NFL Insider Notes: Lamar Jackson saved the Ravens' season, the Jags are broken and more from Week 11
There will be ups and downs, but Ravens fans would be foolish not to embrace this excitement
The Baltimore Ravens faced a must-win game at home on Sunday against a division opponent that has often brought out the worst in them. They would be starting raw, rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson for the first time, despite him having to miss precious practice reps this week to deal with a stomach illness, while Joe Flacco's hip rendered him inactive.
The stakes only rose from there, with the Ravens staggering through a bevy of self-induced errors – penalties, a blown fourth-and-one, an interception – as the Bengals surged to a 21-13 lead and angst gripped M&T Bank Stadium. And Jackson proved plenty up to the task. It's not a stretch to say he saved Baltimore's season and reinvented its offense and relieved coach John Harbaugh of probing questions about his job security for at least another week. Jackson came in and, in his first chance, won a football game, under duress, in a dynamic and energizing performance that will foster more confidence in the first-round pick, but will do little to silence his skeptics.
As someone who lives in Baltimore, I can assure you this city and its sports fans can be quite averse to change – especially one as systemic as the shift from Flacco, and that version of the Ravens offense, to Jackson and the RPO-heavy, multiple-room-looks version that went a long way to snapping the Ravens' three-game losing streak on Sunday. But it is a shift that has long been brewing, with Baltimore's traditional offense again sagging coming into Week 11 (27th in passer rating, 31st in yards per attempt, 27th in yards per play, 27th in rushing yards per game), and a critical rethink required during their bye week.
The only time the Ravens could keep their aging defense off the field was when Jackson was under center (4.55 yards per rush with Jackson at QB entering today; 2.77 with Flacco), and even then the other team knew that Jackson was only there to run (of his 63 QB snaps, he threw on just 12 of them) and he was doing so playing 10-versus-11, as Flacco was still on the field as a "wide receiver." Imagine what might happen if they gave the kid an entire series, or maybe a quarter or, in this case, an entire game?
Well, unfortunately for Marvin Lewis (just taking the reigns as his own defensive play-caller) and the Bengals, it was pretty damn unstoppable, in a 24-18 Baltimore win that rekindles the Ravens' playoff hopes while dealing a rival a huge blow. The Ravens limped into this game without having reached 125 yards rushing as a team all season; Jackson had 117 on the ground himself, youngster Gus Edwards, recently up from the practice squad, added 115 and Baltimore amassed 265 yards rushing total. The Ravens had not topped 10 rushing first downs in the game since a Week 1 blowout of Buffalo – when Jackson basically played the entire first half – and had 15 today. They began the game on a dominant drive – 11 plays, all on the ground, for 75 yards and a touchdown over 5:23 – and held the ball for over 38 minutes in the game (saving that defense) after failing to reach 27:00 of possession during the losing streak. They averaged just under 5.0 yards per carry after coming in at a pathetic 3.61.
In all honesty, this game really didn't have to be this close. Baltimore basically took points off the board – and stalled Jackson's momentum – with an offensive pass interference call away from the ball and a holding penalty late on another drive and then an interception and a stuff on fourth-and-one. The pick is on Jackson, but the rest of the time others essentially let him down. There were more yards and points to plunder, and that will show up on the game film.
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Is this sustainable? How will Jackson absorb all the hits? Will teams adjust? The critics are already chirping. What we do know is – with a beat up offensive line and an injured veteran quarterback and short on any true playmakers on offense – the Ravens getting their best quick-twitch player on the field for more than five plays a game (what Jackson averaged between Week 2 and Week 10) was mandatory, and you had best get used to this. Flacco is not going to be able to practice this week, from what I gather, and Jackson is going to start against the woeful Raiders next week, and quite possibly for a long, long time.
He made some mistakes, for sure, but also exuded a toughness and tenacity and determination, especially on the late-game comeback, that was special. His teammates and coaches were all-in on helping him in any way possible, and there was a pulse, and verve and attitude and physical tone set by the Ravens offense today that I haven't seen in a long, long time. Yes, Jackson threw one ugly interception that turned the tenor of the game for a while, his feet not set, feeling himself perhaps a little too much … but he more than made up for it, he was plenty accurate in general (13-of-19 for 150 yards) with Baltimore allowing him to often read half of the field and going with a smart, simplified approach.
