Lamar Jackson has opened his NFL career as the Ravens’ starting quarterback with two wins. He has helped them run the ball like no other team in franchise history has. He has completed over 60 percent of his passes. Those are all good developments.
But Jackson also has thrown three interceptions and just one touchdown in two games. He hasn’t passed for more than 178 yards. He has not fared well through the prism of traditional or more analytical stats. Those are all bad developments.
In the Ravens’ win Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, Jackson was a mixed bag. He finished 14-for-25 for 178 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, along with 11 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown. It is not surprising that a rookie quarterback would be erratic. They all are. But Jackson’s passing performance, in by far his highest-volume game as an NFL quarterback, lends some insight into when he can be good and when he can be bad.
Good Lamar Jackson throws receivers open
It is one thing to hit a wide-open receiver in stride, as Jackson did on this 74-yard bomb to tight end Mark Andrews, a career long for both quarterback and receiver.
It is another to throw a receiver open — to evaluate the tight coverage in front of him, consider how a receiver’s route might briefly unlock it and then throw a pass in a place where only he can catch it.
Late in the second quarter Sunday, the Ravens ran a play-action pass on first down. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was covered down the left sideline, Andrews was bracketed as he moved across the middle of the field, and Jackson didn’t consider running back Gus Edwards, running open in the left flat.
He was focused on tight end Hayden Hurst, running a dig route from a bunch formation. As Jackson wound up, eyes on Hurst, Raiders linebacker Jason Cabinda was dropping into his throwing lane and defensive back Rashaan Melvin was ready to break on any throw to the rookie.
Jackson was unbothered. His pass found a sweet spot: away from Cabinda’s reach and into a pocket where Melvin couldn’t reach the ball without going through Hurst first. Another split-second of hesitation, and the play probably would’ve been a dud. Instead, it was a first down.
Good Lamar Jackson takes chances downfield
The Ravens ran and ran and ran in their Week 11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and when Jackson did throw, it was to receivers running more intermediate and quick-developing routes.
On Sunday, Jackson was not afraid to look deep. First, there was the long catch-and-run by Andrews. And in the fourth quarter, there was maybe the best throw of Jackson’s young career — a throw that will be lost to history because of a holding call on right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s play call was well timed. With Oakland in man-to-man coverage and only one safety deep, Jackson had a vertical route down either sideline to choose between. With wide receiver John Brown’s effortless inside release, it was an easy call.
Everything about the pass was smooth: the drop-back, the setup and the delivery. When Brown finally looked back for the ball, he didn’t have to alter his path one degree, and soon there it was, in his outstretched hands for a 48-yard gain.
If not for the flag.
"He wanted to be able to show he can throw the deep ball, too," Brown told Sports Illustrated. "We talk about that a lot, and other teams talk about it. I think he wanted to prove his point, and he proved it. And he's going to keep proving it."
Bad Lamar Jackson predetermines his throws
It was not hard to find the Ravens’ worst drive Sunday. Just look for the one with three straight bad passes.
In the second quarter, with the Ravens up 13-7, they took over at their own 30-yard line with under six minutes to play. On first down, Jackson felt pressure and scrambled outside the pocket, to his right. No one got open. There were 5 or 6 yards he could’ve gained on his feet. Instead, he chucked a ball at the Ravens sideline.
On second down, the Ravens lined up with an empty backfield again. Another passing play. All but one receiver ran an in-breaking route simultaneously. All but one of those receivers was open for short gains. Jackson threw it anyway to Brown, the one who was not open.
The next play, Jackson looked for Brown again. It’s unclear whether Brown was his first or second read as he worked through his progressions, but by the time Jackson put some mustard on a fastball across the middle, safety Erik Harris had guessed where the pass was going.
Jackson wasn’t fooling anyone with his eyes. There were three Raiders within 5 yards of Brown, and a fourth not far off, as Jackson wound up. There wasn’t a lot of room to throw. There was even less margin for error. Jackson could blame only himself for the eventual interception.
Bad Lamar Jackson has bad footwork
On the drive before Brown’s long reception was called back, he should have had another catch. Except this ball was nowhere close to catchable.
On second-and-3 late in the third quarter, Brown ran a simple hook route along the right sideline. Perhaps out of respect for Brown’s elite speed, cornerback Daryl Worley was 7 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball.
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Before Brown decelerated and turned for the ball, Jackson was winding up, a sign of trust in his receiver. And Brown was indeed open.
But in a perfect pocket, Jackson’s form was imperfect. His left foot was pointed almost perpendicular to the sideline, if not angled slightly away from the direction he was throwing. Not surprisingly, the fully outstretched hands of a diving Brown could only graze the ball before it fell for an incompletion.
Good Lamar Jackson can sometimes look like Bad Lamar Jackson
Jackson’s first interception was no good. His second, on the Ravens’ final drive before halftime? That was just bad luck.
As Jackson dropped back and surveyed the secondary, Crabtree had a half-step on Oakland’s Gareon Conley. When Jackson lined up his pass to the near corner of the end zone, the receiver and cornerback were the only two players capable of making a play on the ball.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, Conley turned his head at just the right time, tipped the ball at just the right angle and had a teammate, safety Marcus Gilchrist, in just the right place to make the series-ending interception.
Jackson had done everything right — look off the safety, spot the hole in coverage, loft a ball to the team’s best red-zone receiver. For one play, that wasn’t enough. Afterward, he said both interceptions were still on his record. Just like his two wins were.
“I don’t feel like I’ve done enough,” Jackson said. “There’s always room for improvement. We’re in a good spot right now. We just have to keep winning.”