OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In some training camp practices, but not all, the Baltimore Ravens keep score in 11-on-11. Lamar Jackson comes alive on these days because he hates losing.
And on this overcast Wednesday, the Ravens’ second-year quarterback is feeling particularly antsy. After winning the first 11-on-11 showdown of camp four days earlier, the defense crushed the offense Sunday and Monday, something Jackson had to stew on since Tuesday was an off day.
So with practice set to begin again at the Under Armour Performance Center, Jackson turned to Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban and asked the only thing he’d been thinking about for 48 hours.
“They keeping score?”
“Yeah, we’re keeping score,” Urban replied.
“It ain’t happening today,” Jackson remarked. “We’re gonna win.”
And then Jackson, whose reputation as a “gamer” has already permeated the building, went about having his best practice in four days. He showed off arm strength and touch, throwing some pretty balls that made the fans roar, and displayed improved command of new offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme, which has been completely built around his unique skills.
“I think we’re going to give defenses a lot of looks, a lot of things to prepare for,” receiver Willie Snead IV told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not traditional. We’ve have some traditional stuff in, but then we’ll have different triple-option stuff, play-action, run-influenced break out-of-the-pocket type stuff. It’s just a lot to prepare for [on] defense.”
So much so that Ravens coach John Harbaugh even suggested that the Ravens might push offenses to the next era of football.
“Coach was talking to us last night — he was getting me pumped up talking about the new revolution, changing [everything] and stuff like that,” Jackson said. “I felt like we were about to play Miami. I was pretty pumped … I was like, ‘OK, coach. I’m all-in!’ The whole team was all-in. Coach was saying some real stuff up there.”
There are four primary reasons the Ravens believe they might indeed be at the forefront of that revolution, despite Jackson’s middling passing stats last season.
“We are only limited by our own imagination,” Urban told Yahoo Sports. “[It will be] innovative, creative. The sky’s the limit for what we want to do.”
No. 1: Jackson will run — a lot
Jackson averaged 16 carries a game in eight starts last season, which would average out to an absurd 256 over the course of a season. Nevertheless, he also broke the NFL record for quarterback carries in a season with 147, so one might assume the Ravens will encourage him to eschew running in favor of throwing more from the pocket, just for the sake of his health.
When recently told on NFL Network that Cam Newton once ran 139 times in a season, Harbaugh said to “take the over” on Jackson, who might be the NFL’s most dynamic running quarterback since Mike Vick.
“It’s gonna happen, and that’s a good thing when it happens,” Roman told Yahoo Sports, regarding Jackson’s penchant for running. “We’re not trying to force it or dissuade it.”
But the coaching staff has some rules in place to prevent unnecessary wear and tear. For starters, while Jackson is free to get all the yards he can, he better end the play by getting down or getting out of bounds. What’s more, he is not allowed to cut back across the field, which would expose him to blindside shots.
In addition, there’s hope that the 7-to-10 pounds of muscle Jackson — who is now believed to sit around 218 — gained this offseason will help mitigate the running risk.
“If you have a sports car, you don’t worry about driving it because it can handle it,” Urban told Yahoo Sports. “I tell him, don’t ever let me coach you out of being the player you are. Trust your great natural ability.”
No. 2: He should be much better pre-play
When asked how much better Jackson is at spitting out plays cleanly in the huddle now compared to last season, both Roman and Urban made it clear it’s not even close.
“Light years,” Urban said. “He’s a different man that way. There are some [plays] that are very short, and there are some that are wordy … he’s done a great job with both. He really has.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of this. If Jackson can get to the line of scrimmage quicker, it will give him more time to give dummy cadences, identify coverages and scan defensive players for “tells.”
Even his teammates can tell the difference in Jackson’s command.
“He’s calmer and more poised in the huddle,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “You can see a little more confidence in him in the huddle and understanding that he’s the guy now.”
No. 3: His field vision isn’t the problem
Although Jackson’s rookie passing stats were far from ideal — he completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 1,201 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions — Roman says Jackson has one ability few seem to give him credit for.
