Jackson, Ravens put defenses on notice with Week 1 explosion

September 09, 2019 | Luke Jones

Lamar Jackson was sensational in the Ravens’ season-opening blowout win over Miami.

It was far and away the best performance of his young career and a tremendous showing by any NFL quarterbacking standard. His 324-yard, five-touchdown, turnover-free showing was the most efficient regular-season game ever played by a Ravens quarterback. Such damage being done on just 20 passing attempts — for context, Joe Flacco never threw more than two touchdowns on 20 or fewer throws — isn’t something to dismiss because of the quality of opponent.

Yes, the 2019 Dolphins were as terrible as advertised Sunday, but their secondary was one of the few position groups resembling a representative NFL group — at least on paper. Many Baltimore quarterbacks have played bad opponents over the years with Jackson producing the only perfect passer rating (158.3) in team history. Only two other Ravens quarterbacks — Flacco in 2014 and Tony Banks in 2000 — had thrown five touchdown passes in a game. Jackson couldn’t have been more impressive, regardless of who was on the other side or what happens going forward.

After too frequently missing wide-open throws as a rookie, Jackson completing 85 percent of his passes reflected the improved footwork, mechanics, and accuracy he showed over the summer, variables having little to do with the opponent. And while there were definitely examples of poor coverage Sunday, NFL Next Gen Stats calculated the expected completion percentage (how the “average” quarterback fares with the same variables on each of those passing plays) on his 20 throws at only 60.2 percent, meaning he dramatically outperformed the degree of difficulty.

Trying to determine how much of Sunday’s outcome was the result of Jackson’s growth compared to Miami’s ineptitude is really a fruitless exercise, but what can we take away from the performance? Jackson may never post another perfect passer rating or five-touchdown game in his career, but that doesn’t mean his career day was devoid of real improvement.

Below is a look at Jackson’s passer rating divided by area of target last season:

His 170 passing attempts during his rookie season didn’t make for a huge sample size, but it was large enough to show his success over the middle and that he was better throwing to his right than his left.

Below is his passing chart from Sunday:

To no surprise, we saw plenty of passes between the numbers and to the right with the obvious change being the deep passing explosions, the game-changing development. There isn’t much passing activity to the left, which could have been a product of the presence of Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard on that side of the field as well as the struggles showed there last year. This isn’t a negative as offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Jackson should be playing to his strengths in the same way that a pitcher with a great slider and a mediocre changeup should be leaning much more heavily on the former.

According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson was 10-for-11 for a whopping 276 yards and five touchdowns inside the numbers compared to 7-for-9 for 48 yards outside the numbers for a more pedestrian 5.33 yards per attempt. Anyone wondering about the 22-year-old’s progress on intermediate and deep throws to the outside didn’t learn much as those simply weren’t required in Week 1.

Ironically, the Miami defense achieved its goal of preventing Jackson from running as Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux indicated after the game. The speedy quarterback had only two real rushes for seven yards with his other attempt being a kneel to end the first half.

Head coach John Harbaugh was asked Monday if that might be closer to the new norm after Jackson set a modern record for rushing attempts by a quarterback last season. The number of times he runs — or doesn’t run — will remain a hot topic for everyone outside the team’s Owings Mills training facility.

“If they allow Lamar to run, he’s going to run. They didn’t,” Harbaugh said. “They were taking it away for sure. It was part of their plan not to allow him to run. If people decide that that’s going to be the way it’s going to go, he’s not going to run. That’s the way the offense is organized. We’re not worried about it at all.”

What Sunday showed is that the Ravens may now have another dangerous way to beat you if you’re going to sell out to try to stop the run, something many teams failed to do down the stretch last year anyway. The Dolphins stacked the box and dared Jackson to throw down the field, and that’s exactly what he did with overwhelming success as Miami rarely pressured the pocket or covered effectively.

We may not see another five-touchdown performance or an 85-percent completion percentage anytime soon, but opponents must now think twice about moving a safety so close to the line of scrimmage after seeing Jackson repeatedly throw the ball over defenders’ heads with such precision. The mere threat of a deep ball to Marquise Brown could force secondaries to back off and help the Ravens gash teams with the run more than ever, an unsettling proposition for opponents assuming they were still too one-dimensional.

That kind of push-pull dynamic between the run and pass has been consistently lacking in the Baltimore offense since the days of Ray Rice and was never like what the Ravens could have with Jackson being a dual-threat quarterback. It also helps that the ground game now includes two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram.

Stopping the run against the Ravens was already a a must, but defenses have now seen a need to be able to cover or at least pressure — preferably both. The Dolphins may have kept Jackson in the pocket, but they achieved none of those three major objectives, which is why the Ravens set franchise records for points, touchdowns, total yards, and margin for victory.

The Baltimore offense is unlikely to come close to those numbers again this year, but the message delivered to the rest of the NFL was more than just a fun day in Miami and a win over a bad team.

Watching where Jackson and this offense go from here should be fun.