Still, Jackson found six different receivers, he got rid of the ball in a timely manner, his escape-ability bailed out his line several times and he made several big plays. None was bigger than a 19-yard pass to rookie tight end Mark Andrews for 19 yards on third-and-three down the sidelines, with Jackson avoiding the rush and rolling out and throwing a strike to key the go-ahead field goal.
The Ravens utilized a fullback along with multiple running backs in some sets. They got their plethora of tight ends involved. They ran play action off those looks in critical spots and had the Bengals guessing all game and gassed by the fourth quarter. As debuts go, it was worthy of celebration. Sure, Jackson has a ways to go, and no, he won't be toting the ball 27 times every week. But as blueprints and templates go, given the talent on this team (or lack thereof at critical skill positions) this is far more sustainable than Baltimore continuing to be one of the most pass happy teams in the NFL. Give Jackson his due. Give John Harbaugh and his staff theirs. And give the front office credit for taking the bold move of going back into the first round to grab the former Heisman Trophy winner.
There will be ups and downs, like there are for all young quarterbacks, but you'd be a foolish Ravens fan not to embrace this excitement and what the future could hold, after so many years of dull and inspired offensive football. Enjoy the journey.
Colts continue to impress
I've been telling you guys to look out for the Colts. That was nothing short of a full and total beatdown of a very physical Titans team, but one that did not entirely surprise me. Andrew Luck is sneaking into the MVP discussion, with a seventh-straight three-touchdown game, and while the injury to center Ryan Kelly could be trouble if he is out a while, the balance and attack and quiet swagger that Frank Reich has instilled is no joke. Once again he schemed up the Colts into wide-open situations, T.Y. Hilton is playing like a man possessed and I'll say it again – this could be the six seed in the AFC playoffs.
Jaguars are broken
What a collapse by the Jaguars defense. That franchise really is broken. Keeping Blake Bortles undermines them more by the week, and it was a little sad, actually, to watch them implement for Bortles – in his fifth year and after extending his contract – essentially the same emergency game plan Baltimore installed for Jackson's first NFL start. Jacksonville ran the ball 12 and 15 times in a row. The fact they do not have a Teddy Bridgewater or Josh McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick on that roster is fairly damning and, at 3-7 and with a splintering locker room, it'll be a long December there.
More from Week 11
- The worst loss of the day may have taken place in Atlanta. Matt Ryan looked like he wanted to turn the ball over all day, Julio Jones had to prevent several interceptions, the offense faltered in the red zone (shades of 2017) and after a late rally, to lose at home to Dallas on a last second field goal was a season-killer. Another loss by the Panthers, perhaps, mitigates some of the pain, but at least Carolina went down going for a two-point conversion with Graham Gano having a bad day. The Falcons have played a league-leading six games at home already – where they used to be dominant in their old stadium – and are just 3-3 there, and 4-6 overall … The Bucs had always planned to get another look at Jameis Winston, and I applaud ownership for not hiding behind the quarterback's potential injury guarantees in 2019. They need to see as much of him on field and to determine if they want to bring him back, or to bolster any trade value. This team is going nowhere, and playing a journeyman 36-year old QB after the Fitzmagic had faded made no sense …
- The Skins have a major attendance problem. They keep playing what amount to playoff games and the stands are barely half full from many of the camera shots. That they are just 3-3 at home and with so many players grousing about the fan support and then to have suffered a season-ending injury to quarterback Alex Smith – that all sounds like far too much to sustain. The door is wide open in the NFC East … I know the Titans said everything seemed okay with Marcus Mariota and all, but man, you have to be concerned about the constant litany of injuries. He had just seemed fully healthy and playing quality ball for the past few weeks … Lots of great teams out there, but for my money the Saints are the best in the NFL, and Marcus Davenport is coming back at some point … How about Eli Manning? His pocket presence may have waned over the years, but no one has a more innate feel for when the Grim Reaper is creeping up on his shoulder. His two best games of the season staved off any quarterback change there (but it's gonna happen at some point).
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