With his massive jump in performance and mechanics from year one to year two, is this performance by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson sustainable enough to make a run in the top-heavy AFC?
Currently, atop the AFC, the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs continue to reign as conference favorites. Sitting behind them though, are two teams primed to make their runs for a Super Bowl bid this year behind their young quarterbacks.
Both the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens sit at 4-2, leading their respective divisions. Both the Patriots and Chiefs have questions coming to the halfway point of the season, New England has had one of the softest schedules in recent history and Kansas City has now dropped the last two games to an underwhelming Colts team and Deshaun Watson’s heroics.
Baltimore has been one of the most surprising and impressive teams this season, and Lamar Jackson has become the complete player the Ravens organization was hoping he could become when they selected him at the end of the first round in the 2018 draft.
This unprecedented progression as a passer has made the Baltimore offense a multi-dimensional nightmare of both a modern power-run with Marquise Brown to stretch defenses vertically and a stable of reliable tight ends to provide big security blankets underneath.
Jackson currently sits at 13th in passing yardage through six games and is tied at seventh with 11 touchdowns, but sits at eighth in total rushing yardage alongside running backs, Marlon Mack and Josh Jacobs. This includes three games with under 10 rushing attempts, including Week 1 against Miami when he only had three carries for six yards. Even with this, Jackson still has more production on the ground than the Baltimore Ravens feature running back, Mark Ingram.
Having a rushing weapon with the ball in his hands while plays develop is what has made running quarterbacks so attractive over the past decade. As routes develop, and defenders commit themselves to their coverages, running lanes appear clearly. A worst-case scenario will be a single linebacker or edge defender in open space against Jackson, and his combination of speed and shiftiness is more than enough to take advantage of this mismatch.
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Through the air, Jackson has shown great strides forward from his rookie year. I talked about this earlier this season, comparing Jackson to his current backup, Robert Griffin III. This piece covered the mechanics and performance of both Griffin and Jackson and shows just how improved Jackson has been when contrasted with Griffin’s rookie season, which by no means was bad but relied heavily on his duality offensively.
Griffin’s unpolished reads and mechanics punished him down the line, and Jackson has made improvements to ensure his production can continue without taking the punishment of 15-20 designed carries per game.
The Ravens currently rank 16th in total team defense, but talented pieces such as Brandon Williams, Pernell McPhee and Earl Thomas will hopefully bring the unit into form through the backstretch of this season. The Ravens have been at their strongest when able to work back to their roots of the power run, with the occasional deep shot to keep defenses honest and safeties away from the line of scrimmage.
Baltimore’s coaching staff has done a quality job of designing a passing scheme that stretches defenses laterally and moves bodies away from the box for more preferable situations when attacking the A and B gaps.
As Baltimore looks to compete for an AFC championship and Super Bowl bid, it should also be taken into consideration their direct matchups with the current front runners of the AFC. Kansas City has not been their explosive-selves when dealing with recent injuries, and their defense is not going to win a championship. New England currently sits as the favorite (big surprise) behind one of the best defenses in football.
A combination of both top-end secondary talent and one of the deepest and most athletic linebacking corps in football makes this Patriots defense dynamic and able to morph to the needs presented every week.
The duality and diversity of this Ravens offense may be the only team beside a healthy Kansas City team that could topple the current reigning champions. New England has struggled in the past with strong running teams (ex: 2013 AFC championship) but has now put together their best defense since their initial run in the early 2000s.
New England vs Baltimore will be one of the best games of the season in Week 9, and a rematch in the postseason is more than likely. Many view Maholmes and the Chiefs as the next in line to the AFC throne, but don’t sleep on the new Lamar Jackson and his Baltimore Ravens.