In Ravens opener unlike any other, Jackson shines as bright as ever

September 13, 2020 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens’ 25th season opener was unlike anything we’ve seen in Baltimore.

A 71,000-seat stadium normally whipped into a frenzy for Week 1 instead sat empty, replaced by cardboard cutouts, inflatable tube people, and some artificial crowd noise. One of the NFL’s better home-field advantages was all but eliminated by COVID-19 protocols, leaving players to “B.Y.O.E.” — “bring your own energy” — after an abbreviated summer without the benefit of even a preseason game tuneup.

It was all so strange.

After setting an NFL single-season record with 3,296 rushing yards a year ago, Baltimore didn’t run the ball particularly well, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. In fact, the 107 rushing yards marked the Ravens’ lowest single-game total since the 2018 postseason loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

But it didn’t matter one bit because of one man: reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. On a day that felt different in so many ways, Jackson’s dominance hadn’t changed. It was never more evident than on the final two drives of the first half after fullback Patrick Ricard’s fumble inside the Cleveland 10-yard line had short-circuited a promising drive and kept the game close.

With the Ravens pinned back at their own 1 and leading 10-6 with 8:41 to go before halftime, Jackson took over in the way he did so many times last year, going 5-for-5 for 75 yards with pitch-and-catch throws to Miles Boykin, Marquise Brown, and Willie Snead. For large portions of the afternoon against a hapless Browns secondary dealing with multiple injuries, Jackson made the game look like a 7-on-7 drill on the back practice fields in Owings Mills.

“My boy is definitely a playmaker,” said rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, whose 3-yard touchdown run capped that 99-yard drive late in the first half. “When we mess up a few times, he can definitely make it right. It definitely helps a lot having him back there under the center.”

Jackson was just as impressive on the next drive after Browns kicker Austin Seibert missed a 41-yard field goal with 41 seconds to go. Making accurate throws on the run to Snead, Brown, and Mark Andrews to march inside the 10, Jackson threw a strike to Andrews in the end zone for the Pro Bowl tight end’s second touchdown of the first half. Just like that, a narrow four-point lead grew to 24-6 as Jackson went 10-for-12 for 144 yards on the final two scoring drives before intermission.

Perhaps Mark Ingram’s assessment last week that the 23-year-old quarterback was “a million times ahead” of last year was a bit much — we’re talking about the reigning MVP who led the league in touchdown passes after all — but his 2020 debut reminded us why doubting Jackson and his ability to get better and better is a fool’s errand.

The Browns certainly didn’t “figure him out” or find a way to slow him down in Baltimore’s 38-6 victory.

“It’s just hard work and dedication,” said Jackson about carrying over his success from last year. “It started with the COVID, our guys coming down [to South Florida] trying to get some chemistry down pat. The quick turnaround with camp, we started getting chemistry there and our guys just dialed in. They helped me out a lot, made my job a lot easier.”

In addition to Andrews’ two touchdowns, Brown had five catches for 101 yards in the first half while Snead pulled in a gorgeous 19-yard touchdown pass on Baltimore’s second drive of the second half. But Jackson’s teammates weren’t about to take any credit for his brilliance. They know better.

Even on a strange day in which the Ravens never fully unleashed their vaunted rushing attack, Jackson’s arm made the result elementary with three touchdowns, 275 yards, an 80-percent completion percentage, and a 152.1 passer rating. The performance made him the first player in league history to have three games with at least three touchdown passes and a 150.0-plus passer rating in his first three seasons.

There’s simply no ceiling for someone who’s thrown at least three touchdowns nine times and produced a 100.0 or better passer rating in 12 of his 23 career regular-season games.

“To me, he’s obviously the best player in the world, and his arm reflects that,” Andrews said. “It reflected that last year; it’s this year as well. He’s going to continue to grow, and he has. It’s just a blessing to be able to play with him.

“He says I make his job easy, but it’s the other way around for sure.”