starter.
The Ravens deserve credit for building a scheme around Jackson that caught the Bengals totally off guard. Jackson was allowed to work out of a familiar spread option, and on the opening drive, the Ravens ran the ball on all 11 plays. Jackson rushed for 46 yards on that drive, and it ended with an Alex Collins touchdown run from seven yards out. Of course, once there’s more film available on Jackson, teams will have a better idea of how to shut him down. But especially in short-yardage situations, there’s a dimension to his game that Flacco just can’t provide. This empty-set quarterback draw on third down is just wonderful:
Once they got used to his speed, the Bengals did manage to develop a coherent gameplan against Jackson. Generally, they’d bring pressure on first down to try and force a run for no gain, then just protect the line to gain on the more obvious passing downs, knowing that Jackson didn’t want to throw the ball deep. But even if the Ravens seemed a bit hesitant to pass on Sunday, it’s not like they were incompetent at it, and Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg worked in some solid wrinkles that acknowledged his QB’s inexperience while also keeping the attack from becoming too predictable.
Jackson was good enough as a short-yardage passer that the Bengals had to respect him, and he was fast enough, too, that he could beat defenders to the corner and gain at least five yards almost any time he wanted to. Here’s one more cool play that shows how the rookie both kept his head under pressure and outlasted the defense with his feet. At his best moments on Sunday, he looked untouchable:
There’s always going to be a stigma attached to running quarterbacks, and some people will see those 27 carries Jackson had more as a bad omen than an incredible accomplishment. Even if he provides a fascinating mix of skills to a mostly average Ravens offense, almost any praise is also going to come with some dumb qualms. Here’s a vaguely threatening post-game quote from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis:
“Quarterbacks don’t run forever in the NFL,” Lewis said after the 24-21 loss in Baltimore. “Sooner or later, they get hurt, and they don’t run the same. But, today, he could run, and he did a good job.”
The Ravens, currently sitting in the final Wild Card spot, weren’t so broken and hopeless before Sunday that Jackson automatically becomes a savior with this win. Flacco, whose status is unknown for next week against the Raiders, is still at least the guy you’d trust more in a two-minute drill, when running the ball isn’t much of an option. But Lamar Jackson’s first career start made the Ravens offense straight-up enjoyable and unpredictable in a way Flacco struggles to match. Even if his talents didn’t completely earn him the full-time job his first time out, we better see plenty more Lamar Jackson in the final stretch of the season.