Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about preparing this week to play the Bengals. He's still not certain if he'll start if Joe Flacco cannot play due to his injury. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Six days from the Ravens’ biggest game of the season, coach John Harbaugh was willing to acknowledge only what had already been reported about his quarterbacks: Starter Joe Flacco is hurt.
The hip injury Flacco suffered in Week 9, during a third straight loss, could render him unavailable for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals. If Flacco can play, Harbaugh said, he will. If Flacco cannot, Harbaugh said, it will have to be someone else. Only Harbaugh wouldn’t say who, at least not yet.
For all the posturing the team will engage in this week, for all the experience and wisdom of Robert Griffin III, rookie Lamar Jackson would almost certainly be the next man up. As the Ravens headed into their bye week, Harbaugh said the coaching staff was considering anything and everything that might get Jackson more involved in the game plan, including giving him full series at quarterback.
He is already the Ravens’ most dynamic running threat, with a team-high 5.0 yards per carry. Their ground game has rarely thrived without Jackson’s involvement, whether as the triggerman in read-option plays or as a decoy in motion. His elite speed is still useful at a level where the defenders are all bigger, stronger and faster.
But little is known about Jackson’s acumen as an NFL passer. He has attempted at least one pass in just five games. He has completed more than one pass just once. With the first-round pick’s first start possibly just days away, Jackson is 7-for-12 for 87 yards passing and a touchdown. In a league that values excellence under center above all else, here’s where Jackson might fit in.
A small sample size makes divining what a Jackson-led offense might look like difficult.
It’s impossible to know how Jackson might fare as a starter because he has so rarely led the offense by himself. On most of his snaps, he has shared the field with Flacco. Just five times this season has Jackson led a drive from start to finish, and only once since the Ravens’ season-opening rout of the Buffalo Bills.
Even those five possessions are unlikely to be representative of a Jackson-led offense. Against Buffalo, looking to milk the clock, Jackson and the Ravens ran (unofficially) 18 running plays, four passing plays and one run-pass option. Late in the Ravens’ blowout loss to the Carolina Panthers, Jackson came on to oversee two running plays, four passing plays and a run-pass-option play.
Overall, excluding RPOs, Jackson has presided over an offense with a 71.4 percent running share. That figure is an extraordinary anomaly; for the season, the Seattle Seahawks have the NFL’s highest such ratio, at just 51.1 percent.
With Jackson installed as the full-time starter, the Ravens' unbalanced offense — 63.9 percent of their plays are passes, eighth highest in the NFL — would likely even out. During each of Jackson’s final two seasons at Louisville, the Cardinals ran the ball more often than they passed it. The Ravens would not like Jackson to be their bell-cow ball carrier, as he was for Louisville, but his open-field talents are too obvious to ignore.
The Ravens could embrace ‘11’ personnel even more aggressively.
The Ravens used "11" personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) on just 38 percent of their plays last season, according to Pro Football Focus. That was by far the lowest share in the NFL, where the average rate was 58 percent.
This season, 11 personnel usage has become even more prevalent leaguewide, surging to 64 percent. The Ravens have embraced the trend — they’re up to 52 percent this season, according to Sharp Football Stats — but not as full-fledged adherents. Only the San Francisco 49ers have deployed 11 personnel less frequently through Week 10.
With Jackson starting, the Ravens’ offensive shape would likely change even more rapidly. One possible casualty: the popularity of their “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), which they used on 35 percent of plays last season, highest in the NFL, and 22 percent so far this season, also among the league’s leaders.
In the Ravens’ season opener, they deployed 11 personnel on just 10 of Jackson’s 23 plays with Flacco out, opting for heavier, run-friendly formations against Buffalo. But in Jackson’s next full series under center, he ran seven straight plays with 11 personnel against the Panthers. Every other post-Bills pass he has thrown this season, including those run out of the team’s much-maligned two-quarterback sets, has included just one running back and one tight end in the play design.
The benefits of a three-receiver set for Jackson are obvious. If the defense decides to stay in its base package, fearing the threat of Jackson’s read-option runs, the Ravens can find a linebacker matched up with a wideout in coverage. If the defense is so concerned with its coverage ability or speed that it brings in extra defensive backs, the Ravens can take their chances on the ground against an outnumbered defensive front.
En route to victory in February’s Super Bowl LII, the Philadelphia Eagles ran nearly as many run-pass-option plays (nine) as the Ravens did over the course of their regular season (11). One season after finishing with the fewest RPOs in the league, it’s unclear where the Ravens’ usage ranks among NFL offenses.
Jackson’s arrival was not expected to revolutionize their game plan. RPOs were a feature, not a focus, in the pro-style Louisville offense that Jackson powered, and NFL rules make deception at the line of scrimmage harder than in college. But over the season’s first half, Jackson has done enough to make the threat of regular RPOs terrifying for defenses.
He just needs to grow more comfortable with them. After Flacco headed to the sideline late in Week 1, Jackson’s first passing play came on an RPO. But he became so consumed with breaking containment against the Bills’ unblocked edged defender, end Shaq Lawson, that he overlooked tight end Mark Andrews running open down the seam.
Against Carolina, with Flacco lined up wide left on third-and-1, the Ravens combined jet-sweep action for tight end Hayden Hurst with a handoff option to running back Alex Collins. Jackson smartly kept the ball himself and broke outside the pocket, where Panthers safety Mike Adams cut him off.
But the play’s execution bent Carolina’s defense out of shape, leaving cornerback James Bradberry to somehow cover both Michael Crabtree, his man, and Willie Snead IV. Only a wobbly throw that ended at Snead’s feet kept the Ravens from a big gain.
Jackson, given all his athletic virtuosity, has most often been compared to Michael Vick. But even Vick started just twice his rookie year for the Atlanta Falcons, finishing with more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two) and completing less than 45 percent of his passes.
There have already been sobering reminders of Jackson’s first-year limitations, just as there would continue to be if he started. Jackson completed just 50 percent of his passes in the preseason. It was not certain whether he’d make the Ravens’ first game-day roster ahead of Griffin.
When Jackson did, one of his first plays was a short-armed, floating throw to tight end Mark Andrews, whom he stared down before delivering a pass nearly intercepted by trailing Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Jackson’s only completion in that season opener was another instance of poor eye control. After smoothly corralling an off-target snap, Jackson remained fixated on the middle of the field. If there was any progression in his reads, it wasn’t obvious.
Teammates and coaches have praised Jackson’s development since he joined the organization, and his Week 1 struggles should be considered as the Ravens’ 47-3 win that day would: some wisdom to be gleaned, sure, but altogether better left in the past.
More useful is his more recent play. With his late cameo against Carolina, his total passing yards exceeded his total rushing yards for the first time in a game this season.
His last throw that day was maybe the best of his young, promising career. On first-and-10, with the pass rush shaded to his right, Jackson shuffled left in the pocket, moving almost parallel to Edwards, who’d leaked out of the backfield.
Backup Panthers linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. (Maryland), perhaps anticipating a checkdown pass, crept up as Jackson wound up. Edwards was an easy target. Jackson could’ve just as easily tucked it and run for a handful of yards. Instead he found Hurst, running a post route in between Carolina’s linebackers and safeties, for a 26-yard touchdown, the first of his career.
Jackson made it look easy. It is almost never so with a rookie quarterback. Harbaugh recognizes that. He can’t say how Jackson might play Sunday against Cincinnati, just as he can’t say whether he’ll need him to start, either.