Why the Ravens' Lamar Jackson is playing better than during his MVP season

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Some might say Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who leads the NFL in passer rating and TD passes, looks the same as he did during his 2019 MVP season.

But Ravens coaches and teammates know differently. Jackson is actually playing at a much higher level this season.

He’s showing more patience in the pocket. He’s delivering the ball with more accuracy. He’s commanding the offense with more authority.

Three years ago, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called it a “revolution” when Jackson and Baltimore’s unconventional offense ripped through defenses. Now, the Ravens are once again the NFL’s most electric attack because of Jackson’s “evolution.”

“It’s a front row seat; you’re watching greatness,” Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell said.

When Jackson became the second unanimous NFL MVP selection, he played behind one of the best offensive lines, and he handed the ball off to Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram. Through three games this year, it hasn’t mattered that Jackson has had his blindside protected by three different left tackles and Baltimore’s running backs have struggled.

Jackson has produced 87% of the total yards for the league’s No. 1 scoring offense, which has put him ahead of his 2019 pace in nearly every major statistical category. Aside from the league-leading 10 TD passes and 119.0 passer rating, Jackson ranks fifth in the league in rushing (243 yards) and first in rushing average (9.35).

Jackson’s odds to win NFL MVP have gone from 22-to-1 in February (eighth-best odds) to 7-to-1 (tied for third-best with Jalen Hurts while Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are first and second).

“He’s kind of determined to play his way,” Harbaugh said. “His way is winning football.”

Some wondered whether Jackson would regret playing his fifth-year option with no guaranteed money beyond this season. Others thought he would get distracted or play a more conservative style with the lack of a contract extension.

Jackson has responded with a focus and ferocity that could ultimately reset the quarterback market as well as rewrite the record books. He is the first player in NFL history to deliver back-to-back games with at least three touchdown passes and 100 yards rushing.

His 12 total touchdowns (two rushing) are more than 30 of the other 31 teams (the Detroit Lions have as many as him).

Asked if he takes pride in these performances that have never been seen before, Jackson said, “I just want to win. By doing that, I just got to do what I do — play Lamar football.”

Hitting the bull's-eye

Earlier in his career, Jackson would bolt the pocket if no receivers were open or if he felt immediate pressure. These days, he’s hitting his targets in the end zone through the smallest of windows.

His 16-yard touchdown pass Sunday to tight end Mark Andrews, who leapt over Patriots safety Devin McCourty, had a 13% completion probability, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s the lowest of any completion in Jackson’s career and the lowest on any touchdown pass in the NFL this season.

Jackson later connected with wide receiver Devin Duvernay on a 4-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Duvernay had 0.7 yards of separation.

“He’s one of a kind,” Andrews said of Jackson. “There’s no one who’s really able to do what he can do for a team.”

Jackson has thrown a league-best three touchdown passes and no interceptions when throwing into tight windows this season. This is a major improvement from last season, when he had no touchdowns and four interceptions when passing with less than one yard of separation.

“I’m just getting them the ball, that’s all,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’ve got 100% comfort in my guys that they’re going to make that play. Just give them a chance. That’s all we talk about."

'Engine is bigger'

No one really knew the effect of Jackson adding over 10 pounds of lean muscle and bulking up to 230 pounds. Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman suggested Jackson could be faster because “his engine is bigger.”

Whatever the reason, Jackson has been able to reverse a concerning trend. Over the previous couple of seasons, Jackson’s rushing average has declined from 6.9 yards per carry (2019) to 6.3 (2020) to 5.8 (2021).

Last season, only five of Jackson’s 133 runs went for 20-plus yards (3.7%). This year, he has been more selective when he runs, but he’s been much more explosive. Jackson has totaled three runs of 20 or more plus yards on 26 carries (11.5%), breaking free for gains of 79, 38 and 20 yards.

“I told you guys plenty of times I was going to be good,” Jackson said of the additional pounds Sunday, “and I feel like I’m showing it.”

Two weeks ago, Jackson recorded the longest run of his career, zipping past the Dolphins for a 79-yard touchdown. His previous best was 50 yards.

On that run option, Jackson reached a maximum speed of 20.48 mph, which ranked among the 15 fastest times of any ball carrier in the first two weeks of the season.

"What the guy does day in and day out, I think nobody can duplicate it in the league,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said.

'Not a lightbulb thing'

In each of the past two offseasons, the talk has been that the league has finally figured out Jackson.

Last November, Jackson’s season spiraled downward after he struggled against the Dolphins’ Cover-Zero scheme. The Ravens were held to 10 points, their fewest ever with Jackson as their starter, in Week 10 in Miami. Teams blitzed Jackson heavily after that, which led to six interceptions and 13 sacks in his last three full games of 2021.

In watching how Jackson dissects defenses this year, it looks like the game has slowed down for him.

"I just think it's a natural next step in terms of finding his rhythm during the week, what he's looking at, how he studies defenses, how he breaks defenses down,” Harbaugh said. "It's not a lightbulb thing, it's an evolution of studying the game that you see quarterbacks go through.

“He's still a young quarterback (25). You watch him play, does it look like he understands what he's going up against and what he's dealing with out there? That's the result of that process and that work effort that he's putting in. It's really impressive.”

In Sunday’s 37-26 victory in New England, Jackson excelled under pressure. He was 9-of-10 for 110 yards and four touchdowns against the Patriots’ blitz. He has six touchdowns against the blitz, which is already one more than what he had all of last season.

Harbaugh raved about how Jackson is running the show offensively. He’s making the checks and managing the clock.

Asked whether Jackson gets enough credit for commanding the huddle, Harbaugh essentially shrugged his shoulders.

"I'm trying to answer that question for four years now,” he said. "I answer it here every time we have a press conference. I basically say the same thing because it's true every week. Yes, if there's people out there that doubt that at this point in time, I don't know what to say to them. I don't think we can help them at this point.”