The conductor of the scariest freight train in the NFL universe is fast, smart and slippery. He can make you look foolish at any given moment.
He has become a juggernaut.
The Jets might want to say a Hail Mary or two before they slip into their big-boy pants Thursday night to face Lamar Jackson, who has turned the league upside-down with his special gifts. The dual-threat quarterback is the engine of the Ravens’ explosive offense, the heartbeat of a throwback team that will pulverize you into submission with a relentless ground attack that is incredibly averaging a league-high 201 rushing yards per game.
“They’re running the football right now is as good as a lot of us have ever seen,” Adam Gase said Monday. “The play-action pass off what they’re doing in the run game… When you watch the tape, you just see guys running wide open… He’s making really good throws though. There’s been times where it’s really tight coverage and he’s threading it in there… (Offensive coordinator) Greg Roman’s done a great job as far as really taking advantage of how teams are trying to play them. They’re really gutting people.”
Or as Sam Darnold said, “Lamar is ballin’.”
Two days after Ryan Fitzpatrick racked up 65 yards with his 37-year-old feet, the Jets have the unenviable task of slowing down the NFL’s most dangerous signal caller.
“We know what Lamar Jackson can do,” defensive lineman Henry Anderson said. “I’m sure we’re going to have a different sort of game plan going into this game. So, we’ll see.”
Jackson, who is dealing with a quad injury that is not believed to be serious, is on a collision course with the NFL MVP award thanks to his ability to carve up opponents in myriad ways. Last week he became the first quarterback in NFL history not named Michael Vick to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He has a league-high 28 touchdown passes, 35 total touchdowns and is tied for the most wins in the league. The 11-2 Ravens will have the No. 1 seed in the playoffs if they win their final three games.
“I love his story,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “He’s a great guy, great player, great team leader. And he’s a hell of an athlete. Honestly, I think he probably should get MVP this year. He’s a guy that you have to be ready for.”
Jackson rallied Baltimore to a playoff berth as a rookie before making a seismic jump in his second season. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has accentuated Jackson’s strengths and helped develop some of the weaker elements of his game. The results have been magical so far for Jackson, who is 17-4 as a starter.
“In this league the maturing process from Year 1 and Year 2 across the board is really what it’s all about,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “The position requires so many skillsets. It requires so many things that he needs to pick up. I think the main thing is to get better at everything across the board. He’s gotten better in every area. I think he continues to improve. And that’s to me why he’s had success.”
“I think he was pretty darn good last year,” Harbaugh added. “We put him in midseason and he won a bunch of games. We were able to build around where he was at the time. He definitely has expanded his game dramatically.”
The Ravens didn’t become the team to beat in the AFC by accident. They assembled the exact right pieces to help Jackson — and the offense — flourish. Harbaugh has a stable of versatile tight ends, running backs and wide receivers able and willing to do plenty of the dirty work (see: blocking) to help this option-based running attack. It’s made all the difference for the league’s top scoring offense (33 ppg).
“We really are built comprehensively… around Lamar,” Harbaugh said. “The tight ends are very diverse. Mark Ingram is a blocker, but he’s also a very good pass receiver. The wide receivers are not just very good receivers, but they’ll block. We have run blocking and pass blocking offensive linemen, so they’re versatile also.”
“We’ve got guys around him that definitely enhance his skills,” Harbaugh continued. “It’s never a one-man show. Lamar will be the first one to tell you that. Those guys have done a great job around him.”
Jackson’s improvement as a pocket passer has been the most surprising element of his MVP-caliber season. He ranks fourth in passer rating (109.7) with two perfect passer rating games (158.3).
His completion percentage has jumped from 58.2 as a rookie to 66.3.
Jackson has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in six games and has had only two sub-50 percent games this year. His yards per attempt have increased from 7.1 to 7.7. He has 16 touchdown passes and only one interception in his last eight games.
Translation: He’s a problem.
“We’re just building it around what he does well. And he does a lot of things well,” Harbaugh said. “Therefore, we’re able to run a lot of elements that are in football. It’s nothing new… We’re just able to be in a lot of different worlds, which is very effective.”
The Jets might be allowing a league-low 3.0 yards per rush, but they haven’t faced anyone close to what Jackson can do. Gang Green is a two-touchdown underdog for a reason.
“I’m pretty sure he’s watching that film and is like, ‘I’m about to eat on these guys’ after we let Fitz escape how we did,” Jenkins said. “But that’s something we have to get fixed… You just got to play your key. For the guys that haven’t played triple option teams in college… you have to play your key. If your job is to take the quarterback take the quarterback. If your job is to take the dive, take the dive. If your job is to take the pitch, take the pitch. And you can’t be selfish and try to make a play when it’s not yours to make.”