In Week 1, the Ravens spared the Miami Dolphins the complete Lamar Jackson Experience. In a 59-10 blowout, he finished with a perfect passer rating and five touchdown passes, both career highs, but just three carries. When Jackson scrambled, it was to buy time, not gain yards.
On Sunday, Jackson looked more like the dual-threat quarterback of Ravens fans’ wildest dreams. He not only had 272 passing yards in the 23-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, more than he had in any game last season, but 120 rushing yards, also more than he had in any game his rookie year. Through two weeks, he leads all NFL quarterbacks in passer rating (145.2) and rushing yards (126).
“You all watched Lamar make great throws all day from the pocket,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Sunday. “So he has improved dramatically there. You’ve got to tip your hat to him. He is standing there and can throw it, and can beat you that way and with his legs. That’s a very good offense.”
Jackson will face tougher defenses this season. In fact, he might not face any units worse: After what the Ravens did to them, Miami and Arizona rank last and second to last, respectively, in the NFL in yards allowed per game. The Kansas City Chiefs, who will welcome the Ravens to Arrowhead Stadium for Sunday’s clash of unbeaten teams and mesmerizing offenses, have improved on defense from awful (No. 31 in 2018, allowing 405.5 yards per game) to average (No. 19, 367.5).
The challenge for Chiefs first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is to make sense of Jackson’s first two games. His production in each win defied conventional expectations for a quarterback as mobile as he is.
In the season opener, Jackson faced a Dolphins defense that used man-to-man coverage about two-thirds of the time on drop-backs and blitzed frequently. It was a credit to the entire offensive operation — from Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s play-calling to the offensive line to Jackson’s trust in his receivers — that Miami managed only one sack, on a seemingly busted play-action play.
When the Dolphins employed a linebacker or safety as a quarterback spy in man-to-man coverage, the field behind him opened up. And when they brought the house on a second-quarter red-zone blitz, Jackson backpedaled fast enough and long enough to find an uncovered Miles Boykin in the back of the end zone. The play had started at the 5-yard line, but Jackson ultimately threw from outside the 20.
The Cardinals tested him in a different way. According to a review of Sunday’s film, Jackson faced a Cover 3 defense — a zone scheme that deploys three defensive backs to cover their respective deep thirds of the field — on his first six drop-backs and 16 of his first 17 overall. Arizona later changed up its coverage somewhat, going to man-to-man and different zone looks, but it largely dared Jackson to beat its Cover 3 defense.
The logic was sound. With a safety occupying the deep middle of the field and two cornerbacks typically dropping back beside him, there was better protection against deep shots to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. And with four defenders playing underneath them, minding their zones instead of running with targets, the Cardinals had more eyes on Jackson near the line of scrimmage.
Typically, such conservative approaches stymie the running threat of fleet-footed quarterbacks. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks from 2015 to 2017 were noticeably more efficient runners against man coverage and blitzes than against zone coverage and nonblitzes.
Jackson went off anyway for 7.5 yards per carry Sunday, his career high as a starter. How? His elite speed helped. The Cardinals’ cycle of four-man rushes against a stout line capable of handling six gaps or more at a time likely did, too.
“That's the problem with rushing four guys against a mobile quarterback,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in 2014, as part of an extended response to a question about quarterback Tom Brady’s lack of mobility. “You kind of have two dead gaps there. You bring two guys on the outside to contain him, and then you have four gaps on the inside [where] you only have two rushers. So it's a lot of space for them to defend. If you bring five, then you can restrict that space a little bit, but then that creates problems on the other end.”
Jackson finished with six scrambles for 65 yards, more than the Ravens’ next-best ground total (47 yards by running back Mark Ingram II) and more than triple the Cardinals’ rushing output (20 yards). The Ravens exploited the Cover 3-heavy defense through the air, too, finding tight ends on play-action passes when Arizona bit too hard and throwing short, quick sideline passes when there was no cornerback nearby.
Schematically, the Chiefs defense could look like a mix of the Ravens’ first two opponents. According to Arrowhead Pride, Kansas City blitzed and played man-to-man coverage on just under 16% of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ pass attempts in Week 1. But Spagnuolo’s scheme often calls for pattern matching, where zone defenders, especially cornerbacks, will identify and play a man within their zone and occasionally play a coverage different from the original call.
It will be the toughest test yet for Jackson, who might have been as unbothered by crowd noise Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium as he was in Week 1 at Hard Rock Stadium. In last year’s overtime loss at Kansas City, he was solid, going 13-for-24 for 147 yards. Through two weeks this season, Jackson has been exceptional, threading the needle as a passer and kicking up dust as a runner. Few can do both. Knowing which path to take is an even rarer skill.
“He’s better at everything, like any player would be at this stage,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at his weekly news conference Monday. “Lamar improves very rapidly and very quickly. He really has a real narrow focus on the things he can do better. Recognition is the question you’re asking about, and that can be quarterback-driven with [run-pass options], it can be in the pocket, whatever it is. That’s what I like about Lamar. He doesn’t really dwell on the positives too much. He dwells on the areas of improvement, and we appreciate that.”
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