After the NFL’s game of the year ended late Monday night and the Ravens had overcome cramps, cleats and Cleveland for a 47-42 win, Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was asked why Lamar Jackson just couldn’t be contained.
“Like I told you Week 1, he is a run quarterback,” Richardson told reporters. “He had 88 yards passing. Pretty much, he beat us with his feet, like I thought he would.”
Richardson made headlines before the teams met in their season opener, saying Jackson hadn’t “turned into Aaron Rodgers.” He doubted the Ravens would look much different from they had in 2019, when a record-breaking rushing attack powered the NFL’s most efficient offense.
Richardson’s prediction might have ruffled a few feathers in Baltimore, where Jackson had made his desire well known to pass more often and play more like, well, Aaron Rodgers. But three months into the 2020 season, Richardson’s prediction for how the Ravens offense would look has been pretty accurate.
The Ravens have the highest share of run plays in the NFL (46.3%), and only the New England Patriots have more total carries this season. Jackson’s accuracy has fallen from 66.1% to 63.9%, while Rodgers, seemingly renewed in a standout season for the Green Bay Packers, is up to 69.6% after a 62% mark in 2019. Besides a Week 1 rout of Cleveland, the Ravens’ ground game has driven the offense in wins this year.
After Monday’s game, Richardson got his numbers wrong; Jackson passed for 163 yards and a touchdown. And his description of Jackson as a “run quarterback” ignores all Jackson achieved as a passer during his NFL Most Valuable Player season, when he led the league in touchdowns despite playing in just 15 games. But Richardson was right about one thing: In Week 14, he beat the Browns with his feet.
Jackson was directly involved in the Ravens’ four longest plays Monday — two runs, two passes — and his running ability, or at least the threat of it, made those 147 combined yards possible.
“You know he has a good arm and he can throw, but the speed of him on the field, he always looks like the fastest guy on the field and that’s a credit to him,” said Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, who’ll face him Sunday in Baltimore. “A 3-, 4-yard gain turns into a 16-yard gain the other day. You’re just like, ‘Hey, do they have a good angle on him?’ I think what’s hard to simulate is those angles and the way you have to come to kind of corral him or try to keep him in a web that you can get him down.”
“He is a great player,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanksi said after Jackson ran nine times for 124 yards and two scores. “Again, reigning MVP. We know he is great. We played him before, and he made a bunch of plays.”
44 yards: Jackson rolls out, throws go-ahead touchdown
The Ravens’ longest play Monday was also their most important and most unbelievable.
After third-string quarterback Trace McSorley went down late in the fourth quarter with a knee injury, Jackson returned from the locker room, where he’d been receiving treatment for arm and leg cramps, for a do-or-die fourth-and-5 play. The Ravens trailed 35-34, and their defense was on its last legs.
Cleveland sent a Cover-0 blitz after Jackson, leaving five defenders to cover five potential targets: running back J.K. Dobbins, tight end Mark Andrews, and wide receivers Willie Snead IV, Miles Boykin and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Jackson saw the blitz immediately and rolled to his right. A block by right tackle D.J. Fluker took out two Browns rushers, keeping Jackson’s eyes downfield.
In Cleveland’s secondary, there was widespread disorder. In one half-second span, two pairs of defenders, about 10 yards apart, collided into each other. Most disruptive was defensive end Olivier Vernon, who’d raced out to mirror Dobbins in the right flat, only to bump into cornerback Terrance Mitchell.
As Mitchell gathered himself, he saw Jackson approaching the first-down marker unabated. He also had Brown, whom he’d jammed pretty well near the line of scrimmage, beginning to separate. Mitchell turned around to chase Brown, but only after a moment of indecision, and a costly one.
Jackson floated a pass to the wide-open Brown, who caught it around the 23-yard line and coasted into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“They came up, they got aggressive at the line, but I was able to shake loose, and Lamar … [he’s] always extending the play, and he made a great throw,” Brown said.
44 yards: Jackson improvises on zone-read play
The Ravens have devastated rushing defenses recently with their “bash” concept, combining the open-field speed of a running back (usually Dobbins), the inversion of their normal zone-read concepts (Jackson becomes the inside runner) and pulling linemen (usually from the left side) to open up big holes.
On the Ravens’ biggest run play Monday, the Browns were well positioned to limit the damage. Defensive end Myles Garrett took away Dobbins, forcing Jackson to keep the ball. Second-level defenders flowed to where the Ravens’ blockers were headed. And Jackson still ended up covering nearly half the length of the field.
The trouble was, Cleveland was a little too eager to beat Jackson to his spot. As soon as linebacker B.J. Goodson diagnosed the scheme, he shuffled from over left tackle to over right tackle. That left no one to cover the play’s back side.
Jackson noticed, took off into the open field, beat safety Andrew Sendejo to the edge and turned the corner, sprinting down the sideline before weaving his way for an even bigger gain.
“When you play a team like that, Lamar is an unbelievable player and he is just going to make a lot of plays,” Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said.
39 yards: Jackson scrambles, finds Andrews for sideline completion
Maybe Cleveland blitzed Jackson so heavily near the end of the fourth quarter after seeing how Jackson had gotten out of trouble near the end of the second quarter.
On third-and-10, with 52 seconds before halftime and the score tied at 14, the Browns dropped seven defenders into zone coverage against four Ravens receivers. Jackson bounced around the pocket, hesitant to wind up, before he broke to his right. Goodson made a beeline for him; Jackson wasn’t going to get close to the line of scrimmage.
But when Jackson came into the sight line of M.J. Stewart Jr., lurking near Andrews around the right sideline, the cornerback seemed to go flat-footed. If anyone could scramble out of this for a first down, it was Jackson. As Andrews slipped past Stewart, Jackson wound up and delivered a strike that landed between Stewart and the onrushing Sendejo. Andrews wasn’t caught until he’d made it to Cleveland’s 17.
The Ravens scored one play later — on a scramble from Jackson, of course.
20 yards: Jackson bounces outside on zone read
If there was one play that should’ve reminded Richardson of the 2019 Ravens, this was it. Midway through the second quarter, offensive coordinator Greg Roman all but told the Browns that a run was coming, and they still couldn’t stop it.
Brown was the only wide receiver on the field. There were two tight ends and a fullback. And there was Dobbins behind Jackson in a “full house” pistol formation. Cleveland countered with eight defenders in the box and two deep safeties.
As soon as defensive end Porter Gustin crashed down on Dobbins at the mesh point, Jackson kept the ball for himself and followed a convoy of blockers. Tight end Eric Tomlinson, a practice squad call-up, kicked out and erased cornerback Kevin Johnson (River Hill). Fullback Patrick Ricard, lined up to Jackson’s right, took on linebacker Malcolm Smith and secured Jackson’s path downfield. Tight end Mark Andrews, from Jackson’s left side, went looking for work and couldn’t find any.
But it didn’t matter, because Jackson skipped by safety Karl Joseph, accelerated past the first-down marker and took off down the sideline, eventually stepping out at the Browns’ 11.
Here, the Ravens scored one play later, too — and on a zone-read call that Jackson probably should’ve kept for himself. Instead, running back Gus Edwards did the honors.
“You look at his completions and the way he’s running the ball, [he’s] the complete package,” Andrews said of Jackson. “Like I said before, it’s a pleasure to be able to play with him. He’s so special in everything that he does. He makes everyone else’s jobs easier. He had a heck of a game today. I don’t know what the stat line was, but he was efficient as heck.”
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Line: Ravens by 13