In all honesty, it was a lot like trying to tackle a feral cat.
There is about a minute and a half left in the third quarter. Baltimore is leading New England 24-20, and is driving, with a first-and-ten on the Patriot 16. Tight End Mark Andrews and running back Gus Edwards both ran flat routes to the offensive right side, and quarterback Lamar Jackson rolled to that side, probably with the intent to lob a short pass in that direction.
But Patriot defensive tackle John Simon came free on the blitz and met Jackson about ten yards behind the line – dropping him for a big loss and bringing up second and long. At least, it looked like that would happen.
But, with Simon one yard away from his prey, Jackson came to an immediate dead stop and in the blink of an eye pivoted 90 degrees to his left and started to shoot up the middle. He immediately realized that this was a bad idea, as end Lawrence Guy stood just in front of him.
Before the mind could quite register that Lamar was headed up the middle, he turned on his right foot in the act of running, and was suddenly running to his left again, away from both Guy and Simon, only to look up and find linebacker Kyle Van Noy not three yards away from him, ready to gather him in. Or so he thought.
Jackson, still seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, was completely boxed in by this trio of Patriots that converged on him quickly. Just not quick enough. Before Van Noy and Guy could meet at the quarterback, Lamar was gone – darting through the small gap between them. And suddenly a sure 10-yard loss had become an 11-yard gain – with Baltimore setting up with a first-and-goal on the five.
Two plays later, Lamar would loop a short scoring pass to Nick Boyle for the back-breaking touchdown in Baltimore’s eventual 37-20 conquest of the previously undefeated Patriots.
Jackson runs with remarkable instinct. He feels the nearness of defenders, and his feet and body adjust and course correct faster than Lamar’s brain could possibly comprehend the situation.
Later Jackson set up Baltimore’s last touchdown with a nine-yard run through a hole that just didn’t really exist. Like a page of newsprint blown by a fierce breeze, New England spent a frustrating Sunday evening just trying to get a grip on the problem that is Lamar Jackson.
There is no question that Jackson is a gifted, gifted athlete. The question of whether he is an NFL quarterback still has no easy answer. With Sunday’s victory, Lamar is now 12-3 lifetime as a starter, and his pelts now include the defending champions in New England. So to that extent, you would have to say that yes, Mr. Jackson is indeed an NFL quarterback. And, if you don’t accept throwing the football as a primary function of a quarterback, then Lamar definitely fits the job description.
However, if you believe that an NFL offense needs more than one dimension, then Jackson remains a work in significant progress. His final numbers from Sunday evening were terrific. He completed 73.9% of his passes against the vaunted New England defense (17-23) with a touchdown pass, no interceptions, and a 107.7 passer rating. And, yes, the Patriots did enter the game allowing just 52.4% of the passes thrown against them to be completed. Prior to Sunday, they had allowed just two touchdown passes, while intercepting 19 passes and holding opposing throwers to a 40.6 rating. In all of those numbers, they led the league – and by a substantial margin. So the statistics support Lamar’s arm.
Watching the game, however, left you with a distinctly different impression.
Jackson’s longest pass play of the afternoon was a 26-yarder to wide receiver Marquise Brown. From the point where Lamar released the ball to the point where Brown gathered it in, the football traveled maybe three inches as this was one of those flip passes in the backfield that Kansas City has popularized. Of his 23 passes, 8 were thrown within a yard of the line of scrimmage (he was 8-8 on those passes) and 14 of the 23 didn’t travel more than 5 yards from scrimmage.
For the evening, Jackson threw only 3 passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – completing just one. His 16 completions for the evening were in the air a total of 51 yards – fewer yards than he contributed with his legs (61) and fewer yards than Mark Ingram earned on his longest run of the day – a 53-yarder.
Now, you can spin this a lot of ways if you want, but the in front of your eyes fact of the matter is that Baltimore’s dominant running attack and solid defense allowed the Ravens to mostly hide the passing aspect of their quarterback play. Just watching Lamar throw, the ball doesn’t look like it fits in his hand quite right. He runs like a gazelle, but throwing the ball almost looks like he’s committing an unnatural act.
I’m afraid that I still believe that if Baltimore ever needed to depend of Jackson’s arm to win a game for them, they will be in trouble. Even in this game against New England, you could tell that Lamar still had the element of surprise every time he threw. Even on third down, New England was playing run first.
The question then becomes, will Baltimore, in fact, ever need Lamar to pass them to victory? Of the Ravens’ 372 offensive total yards, Jackson directly accounted (rush yards and pass yards) for just 224 – relatively low for a quarterback. Runners other than Jackson accounted for 149 of Baltimore’s 210 rushing yards (71%). None of this is meant to diminish Lamar’s impact on the game. He is certainly the fear element on the offense – none of their running backs or receivers strike fear into the hearts of defenders.
This is just to establish that the Ravens are more than just Lamar Jackson. Their offensive line is arguably football’s best, and could probably sustain a dominant running attack whoever the quarterback might be. Lamar is the extra gear on top of a very dangerous offensive machine. On game day, he looks like a one man offense – and the announcers talk about him as though he were a one man offense.
Moreover, this Baltimore attack would lose its lynchpin if something were to happen to Jackson. But don’t misunderstand. This is a dangerous offense, no matter who is standing under center. In the purity of its Neanderthal principles, the Baltimore Ravens have reduced the video-game aspect of today’s NFL into a primordial expression of basic manhood. They come to punch you in the mouth. Last Sunday evening, it was more than the defending world champions could recover from.
Last week, I questioned the Patriot defense, essentially asking whether their record-setting numbers were legitimate or a function of the softness of their schedule. Looking back at the game they played against Cleveland the week before, I pointed out some areas of vulnerability that I suspected future opponents might exploit. In their victory last Sunday, Baltimore exploited almost every one of them.
Frankly, I’m expecting to see a re-match here later on in the playoffs. Having seen them, now, up close it will be interesting to see what adjustments New England makes.