"We've got to get the the first down, and there's man coverage on him, no safety help over top, and he ran a great route," said Ravens QB Lamar Jackson.
Lamar Jackson would rather not run the ball. He made that clear Sunday afternoon, at a postgame news conference where his glum demeanor and self-flagellation suggested the Ravens had improved to 2-0 in spite of another of his historic feats.
A 23-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals (0-1-1) at M&T Bank Stadium had not come as easily as last week’s blowout of the Miami Dolphins. Even for the Ravens’ home opener, that was to be expected. And Jackson had not been quite so prodigious a passer: He surpassed last week’s incompletions total (three) in the second quarter Sunday and fell far short of the perfect passer rating he posted in his season debut.
But even on the days when Jackson is merely a great passer (24-for-37 for 272 yards and two touchdowns) instead of a record-breaking one, he can lift up an offense in other ways. With the Ravens defense discombobulated for much of the afternoon against Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, Jackson “just had to take what the defense gave me,” he said. “And sometimes, I had to run.”
Sometimes, that’s what it takes to go 8-1 as a starter. A week after he followed a five-touchdown performance with an instantly iconic “Not bad for a running back” jab, Jackson delivered a dual-threat day for the ages. His career-high 120 rushing yards are the most by an NFL quarterback who also threw for over 250 yards in the same game.
It was Jackson’s highlight-reel 41-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown that put the game away late in the fourth quarter. But it was his legs that kept drive after drive alive on a day when the Ravens desperately needed the Jackson of 2018 to fuse with the Jackson of 2019.
“It’s just going to be a real conundrum” for defenses to stop Jackson, coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be a real challenge for them to figure that out. They’re going to have to figure it out for themselves. But this league has a lot of smart people and a lot of great players. As Lamar well knows, they’ll be chasing our scheme.”
It’s proven chameleonic so far. The offense that needed just three carries from Jackson last week and unleashed him on a handful of designed runs Sunday? “It’s the same,” he said afterward, even though, at times, they looked as different as night and day.
Of Jackson’s 16 carries, six went for first downs. On his first run, he faked a handoff and went untouched around the left end for nearly 15 yards before being pushed out of bounds. In the second quarter, he easily deked past Cardinals defensive lineman Zach Allen on a scramble for a first down. In the third quarter, Arizona safety Budda Baker had the angle on Jackson until the quarterback skipped by him on a solid first-down gain. On his second-to-last carry, he darted out of the pocket and high-stepped his way to a 14-yard gain.
“Sometimes I had to make scrambles because they had a great coverage and some of our guys weren’t open,” Jackson said. “I just had to move sticks. Like I said, just take advantage of what the defense gave us, and that’s what we did.”
But the Ravens’ fate would probably not have differed from their last appearance at M&T Bank Stadium if not for Jackson’s improvements elsewhere. In that 23-17 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, the Ravens’ top-ranked defense was airtight. But their run-heavy offense ground to a halt, and Jackson’s disappointing passing performance made him an offseason target for snark and difficult questions.
Through two weeks this fall, there are far more accomplished quarterbacks with far less impressive stat lines than Jackson’s: 41-for-57 (71%), 596 passing yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions, for a passer rating of 145.2. With how the Ravens’ running backs struggled to find open lanes and how their secondary struggled to limit the Cardinals’ high-pace, wide receiver-heavy offense (329 passing yards), they needed the new Jackson as much as the old one.
“Every game isn’t going to be a blowout,” said running back Mark Ingram II, who was held to 47 yards on 13 carries and added two catches for 30 yards. “You’re going to have to fight for it, and you’re going to have to earn it. They’re a good team over there on that side. Obviously, we felt like we left some plays out there — offensively, defensively and on special teams. We were still able to come out with a win, so that’s huge.”
"Lamar played a great game running the ball, and running the ball effectively,' said John Harbaugh after a 17-23 win over the Cardinals.
After two weeks and two wins, one easy and the other a little tougher than expected, Jackson and the Ravens turn to September’s second half with more attention than when the season started. Their next two opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) and Cleveland Browns (0-1), are not the Dolphins (0-2) and Cardinals. They should be more than a little better.
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But Jackson’s improvement has reshaped what potential matchups against Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield might look like. “He’s an NFL quarterback now,” Cardinals outside linebacker and former Raven Terrell Suggs said, “and he’s phenomenal.”
Now, for a change, the questions are elsewhere, though Jackson asked some of himself. (“There’s a lot of passes I want back,” he lamented.) The Ravens committed 10 penalties Sunday, including several costly ones and a few foolish ones. Star tight end Mark Andrews finished the win with his second straight 100-yard game (nine catches for 112 yards) but also a slight limp. The absence of cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee sprain), as well as slot cornerback Tavon Young’s season-ending neck injury, looms ominously ahead of next week’s trip to Arrowhead Stadium.
The Ravens will “have to be a much better football team next week than we have been last week or this week,” Harbaugh said. Their needs are most glaring on defense, but their potential is most evident on offense. Is this iteration as “revolutionary” as Harbaugh suggested it would be during the offseason? Perhaps not. It is better, though.
And progress starts with Jackson, their rising star who wants the respect accorded the NFL’s top quarterbacks — but, when needed, can play a game entirely unlike them.