If the Ravens wanted a lenient learning curve for rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, they got it in consecutive weeks against the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, two of the worst defensive teams in the NFL.
Sunday’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, aren’t any better defensively than the Bengals and Raiders but team officials will get a better read on the progress of Jackson, who will likely be making his first NFL road start.
“There is a new set of issues with playing on the road,” coach John Harbaugh said about Jackson possibly starting. “[That’s] a good way to say it. Crowd noise, cadence, snap counts, communication, even the earphone and getting the plays and things like that, being prepared if that is a problem. All those things will be [important]. Yes, it will be a new level. It will be a challenge for all of us. But he’s up to it — looking forward to seeing how he does.”
Harbaugh has yet to officially declare Jackson the starter. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who has missed the past two games with a hip injury, began practicing with the team Thursday on a limited basis.
If Jackson gets the nod, there will be a lot of difficulties with the things Harbaugh mentioned. But what is more interesting is what happens if the Ravens fall behind and have to play catch up.
Can the Ravens modify their pitty-pat, small-ball passing game into allowing Jackson to throw longer and more consistently downfield?
More importantly is the question of whether Jackson can throw downfield accurately. He struggled with accuracy during the preseason and has 10 more carries (37) over the past two games than completions (27).
The Ravens could be conservative and stay with the run as they did against the Bengals and Raiders, who had the worst run defenses in the league. Atlanta has struggled against the run this season as well, allowing 123.7 yards per game (23rd in the NFL).
But here is the major difference. The Falcons have receivers named Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu.
They have a really good quarterback named Matt Ryan. Harbaugh is aware of him.
“The thing that really jumps out at you is his accuracy,” Harbaugh said of Ryan. “He’s an on-time, on-rhythm, accurate thrower, running kind of a ‘Shanahan-Kubiak,’ I guess you’d call it, West Coast system that they’ve done a great job of developing there over the years, ever since coach [Dan] Quinn has gotten there. Coach [Steve] Sarkisian is running it now and calling the plays and doing a great job, so that’s just a really good system.
“[Ryan] knows the system inside and out, and he’s good, and their passing attack is excellent. It’s right there at the top of the league in terms of every statistical category, and he drives that. And, obviously, they have really good weapons to go along with that everywhere. So, that’s how they’re built.”
That all makes Sunday’s game intriguing. The Ravens will try to pound the ball with running back Gus Edwards and they should have success, but the Falcons defense is predicated on speed. They can stack seven or eight around the line of scrimmage and still get to points on the outside to help contain Jackson.
If Atlanta can slow down the running game, the Falcons will score some points against the Ravens. While some fans think the Ravens have found the 2000 formula for success with a strong running game and top-ranked defense, this group doesn’t measure up to the record-setting group from 18 years ago.
Jackson might have to have a breakout game in a different sense.
“We just do whatever it takes to win,” Jackson said. “We are going to try to balance it out, because we have wonderful, great receivers — great hands, guys that run great routes. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win. We’ll see what the game plan gives us.”
Regardless of the outcome this game should be a good barometer as far as the learning curve of Jackson. The Ravens have been careful with him so far. In his first game, they used him primarily as a runner.
In his second game, they used him more as a passer but that strategy didn’t work out. They were forced to go back to him running the football in the second half against the Raiders.
But eventually the Ravens are going to need Jackson to play an all-around game, especially against a marquee quarterback.
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That time might come Sunday.