Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson isn’t a one-man team, but he’s the closest thing there is to one in the NFL.
When the San Francisco 49ers failed to convert on fourth-and-1 at the Ravens’ 35-yard-line with 6:33 to play, calling a pass when they had been thrashing the Ravens on the ground, it was over. You knew the Ravens were going to win.
They have Jackson. Eleven plays later, Justin Tucker was kicking a 49-yard field goal as time expired to give the Ravens a 20-17 victory.
It has reached the point that no matter who the Ravens play, and no matter how many points they trail, they can still win because they have Jackson. He is the great equalizer.
He makes their offense almost unstoppable and their defense adequate. He can score from anywhere on the field with his arm or his legs and has pumped life into a franchise that had become stale.
On Sunday, the 49ers gouged the Ravens defense by running the ball and stymied Jackson by having their defensive ends and outside linebackers push hard up the field horizontally, making Jackson bow outside more on runs.
Jackson wasn’t having his best game passing, but regardless, the second-year quarterback has that magic, so he converted on a fourth-and-1 on the game-winning drive. He also completed passes of 5, 12 and 10 yards and ran the ball himself three times in the possession.
Big plays, little plays, fancy plays, wow plays; he gives the Ravens everything.
“We definitely love ‘Tuck’ [Justin Tucker] and Lamar,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “They’re ballers. They’re G.O.A.T’s. “
Saying that Jackson is pretty much a one-man team goes against everything I learned playing organized team activities. Coaches beat it into your head that everything is about the team concept and no one player is greater than the team.
I get it. I agree with that philosophy. But if the Ravens didn’t have Jackson, they wouldn’t be serious Super Bowl contenders and dominating the AFC North. If they didn’t have Jackson, they wouldn’t have the NFL’s best running game, and their suspect defense would have been smacked around several more times like it was Sunday.
Let’s take it a step further. If the Ravens didn’t have Jackson, they might be .500 team.
They have some other playmakers, like cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters (even though he was a no show Sunday), receiver Marquise Brown and running back Mark Ingram II, but they don’t have that swag or juice like Jackson.
“He is a good decision maker,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He knows angles, he knows leverage, he knows when to get down, he knows when to stay up, he knows when to cut back, he knows when to keep it, he knows when to bounce outside.”
He knows more than Bo Jackson ever knew.
“He takes what the defense gives him. He doesn’t waste time taking shots downfield,” Sherman said. “He played a good game.”
The magic from Jackson is expected every week. Sometimes, he’ll juke an outside linebacker into next week on an option run or disappear like Houdini during a pass rush.
Last year, teams could stack the line of scrimmage and force Jackson to beat them with his arm, but that doesn’t work anymore. He still struggles with accuracy, but not as badly as he did a year ago.
The rest of the NFL is starting to realize Jackson is close to a one-man team, too. It was evident Sunday by the number of hits 49ers players delivered.
More will come. Some will be clean, and others will be borderline dirty or just cheap shots, like those from the Vontaze Burfict or Joey Porter playbook. As the games get more intense, Jackson becomes a bigger target.
“The officials gave Lamar fair calls today,” Ingram said. “Guys are leaping into his legs, hitting him late on the sideline. He’s a ball carrier and deserves to be protected, just like the rest of us. He got a few calls today.”
But, who would you rather face: Jackson or backup Robert Griffin III? Right now, the Ravens are rolling the dice with Jackson and testing fate. You can’t blame them. They’ve made the investment. They retooled their offense around him, implementing more option plays.
They’ve gone out and loaded up the roster with tight ends so Jackson doesn’t have to throw long downfield. His running ability keeps the defense off the field and those players have become his biggest cheerleaders on fourth-and-short situations because Jackson is usually good for at least 2 yards whenever he touches the ball.
A lot of players would get big-headed when they’ve received as much attention as Jackson this season. He is consistently on magazine covers, is a Most Valuable Player candidate and has become a household name across America.
But he has a great sense of humility and only talks about winning one game at a time.
“We’ve just got to keep it going because it’s on any given Sunday...,” Jackson said.
And on any given Sunday, the Ravens can beat anybody, simply because they have Jackson, virtually a one-man team.
The only thing he doesn’t do on offense is pass to himself. That might come next week.