Columnist Mike Preston gives his position grades for the Ravens' game against the Bengals. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Though he’s not a classic NFL quarterback, Lamar Jackson proved he’s already a unique force.
The Ravens could not have declared their new era any more boldly — 11 plays, 11 runs, 75 yards, touchdown.
Baltimore fans had waited since April to see Jackson unleashed fully, and he did not disappoint, carrying five times for 46 yards on his first drive as an NFL starter and finishing with 117 rushing yards, almost twice the previous franchise high for a quarterback.
He was certainly not perfect, throwing a momentum-turning interception and looking uncomfortable at times when he had to drop back in obvious passing situations.
But the overall numbers told a decisive story. With Jackson at the helm in place of an injured Joe Flacco, the Ravens outgained the Bengals by 148 yards, picked up eight more first downs than their opponent and controlled the ball for more than 38 of the game’s 60 minutes.
We simply do not see teams — even those with effective runners at quarterback — play this way in the modern NFL.
“It’s like facing two different offenses,” Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict said after the game. “With Joe Flacco, he just stands back there and isn’t very mobile, but he throws the ball hard. This guy [Jackson] is very unpredictable.”
There are a few caveats.
First, Jackson made his statement against the most porous defense in the NFL.
Second, it’s hard to imagine a Jackson-led offense working long-term without a more significant downfield component. When the Ravens fell behind in the second half, wide receivers Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree expressed frustrations on the sideline about their lack of touches. After the game, Ravens coach John Harbaugh emphasized that the Ravens will throw more in future weeks.
So it’s not as if Sunday’s approach was the new normal.
Then there was the interception. On the first drive of the second half, Jackson froze Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap with a juke only to dump his pass directly into the arms of Bengals safety Shawn Williams.
The play encapsulated the best and worst of the rookie quarterback — quicksilver fluidity followed immediately by discomfort with an NFL passing read. But it would be wrong to say the interception was a microcosm of his day.
Jackson played with poise, moved the offense and even made a few terrific throws, most notably a 19-yard strike to Mark Andrews to convert on third-and-long in the fourth quarter.
Ravens safety Eric Weddle said he was most impressed with the way Jackson bounced back from the interception.
“What did he do on the next drive? He went down and scored,” Weddle said. “It was like nothing happened. And you can’t teach that. … His physical ability, we see it every day. So I expected that. But to overcome adversity early on in his first start … I just think his composure, we’re all excited about him.”
Linebacker C.J. Mosley said it would be immensely frustrating to play against Jackson. “He’s so fast you can call the right call, be in the right spot, and he’ll just outrun the defense,” he said. “I’m definitely happy I was a Raven today, because he was making plays all over the place.”
That sums it up perfectly. The Ravens did not magically become world-beaters Sunday, but no defense will be eager to play them with Jackson at quarterback. Because in a league defined by routine, he’s unique.
They acknowledged feeling deja vu as the Bengals lined up for a fourth-down attempt with less than two minutes left. Facing a similar situation in December, the Ravens watched their season go down the drain on one agonizing catch-and-run by Cincinnati wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
This time, however, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton looked short and right to another receiver, Cody Core. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey got his hand on the ball, and it fell to the turf, leaving the Ravens safe to run out the clock.
It was fitting that the game came down to defending a short pass, because the Ravens emphasized such plays all week.
“That was one of the emphases this week, was to try and get hands on it so you can disrupt the timing and kind of mess up the receiver and quarterback rhythm,” Humphrey said.
The Ravens knew exactly how Dalton would come at them. He beat them with quick, underneath throws in Week 2, and other offenses did the same during their recent three-game losing streak.
Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr said they would have to counter with tight, aggressive coverage off the line of scrimmage. By and large, they succeeded, holding Dalton to 19 completions on 36 attempts and keeping the Cincinnati offense off the field.
The team’s linebackers also lent a hand, frequently dropping into shallow coverage to supplement the secondary.
This wasn’t the overpowering Ravens defense we saw in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans. They sacked Dalton just once and went another four quarters without a takeaway. But they played the right game to complement Jackson’s ball-control offense.
Gus Edwards emerged as the perfect counterpoint to Lamar Jackson.
With 115 yards against the Bengals, Edwards nearly doubled his previous career total of 64. The afternoon belonged to the undrafted rookie from Rutgers almost as much as it did to the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner handing him the ball.
Edwards impressed Ravens coaches and fans with his aggressive running in the preseason. And as it turned out, his straight-ahead style blended perfectly with Jackson’s multidirectional gliding.
With the Bengals focused on what Jackson might do next, Edwards tore straight through their soft defensive belly.
“Gus was north and south,” Harbaugh said admiringly. “Definitely a good complement, but not the only complement. But to give us that type of back is very important. He gives us that back that we probably didn’t have earlier in the year.”
Ravens coaches have said all year that Jackson’s impact as a runner only begins with the yards he gains himself. He sets the table for every other ball carrier. Edwards was the chief beneficiary on Sunday, but Alex Collins (seven carries, 18 yards) could just as easily be that guy next weekend.
The Ravens’ interior defensive linemen have excelled, quietly, all season.
With A.J. Green inactive because of a toe injury, the Ravens had to worry about two main offensive threats for Cincinnati — Boyd and running back Joe Mixon.
They played well against the former and completely shut down the latter, holding Mixon to 14 yards on 12 carries — easily his worst performance of the season.
Much of the credit goes to a group we often take for granted — the interior defensive line of Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams, Brent Urban and Chris Wormley.
None of them did a lot to mark the stat sheet. But look at the scouting grades from Pro Football Focus every week, and all four of them rate as solid (Wormley) to outstanding (Pierce) run defenders.
They left little room for Mixon to maneuver and put their stamp on another game, whether anyone noticed or not.
The Ravens saved their season and also set up a potentially agonizing decision at quarterback.
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Harbaugh indicated after the game that Flacco likely won’t recover from his hip injury in time to play against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
But an ESPN report Sunday morning said Flacco probably will be ready in a few weeks. If the Ravens continue to win with Jackson (they’re favored against the 2-8 Raiders), would they automatically hand the ball back to their veteran? Would they push Jackson back to the complementary (though likely expanded) role we saw over the first nine games?
These are genuinely difficult questions on several levels.
Jackson led the Ravens to a victory that pulled them back from the abyss and into a five-way tie for the final AFC wild-card spot. He threw a jolt into the offense and the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium. He’s the future, one way or another, and there’s a lot to be said for testing what he can do in a playoff race.
On the other hand, Flacco commands respect from his coaches and teammates — for his toughness and for the many victories he’s engineered in December and January. His big arm might give the Ravens their best chance to win against more capable defenses.
The guess here is that Flacco will start another game for the Ravens this year. But it should not be an automatic decision. If he’s hurting and Jackson has the offense rolling, the Ravens must be flexible enough to go with what’s working.