Ravens have surged to first in the AFC North with Jackson leading the way
When the Baltimore Ravens took Lamar Jackson as the final pick in the first round of this year’s draft, the writing was on the wall for Joe Flacco — the former Super Bowl MVP’s tenure as QB1 was on the clock. After Flacco suffered a hip injury against Pittsburgh last month, The Jackson Era officially began as the 2016 Heisman winner was named the Week 11 starter against the Bengals. What happened since has not only changed the course of the Ravens’ regular season but perhaps the franchise for years to come.
Baltimore has found new life in the second half of the season with Jackson running the show and running through defenses. Having won five of their last six games, including Saturday night’s 22-10 win over the red-hot Chargers, the Ravens are in sole possession of the second AFC Wild Card spot, and according to ESPN’s Football Power Index have a 63 percent chance of winning the AFC North.
A season that once looked like it was ending at Jeff Fisher’s annual New Year’s Eve 8-8 Party and a potential coaching change may result in a division title and a contract extension for John Harbaugh. Make no mistake, the Ravens’ mid-season takeoff is hardly due to Jackson’s ability to throw. Frankly, they’ve won almost in spite of his throwing ability, as Jackson is completing just 58 percent of his attempts for an average of 156 passing yards per game and a measly 82.8 passer rating in his six starts. Instead, it’s Jackson’s uncanny and electric running style that has radically changed the Baltimore offense and propelled the Ravens into the playoff race.
I present to you, the football jury...
Exhibit A: The Ravens lead the league with 137 rushing first downs, Jackson is credited with 39 of those, meaning he is responsible for about 30 percent of the team’s first downs on the ground, and that’s for the entire season, not just the six games he has started. In their last five wins, the Ravens have moved the chains 40 more times than their opponents and converted more than half of their third downs (51 percent), is higher than Indianapolis’ league-leading mark of 48.4 percent.
Exhibit B: Jackson is averaging 16 carries and 77 rushing yards per game since Week 11. If he were to have maintained that production for an entire season, he would currently rank fifth in the NFL in rushing behind Ezekiel Elliot, Todd Gurley, Joe Mixon, and Saquon Barkley. Jackson’s 605 rushing yards are second on the Ravens (Gus Edwards, 642) even though he logged just 28 carries through the first nine games.
Exhibit C: Since Jackson has been the starter the Ravens’ offense has surged up the ladder in dominating time of possession. Baltimore now ranks first in the NFL in plays per drive (6.6) and third in average time per drive (2:57). In their five wins with Jackson at QB, the Ravens have maintained possession for 63 more minutes than their opponents. That’s more than a full regulation game and also means more than an hour’s worth of rest for Baltimore’s second-ranked defense.
Exhibit D: Jackson’s ability to run has completely changed how the Ravens’ offense operates in its entirety. For the first nine games of the season, the Ravens averaged 93 rushing yards on 26 carries, totaling just 834 yards. In the last six weeks, the team is averaging 218.5 yards on 45 attempts per game, totaling 1,311 yards and becoming the first team since the 1976 Steelers to have more than 190 yards on the ground in five straight games.
...I rest my case.
The instant, wholesale changes to the Ravens’ offense may not work for the long-term. Jackson eventually has to become a better thrower, improve his pocket presence, and for the love of Tiny Tim, learn how to slide. But give credit where it is due, to Harbaugh and his staff for playing to Jackson’s strengths and allowing him to feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. And especially give props to Jackson, who obviously has responded more than adequately when his team has needed him most, an unlikely trait for most rookie quarterbacks.
Most importantly, Jackson is 5-1 as the starter and as he showed Saturday night, he can handle the pressure that comes with going on the road and playing against a top-notch defense with one goal in mind – slow him down. The win over the Chargers has the Ravens one step closer to winning at one time seemed like an improbable division title. It also reinforces Jackson’s status as the new face of the franchise.
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.