Three years ago, as a true freshman at Louisville, Jackson lined up behind starter Reggie Bonnafon on the first play of the Cardinals’ season opener against No. 6 Auburn. Just before the snap of the ball, Bonnafon motioned left, and Jackson took the ball as if he were in the shotgun. He faked a handoff, scrambled right. He could’ve stepped out for a 5-yard loss. He should’ve thrown the ball away.
Instead, he tossed a prayer downfield to a wide receiver about to take a pratfall and a defensive back who probably didn’t expect the easiest interception of his career to come against a future Heisman Trophy winner.
“I hate 'em,” Jackson said of interceptions. “Everything bad that happens, I remember.”
If the site of his next game, his first possible road start, awakens a sense of deja vu in Jackson, well, it ought to. Just down the street from where the Georgia Dome once stood is Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of the Atlanta Falcons (4-7), whom the Ravens (6-5) face in another crucial game Sunday.
They have won two straight with Jackson as starter, and coach John Harbaugh gave every indication Wednesday that the rookie is in line for his third straight start.
Harbaugh declined to say whether Flacco, who saw a specialist for his injured right hip Monday, has been cleared to practice, offering only that the longtime starter is "progressing very well." For the seventh practice in a row, Flacco was absent Wednesday, a period that dates to before the Ravens' Week 9 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"He's doing well, and it'll be another step today and tomorrow and the day after that," Harbaugh said, referring to the team's three days of practice this week. "And we'll see where we're at."
Jackson has played in all five Ravens road games this season, but almost exclusively in cameo roles, coming on for exotic packages with Flacco and the occasional late drive in games already well in hand. M&T Bank Stadium opened its doors to Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders fans in Jackson’s first two starts, but they were specks in a crowd of tens of thousands clad in purple, their cheers and jeers never much of a bother.
It is not like Jackson will be entering uncharted territory in Atlanta. Jackson played that first game against Auburn before an announced crowd of 73,927, more than M&T Bank Stadium’s capacity. The next season, he passed for 295 yards and a touchdown in a prime-time quarterback duel against Deshaun Watson at Clemson Memorial Stadium, aka “Death Valley,” where the attendance surpassed by nearly 2,000 the venue’s listed capacity (81,500). Last year, he ran wild in a win against Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium, doing what he could to silence Seminoles fans’ signature war chants.
In early December, late in a rather quiet debut season for the Falcons’ $1.5 billion stadium, coach Dan Quinn lamented, “We built a billion-dollar house and we need to throw a billion-dollar party house-warmer." But even a faint charge in the stadium could fry a Ravens drive.
Harbaugh acknowledged Monday that the Ravens had "communication problems" at times during their 34-17 win Sunday over the Raiders. They had to burn one timeout on offense and take another delay-of-game penalty after a big gain.
“There's a new set of issues with playing on the road that'll be another level, absolutely,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “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 a new level. It'll be a challenge for all of us. But he's up to it. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does.”
Jackson hasn’t bothered to set expectations for this road trip. “I don't really know what I'm getting myself into,” he said sheepishly, trusting the coaching staff to help, from piping in crowd noise during practice to smoothing out audible calls.
Jackson did not start until Week 11, the last of the 2018 draft’s five first-round quarterbacks to lead an offense by himself. But even their first road starts were not the kind of horror stories that should keep Jackson up at night.
Baker Mayfield finished 21-for-41 for 295 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Cleveland Browns versus the Raiders.
Rosen and Darnold each helped their team win. Jackson’s turn is next.
“I love road games,” Jackson said. “Just to try to make the crowd turn to our [side] and make it like our home environment, I like to do that, silence the crowd. Sometimes they go against us. Sometimes the game can be equal. I don't really know yet. I just want to make it my home, my team's home.”