OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The greatest praise Ravens defensive players have offered Lamar Jackson is admitting how much they dislike facing the dual-threat quarterback in practice.
It’s why any comparison made to Russell Wilson serves both as a compliment to the Seattle quarterback and a reminder of what still lies ahead for a 22-year-old making just his 15th career start against the 5-1 Seahawks on Sunday. Such a juxtaposition would have been mocked by many only a month or two ago, but Jackson’s substantial improvement as a passer doesn’t make it farfetched to think he could be as accomplished as the Super Bowl-winning Wilson one day.
“I think he’s the only guy that I’ve seen do it pretty effortlessly like Lamar does,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey of Wilson, who’s the current favorite to be the NFL’s MVP. “We always say we don’t want to play Lamar, so I guess we’re kind of playing a polished-up, couple-years-down-the-line Lamar. We definitely better get ready because he definitely can do it all.”
Jackson is hardly a carbon copy of the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback, of course, but certain similarities are undeniable. Five quarterbacks were selected ahead of Wilson in the 2012 draft with even the Seahawks passing on him twice before the third round; four quarterbacks were taken before Jackson last year with the Ravens making him their second selection of the 2018 draft. Both have fought NFL quarterback constructs with Wilson being only 5-foot-11 and Jackson pushing back against the “athlete” label that prompted some evaluators to suggest a position change before last year’s draft.
The differences are clear as Jackson has no peer among rushing quarterbacks with the mobile Wilson having run for more than 600 rushing yards in a season just once in his career and the Baltimore quarterback currently on pace to run for over 1,200 this year. Wilson is the more accurate passer, but it’s worth noting he had a completion percentage of only 57.8 percentage over his three years at North Carolina State — Jackson completed 57 percent in his career at Louisville — before completing 72.8 percent of throws in his senior season at Wisconsin, a jump that improved his draft stock considerably.
Jackson has markedly improved his completion percentage from 58.2 percent as a rookie to 65.1 percent this season and is on pace for 4,000 passing yards, but his athleticism is what makes him truly unique as he became the first quarterback to ever win the NFL’s Ground Player of the Week Award for his 152-yard rushing effort against Cincinnati last Sunday. He also threw for 236 yards against the Bengals, making him the first to ever pass for 200 yards and rush for 150 in an NFL regular-season game.
Not bad for a young quarterback whose team has gone 10-3 in the regular season since he became the Ravens starter last November, trumped only by Seattle’s 11-2 mark over that time.
“I just want to do what I have to do to win with my guys,” Jackson said. “I see other quarterbacks. I see them play. They do a great job. But like I said, it’s a new era, and they need [dual-threat quarterbacks] right now. It’s not the same as years before.”
Jackson would be the first to tell you the 30-year-old Wilson remains on another level right now as he has 14 touchdowns and a league-leading 124.7 passer rating. He’s graded as Pro Football Focus’ top quarterback through Week 6 and has yet to throw an interception in 189 pass attempts.
Wilson still doesn’t hesitate to leave the pocket, either, as his 151 rushing yards rank fifth among quarterbacks this season. He isn’t as likely to take off for a big gain, but the veteran’s ability to extend plays and improvise as a passer puts incredible pressure on opposing secondaries to hang with downfield targets Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf. Jackson taking off and throwing on the run more effectively could be the final step to making him unstoppable.
“It’s sort of like playing against Steph Curry in basketball, if you will,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale about Wilson. “You can pick him up from half court, and he’s going to try to drive by you when you’re saying ‘keep him in the pocket.’ Or, you can slack off, and he’s going to pull up and hit a three. He’s just playing at a really high level right now, and I don’t argue with anybody that’s saying he’s playing at an MVP level.”
The Ravens defense will surely have their hands full, but a middle-of-the-road Seahawks defense must deal with Jackson, who creates as many headaches for defensive coordinators as anyone in the league in his first full season as a starter. Making his first start at a raucous CenturyLink Field will be a tall order, but the Ravens have been impressed with Jackson’s poise on the road, which includes two one-score losses at Arrowhead Stadium in his young career.
Seattle is a far cry from its “Legion of Boom” days defensively, but it will still be a great test and opportunity for a young quarterback garnering some MVP attention himself.
“He’s just way, way more advanced. We do so much more now,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Jackson’s growth from his rookie year. “Our motions are more complex. Our cadence is more complex, both verbal and silent. We’re under [center]; we’re in the gun; we’re pistol; we’re empty. We do a lot of different things, and he’s really done a good job handling all of it.”
It won’t be easy for Jackson and the Ravens, who could be without speedy wide receiver Marquise Brown for the second straight game. Baltimore has managed just six pass plays of 20 or more yards over its last three games after producing 16 over the first three weeks of the season.
The Ravens defense added two-time cornerback Marcus Peters earlier this week, but the middling unit is still trying to find its way with new pieces and a pass rush that’s accounted for just 11 sacks in six games. Seattle will easily provide the toughest test since Kansas City and Cleveland combined to shred the Ravens for 73 points and over 1,000 yards in Weeks 3 and 4.
But much like the Seahawks with Wilson over the years, the Ravens are quickly finding they always have a chance with Jackson at the helm. Win or lose Sunday, that’s an exciting thought that bodes well for the future.
“It’s a playoff-caliber team, playoff-caliber environment,” running back Mark Ingram said. “We aspire to be one of the best teams going into the playoffs and winning championships, so you have to be able to do things like that if you want to be a championship team. It’s a big challenge for us.”