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LAS VEGAS – In quarterback Lamar Jackson’s third training camp internship this summer, he saw rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman – the Baltimore Ravens’ first round – fall to the ground in pain while holding his groin while shouting “I popped it – -.”
In Jackson’s first preseason game, he saw the start of running back JK Dobbins take a shot to his left knee on a screen pass before being run off the field with a season-ending torn ACL.
Then, four days before the regular season opener, Jackson was on the training ground when Gus Edwards ran back and tore his ACL, ending the season for the newly named starter.
All the buzz this summer has been about whether or not the NFL has found out about Jackson. But when the Ravens open the Monday night football season (20:15 ET, ABC / ESPN) against the Las Vegas Raiders, Jackson is trying to figure out who is queuing up around him.
When so many players go down, does Jackson feel more pressure to carry the team?
“No, I will always try to do more, no matter the fact,” Jackson said.
This had been counted as the year in which Jackson has no excuses and must take Raven’s passing game to the next level. The image support was considered the strongest in his four NFL seasons.
But with reduced time to build chemistry with his receivers, some wondered if Jackson would run the ball more. Others wondered if Jackson should throw the ball more because his two best rushers from last year were gone.
What everyone on the outside seems to agree on is: Jackson has become a one-man show again.
“He’s the kind of guy who will never, ever admit that it’s something he feels,” said Louis Riddick, a former NFL player and director entering his second season on ESPN’s Monday Woman. “But the thing is, with all the questions that surround him, he’s going to have to take his game to the next level to make up for what might be missing. He’s just gotta do it.
“If they want to take the next step – get to the title game and get to the Super Bowl – of course he will have to. He knows that.”
With no established No. 1 wide receiver and a rotation to start running back, Jackson has led the Ravens on a normal season roll that has not been matched by any quarterback over the past three seasons. Not Patrick Mahomes. Not Josh Allen. Not Tom Brady. Jackson is the winning quarterback in the NFL – a record of 7-7 – since taking over as the Ravens starter midway through the 2018 season. Baltimore has scored more points than any other team in the league in Jackson’s two full seasons as a starter.
But the Ravens understand they beat the odds last season when they became the first team in 17 years to reach the off-season after finishing late in passing, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Jackson can make tackles look silly in the open field and he can hit defense in the red zone with touchdown passes to close end Mark Andrews. But for Baltimore to develop, Jackson acknowledges that he needs to get the defense to pay to penetrate the middle of the field. He must stretch the field and throw outside the numbers as well as deep into the field.
The need to improve the passing game increased after the losses of Dobbins and Edwards, who together account for 81% of Baltimore’s rushing yards from the back.
Baltimore’s priority this offseason was to help Jackson by upgrading his wide receivers, even though the team did not have much pay-cap space and drafted at the bottom of the first round. The Ravens signed Sammy Watkins in free agency and spent No. 27 overall pick on Bateman. Together with Marquise Brown – the team’s best choice in 2018 – this marked the first time in Raven’s history that they had three previous selections in the first round on wide receiver, which was expected to accelerate the development of Jackson as a passer-by.
“Michael Jordan could drive, and then he learned a jump shot,” Raven quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “So that’s how we took it. He does not want to stop running the pitch. Michael Jordan did not stop running the pitch; he just learned to shoot better and more consistently. So we just learn how to throw the ball more consistently – and more precisely. “
Player catching up
The Ravens chalked up on Jackson’s stunted growth in the passing game last year for the pandemic, eliminating off-season training in the spring and reducing training camp. Team officials knocked on the learning curve, flattening out with a return to a normal training camp.
That suddenly changed when Jackson was quarantined for the first 10 days of camp after testing positive for COVID-19. When he returned, injuries had hit the broad recipient group.
Jackson’s top three goals from outside – Brown, Bateman and Watkins – missed a total of 38 drills over five weeks of camp. Jackson threw more passes this summer to the Siaosi Mariner and Binjimen Victor than Baltimore’s starting receivers.
“If we want to pinpoint a specific area of the passing game that needs to get better, it’s going to be the perimeter,” said ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback. “As a quarterback, when I throw the ball to the perimeter, it’s more often than not being out of my hands before the receiver is looking for it, just because it has to go that far. And it all comes down to feeling and rep and timing and rhythm. How can these guys get better if they are not able to?
