The games are inexact measuring sticks, but preseason openers are generally more alike than they are different. And Lamar Jackson’s second, a 29-0 Ravens win Thursday night over the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars, sure went a lot better than his first.
In his first NFL game, coming on to lead the Ravens offense in the second half of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, Jackson looked every bit the rookie he was, his head spinning, his arm firing inaccurately, his legs pumping furiously.
In a 17-16 win over the Chicago Bears in Canton, Ohio, Jackson finished 4-for-10 for 33 yards, a touchdown and an interception for a passer rating of 42.9. He wasn’t any more efficient on the ground, rushing for 25 yards on eight carries.
In a sign of the times, Jackson did not have to wait long Thursday to get in. It wasn’t even all that clear until shortly before kickoff that Jackson would play. But in his first preseason start as the team’s unquestioned starter, the second-year quarterback was, to no one’s surprise, much better prepared.
Playing with a nearly full-strength offense against a Jacksonville defense sitting many of its top names, Jackson did not dare to carry the ball but was effective enough as a passer that it didn’t matter. In three offensive series, Jackson finished 4-for-6 for 59 yards and a touchdown. His passer rating of 138.2 would’ve been by far his best as a starter last season, when he posted a high of 101.3 in eight starts.
“I know I said it a million times last year, [but] just coming in as a rookie, it is a lot different,” he said. “If you are like me, you’ve waited your whole life for this. But this year was like I already did it, so I just have to perform and come out and win.”
It was not a virtuoso night for Jackson, but it was the kind of mistake-free, hope-raising performance he has delivered almost every day in training camp. He found the most success when throwing to Chris Moore (48 yards receiving). His first pass of the night was a play-action strike to Moore on the sideline while rolling to his right. The 30-yard completion was the lone big play in a drive that ended with a 52-yard field goal by Justin Tucker.
A somewhat off-target throw to rookie wide receiver Miles Boykin (four catches for 39 yards), who briefly had his hands on the ball, ended the Ravens’ second drive after three plays.
But Jackson ended his night on a high note. The offense kept moving when Moore drew a defensive-pass-interference penalty on third down, then caught an 18-yard pass from Jackson that seemed intended for tight end Nick Boyle. (Jackson clarified later that, no, it was to Moore.) Two plays later, Jackson found Willie Snead IV on an outside screen, and the slot receiver wound his way into the end zone from 10 yards out, sprung by a block from Seth Roberts.
“Lamar was calm, collected, poised and had great leadership out there,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “Just directing the offense, he knows what he wants to do. He has full confidence in himself and in our teammates.”
Added Snead: “We felt good. We’re trying to get in a rhythm. It’s the first preseason game, so we’re trying to work out the kinks and see what works for different players and what works for us. So I think it was a good first three series, and I think we got a lot of things done.”
With the Jaguars not starting free-agent signing Nick Foles at quarterback and the Ravens defense playing up to its high standards, there were plenty of opportunities for the hosts’ lesser-known players to step up at M&T Bank Stadium.
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Quarterback Trace McSorley, backing up Jackson with Robert Griffin III (fractured hand) sidelined, could not carry over his strong recent play into his first preseason game. The rookie faded somewhat in the second half and finished 9-for-22 for 85 yards and an interception. A would-be touchdown to Boykin was negated by a holding call on second-string tackle Greg Senat.
Defensively, there was a lot to like about the Ravens’ first shutout in their 14-game preseason winning streak. Cornerback Cyrus Jones (Gilman), normally a dynamic special teams performer, intercepted a third-quarter pass from quarterback Tanner Lee and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown, bolstering his case for the 53-man roster. In the fourth quarter, safety Bennett Jackson picked off a throw from Alex McGough.
“The biggest thing is coming out here, realizing it is just football, have fun, and if you are going to make a mistake, coaches always say, ‘Make it full speed,’ ” Jones said. “That is what we try to do.”
Elsewhere, reserve inside linebacker Kenny Young nearly forced a safety in the second quarter with an unimpeded blitz. Defensive lineman Chris Wormley broke into the backfield a couple of times for disruptive plays, and middle linebacker Patrick Onwuasor buzzed around the ball for the few series he started. Reserve defensive lineman Patrick Ricard, who’d been most noted throughout camp for his play at fullback, had a game-high two sacks.
The Ravens entered halftime up 16-0 after two field goals by backup Kaare Vedvik, the first from 55 yards and the second from 45 yards. Vedvik kept adding on with a 26-yarder in the third quarter and a 29-yarder in the fourth.
The Jaguars, feckless on offense all night, did not have a possession end in Ravens territory. Their last drive ended with a fourth-down throw falling hopelessly incomplete. The game ended, mercifully, soon after.
“We like to win,” coach John Harbaugh said. “The haters out there are going to have their own little snide comments. I think winning is better than losing, and we don’t do much different than anybody else. ... We didn’t play a lot of our starters. A lot of guys didn’t play. It’s not like we’re game-planning games. We’re playing like everybody else. I give our players a lot of credit, and our coaches. We like winning around here.”