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Risk vs. reward: Ravens’ Lamar Jackson throwing downfield more aggressively than any other QB in the NFL

"You see some defenses don't allow you to push it downfield and force you to put it underneath," said Harbaugh when asked about Jackson throwing downfield.

As the precious seconds ebbed away on Lamar Jackson’s final chance to pull his team from the abyss, he bounced calmly on his feet and surveyed a patch of green 40 yards downfield.

It did not matter that, as he took the fourth-down snap, ESPN said the Detroit Lions had a 99.9% chance to win the game. Jackson had no way of knowing CBS announcers had just praised the Lions’ defensive game plan, which forced him to operate as a pocket passer for most of the afternoon.

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He knew only that he had to throw with enough oomph to get the ball to midfield and enough finesse to drop it between two layers of Detroit’s pass coverage. When his 36-yard pass plopped into Sammy Watkins’ waiting arms, it shocked the Ravens back to life. Without the throw, the type critics had long said Jackson could not make, Justin Tucker would never have lined up for the miraculous 66-yard-field goal that left a nation of football fans agape.

Jackson’s fourth-down completion fit the feast-or-famine pattern of his performance so far this season. He has answered those who said he could not strike downfield when the Ravens needed him to most. He has also pushed himself into risks that could have doomed his team. A few minutes before his exquisite throw to Watkins, for example, he missed toward the inside on a 25-yard attempt to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye stepped in front of Brown for an easy interception.

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Despite the occasional miscue, Jackson has embraced looking to the farthest reaches of the field. “That was a huge emphasis for us coming in,” he said Wednesday.

The Jackson show, never boring, has taken on new dimensions in 2021. Some of the statistical juxtapositions from his first three games are downright weird.

In Sunday’s 19-17 win over the Lions, he completed just 16 of 31 passes, took four sacks and threw that fourth-quarter interception, which could have ended the Ravens’ chances. His performance left him with a QBR — ESPN’s comprehensive statistic for measuring quarterback performance — of 53.1, which ranks 19th in the league and would easily be Jackson’s lowest figure for a full season (he posted a league-high QBR of 83 in 2019).

At the same time, Pro Football Focus named Jackson the quarterback for its Team of the Week, a reflection of the big-time throws he made in Detroit, several of which were dropped.

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After three years of talk about improving his confidence and mechanics on downfield throws, Jackson has translated his preparation to action. He has averaged 12.3 air yards per pass attempt and 9.1 air yards per completion, up from 8.9 air yards per attempt and 6.6 air yards per completion in 2020. He leads all starting quarterbacks in both categories, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, after ranking eighth in air yards per attempt and 10th in air yards per completion last season.

Even by those elevated standards, he was aggressive in the Lions game, averaging 19.3 air yards per attempt and 14.8 air yards per completion. With this approach, he managed to be efficient despite a low completion percentage.

“I think it’s [based on] the defenses that you see,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You see some defenses that don’t allow you to push it downfield and force you to put it underneath, and other defenses give you some opportunities. If you execute — route running, protection, all those things — you get a chance to throw it downfield.”

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is pressured by Lions linebacker Julian Okwara.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is pressured by Lions linebacker Julian Okwara. (Rick Osentoski/AP)

Jackson’s compulsion to look long has taken nothing away from his production as a runner. Jackson not only leads the Ravens in rushing, he ranks fourth in the league, which would be a career high. He led the NFL in yards per carry in 2019 and 2020, but his 7.2-yard average this season would also be a career high.

Has the league’s most prolific deep passer ever been its most dangerous runner?

Michael Vick’s best yards-per-carry figure surpasses Jackson’s, but even in his 1,039-yard season in 2006, he ranked 21st in rushing. Vick averaged 6.4 yards per attempt as a passer that year, 22nd in the league.

A young Randall Cunningham might be the closest comparison to Jackson. He averaged a league-best 8 yards per carry and gained 942 yards, ninth in the league, in 1990. As a passer that year, he ranked seventh in the league at 7.5 yards per attempt.

If Jackson keeps this up, it would be fair to say we’ve never watched an NFL player operate at such extremes as a passer and runner.

“That’s the basis of their offense,” said Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio as he prepared to face Jackson in Week 4. “They really run it good with multiple exotic schemes, and when they don’t run it, they try to throw it downfield.”

At the same time, there are costs to Jackson’s ambitious approach. He lost two fumbles in the Ravens’ opening loss to the Las Vegas Raiders and has thrown three interceptions over the past two games. As he reviewed his second interception in the Ravens’ roller coaster victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson acknowledged he was “trying to force something, trying to make something happen too fast, instead of just driving the ball downfield.”

Jackson has taken eight sacks, and if this pace continues, he would be dropped 45 times on the season, 16 more than his career high from 2020. But he’s faced pressure on a career-low 15% of his drop-backs, according to Pro Football Reference, down from 22.5% last season. According to Next Gen Stats, he has taken more time to throw — 3.25 seconds per attempt — than any quarterback in the league, a reflection of his talent for extending plays in addition to his protection and his thirst for deep strikes.

“If anything, it might lead to a sack or something, holding the ball too long,” Jackson said of the risks associated with looking deep. “Sometimes, you’re just trying to make things happen. If you’re looking at the clock, you get caught up with the score and you’re trying to make stuff happen too fast instead of just taking what they give you, sometimes you might throw a pick.”

Week 4

RAVENS@BRONCOS

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Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

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TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Broncos by 1

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