“This was a weakness heading into this season that they would hopefully attack, and it’s still a weakness. This is a huge, huge concern for a Super Bowl candidate.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked in late August if there was enough time for the wide receivers to get their rhythm with Jackson.
“There must be,” he said.
Bateman misses at least the first three games on injured reserve after operating on the groin. Brown and Watkins returned to training in September. 1, which was less than two weeks from the opening.
ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday, a former veteran offensive lineman, said it’s hard to make up for lost time the closer you get to the normal season. The reps shrink significantly because teams will save players’ legs for game day.
“All of these factors play a huge role in the development of this passing game,” said Saturday. “It’s not going to happen. Basically, you’re going to see what Baltimore did last season because they will not be able to develop this thing the way they want to.”
In Jackson’s honor, he had the sharpest training camp of his career because of the time he spent before reporting to the Ravens facility. Jackson worked with teammates in Florida and Arizona. He was also taught by Adam Dedeaux, an expert in throwing mechanics and founder of 3DQB, who has helped half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
The teammates noted that Jackson threw tighter spirals in training camp. Coaches found out how Jackson stayed in his pocket, even when he had room to go and run.
“You can see he’s a hard worker, tough, smart and just has an edge for him,” Raven’s defensive end Calais Campbell said. “He’s just a young man who gets better every day. Every year he’s going to take big leaps and probably become one of the best players who’s ever played the game.”
Find out Jackson?
Throughout this challenging summer, Jackson has been optimistic and playful in his media sessions. The only time he showed any disapproval was when he was asked for a comment from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, who said on Get Up! that some people in the league indicated that this may be the year when “everyone counts Lamar Jackson out.”
Slumped his shoulders and sounded a sigh, Jackson said, “We’ll see, but I doubt it. I doubt it. I strongly doubt it.”
It took Jackson the fewest number of games to reach 30 wins in the regular season, 5,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing in NFL history.
At all football levels, Jackson has been the best player. His Pop Warner videos are still going viral. Jackson was the youngest to win the Heisman Trophy at 19, and he was the youngest quarterback to win the NFL MVP at 22.
Critics are quick to point out Jackson’s games after the season – he’s 1-3 – and his lack of consistency to make high-level throws. But Robert Griffin III, an ESPN analyst who was Baltimore’s backup quarterback the previous three seasons, doubts that defense is close to tackling Jackson.
“Michael Jordan did not stop running the field; he just learned to shoot better and more consistently. So we just learn how to throw the ball more consistently – and more accurately.”
Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban
on Lamar Jackson
“When teams think they’ve found out about him, they have not because – guess what? He does not even know what to do next time,” Griffin said. “He’s such an instinctive player. So the offensive and the predictability of it, yes, some have talked about it. Even Lamar has talked about it. But at the end of the day, you have to stop him. He’s the offense.”
The players acknowledged last week that it was deflationary as the Ravens lost their third race back in a span of 12 days. But no one panicked, for Jackson has always been Baltimore’s most dangerous runner.
The Ravens have consistently expressed optimism about the passing game, even though their best wide receivers spent training camp in the training room. Why? For once, it’s not about Jackson being fast.
“He understands the game so well,” said Andrews, Jackson’s favorite goalie. “I think it’s so slow for him, just to be able to see things and see how the coverage plays out.”
It’s not the first time there has been a rumor that the league has found out about Jackson. Many believed the Los Angeles Chargers delivered the plan to beat Jackson in the 2018 playoffs when Baltimore lost 23-17. The next season, Jackson became the second unanimous NFL MVP.
Will all the talk this year put an even bigger chip on Jackson’s shoulder?
“I would say he’s one of the most motivated people I’ve ever been around – inherently motivated,” said Urban, who is entering his fourth season as Jackson’s quarterback coach. “So, does it add fuel to the fire? I do not know how much more fuel to the fire you really need. I mean he is a very motivated young man who wants to achieve great things and he works very hard on to do these things.
“So doubt him, believe him, think he’s amazing. I do not know that he cares much about the opinions of others, other than the people of this building.”
The statement from many outside the Ravens’ building is, despite all the injuries Baltimore has sustained, the Ravens will remain hard to beat as long as Jackson is their quarterback.
“It’s a bit like the phrase, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,'” Riddick said. “He has a lot of power in his own body and in his own level of talent. He has a responsibility to raise the level of everyone else and make things look good when things are bad around him. He gets it, even though he won do not admit it. “