At age 24, Lamar Jackson is not quite late-stage Peyton Manning, a presnap maestro whose gestures and checks are almost as interesting as his postsnap execution. That’s not to say the Ravens quarterback is not in control at the line of scrimmage.
“Lamar has a lot of offense in his hands,” coach John Harbaugh said after a 34-31 win Sunday over the Vikings. “He’s in control, and he has options. He makes choices, and most of the time, they look great. Sometimes they don’t look great, and you go, ‘Woah, what was that play?’ It’s like, ‘Well, he was trying something there.’ He saw something that’s in the system, and that’s what quarterbacks do.”
Jackson’s most important presnap choice might have come early in the fourth quarter Sunday, with the Ravens trailing Minnesota 24-17 and facing third-and-15. Through the game’s first four quarters, the Vikings had blitzed Jackson on three of his eight drop-backs on third down, according to Sports Info Solutions. He hadn’t fared well, going 0-for-3 against those pressure looks.
When Jackson lined up in the shotgun on third down this time, he didn’t like what he saw. “That’s not a great look for us,” he recalled thinking Tuesday. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman had given him a backup play call, just in case, and Jackson walked over to the group of linemen and wide receivers bunched to his left to audible into it.
The new play was a rarity for the Ravens — a screen pass — but ultimately the right one. Minnesota showed pressure with seven defenders at the line of scrimmage before backing off, but the presnap bluff left the Vikings out of position. Jackson took the snap and a one-step drop, fired a pass to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and watched Brown take off.
Wide receiver James Proche II sealed off one defender. Tight end Mark Andrews took on a deep-lying defensive back. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva got his hands on a linebacker. On the 18-yard catch-and-run, Brown wasn’t even touched until he was past the first-down marker. Four plays later, Jackson found wide receiver Devin Duvernay for an acrobatic, game-tying touchdown catch.
“I’m just trying to put my team in a better situation,” Jackson said Tuesday. “I just made a check, and Hollywood did the rest. That’s just what it’s all about, just putting our team in a better situation.”
With the Ravens’ reliance on zone-read and run-pass options, much is asked of Jackson not only on drop-backs but also in the split-second after the snap. If opposing cornerbacks continue to line up far off the line of scrimmage, daring the Ravens to beat them with quick hitters rather than long bombs, Jackson’s influence before the snap could continue to grow as well.
“He is not a ‘paint by numbers’ kind of guy,” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said last month. “So we are constantly talking between series: ‘This is what they’re doing. This is what might come up. These are what plays we’re liking.’ And then he applies the things that we’ve talked about and what he’s seen into how we’re doing it. Schematically, it’s not [written]; like, he doesn’t have to do it ‘this’ way. We can go various directions that we need to go within the game plan.”
Ravens rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman hasn’t just impressed coaches and teammates over his first three games.
“I think I’ve impressed myself a little bit,” he said Monday. “I’m getting more comfortable in the offense, getting more comfortable playing in the NFL. So right now, I’m just having fun, staying locked in.”
Bateman, who missed the Ravens’ first five games while recovering from groin surgery, has 12 catches for 161 yards. His performance Sunday was in some ways his most impressive yet. The first-round pick had 52 yards on five catches, including a couple of highlight-reel grabs. He also drew a 42-yard pass-interference penalty — the first such infraction the Ravens have drawn this season — late in the second quarter, which set up the Ravens’ first touchdown.
Bateman was considered one of the draft’s best route runners, and his effectiveness in a range of roles has eased his transition to the NFL. The Ravens have lined him up out wide and in the slot, a versatility that endeared Bateman to coaches and team officials during the predraft process. “Some guys are a fish out of water outside when they come in, or inside when they go out,” wide receivers coach Tee Martin said last month.
Bateman’s route distribution suggests he’s a tough receiver to pin down. According to SIS, he has five catches on curl routes, a testament to defenders’ respect for his deep speed and Bateman’s ability to decelerate. He has two catches on drag routes, where receivers can sometimes be vulnerable to big hits. He has two catches on deep crosses, using his speed and spatial awareness to find soft spots in zones.
Bateman’s also shown an aptitude to improvise. In the first quarter Sunday, Jackson rolled to his right long enough for Bateman, who’d lined up out wide on the opposite side, to find a seam over the middle and secure a tough 15-yard completion. Bateman’s deep route that drew a flag one quarter later was ad-libbed, too; he broke off an in-breaking route to make a beeline for the corner of the end zone.
About the only thing Bateman hasn’t done yet is score. But he said he feels a touchdown coming. A breakout game, too.
“I feel that every week,” Bateman said. “It’s just only a matter of, is it going to happen? So hopefully, it does soon.”
While the Ravens’ defense ranks third in the NFL in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Reference, the pressure hasn’t translated to sacks. They have just three over their past three games, and their adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, is sixth worst in the league.
Miami’s pass protection Thursday night could help jump-start the Ravens’ pass rush. On offense, the Dolphins’ adjusted sack rate is 11th worst, and according to ESPN, no team has a worse pass-block win rate.
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“I think we’re going to get it rolling,” defensive end Calais Campbell said Monday. “I think a lot of it will be just playing better earlier in ball games and getting leads, too. Just the way the games have gone, we’ve definitely missed out on some opportunities just from not playing great ball early on, especially stopping the run and all that good stuff.
“But I do think that we’re in prime position to really take off and start making some big-time plays. Sacks and turnovers are two things I really feel like we can improve on on defense, with the guys we have, and I feel like it’s going to come soon. We’ve just got to stay the course, keep working, keep chopping wood, and those big plays are there for us.”
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Line: Ravens by 7 ½