“He’s gonna find the open guy, either through a progression naturally or just see it,” Roman said. “He can see things well. His vision is outstanding … you can’t coach that. You can try to, but in real time, sometimes it doesn’t show up.”
Want proof? Check out his 18-yard completion to tight end Mark Andrews against Atlanta, which was on the backside of the play’s design.
Ravens OC Greg Roman cited this as an example of Lamar Jackson's field vision, which he insists is "outstanding." Here, he finds TE Mark Andrews on the backside as a 3rd or 4th read. Ravens hope Jackson's offseason emphasis on mechanics & accuracy will improve his completion %. pic.twitter.com/rTisavQM7k— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) August 1, 2019
“It wasn’t even in his read,” Roman told Yahoo Sports. “He just felt it.”
And not every quarterback would see that?
“Trust me — no,” Roman said. “He doesn’t play the game with horse-blinders on … there’s some guys that are so robotic in how they see the field that they miss things.”
Instead, Jackson spent the offseason working on another area.
No. 4: His throwing motion has improved
Jackson is a proven weapon on quarterback-driven runs, run-pass options and the movement pass game. The new offense will take advantage of those things, as well as short passes.
But Jackson is also hard at work to become a more consistent and accurate passer, which he knows he needs to be to reach his potential.
“You guys saw me last year — I was horrible, a lot of ducks,” Jackson recently admitted with a laugh. "It's been better [this training camp] … a lot of tight spirals.”
At the heart of Jackson’s issues were his inconsistent mechanics. So Urban has been harping on a motto that Jackson has adopted.
“Let’s make the easy one easy,” Urban said.
Jackson’s receivers can tell his throwing motion has become quicker, a little more consistent. That, plus the additional reps they’re getting with him now that he’s the starter, will not only result in more trust between Jackson and his wideouts, but hopefully more completions.
“His release is a little different ... sometimes it comes out sideways,” Snead said. “You’ve just got to be able to watch his elbow, because wherever his elbow goes, that’s where the ball does. So I try to lock in on that if I don’t see the ball come out of his hand.”
In a perfect world, Jackson’s arm slot would be repeatable every play. But weird stuff happens in football, and the Ravens know that due to pressure, his launch point may have to change.
That’s where his ability to drop sidearm — not unlike the league’s reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes — will pay off.
“He has such arm talent to throw from all kinds of different angles, and there’s times when he drops his elbow down to get underneath to find the lane,” Urban said. “He does that so naturally, we don’t want to take that away from him.”
Speaking of Mahomes, Snead said he sees Jackson in a similar light as an overall playmaker.
“It’s a new era for quarterbacks,” Snead said. “[Even] if it’s not mechanically right, these guys are just making plays. The only difference between Lamar and Patrick, I feel like, is the running ability and the arm strength at the end of the day. They both have the ability to make plays and do crazy things with their throwing motions. [Lamar] will be on the same level sooner or later.”
Future MVP? Ravens say yes
That’s what Jackson — a pleaser who is self-aware to a fault, coaches say — ultimately wants.
“I get the sense he wants to prove Ozzie [Newsome, former Ravens general manager] and everybody right for picking him,” Urban said. “He’s a Baltimore Raven, and he sees it that way. He wants everyone to know you were right for getting me, other than you were wrong for not.”
And that desire to not let people down is part of the reason his teammates love him.
“The way his teammates feel about him, he has natural leadership ability. They believe in him,” Roman said. “He inspires his teammates. I think he’s a force multiplier.”
Such was the case Wednesday, when Jackson came out firing at practice in hopes of reversing the offense’s losing streak against the defense. He ended up a little short of the goal — he was felled by an Earl Thomas interception, one that Urban said only an All-Pro like Thomas could have made — but the offense lost by only a couple points this time.
“It was much more competitive,” Urban said.
And Urban, knowing how much that would annoy and inspire Jackson, said he couldn’t wait to get back in the meeting room and tell his young, ultra-competitive quarterback the final score, all as a part of an ongoing effort to push Jackson — and hopefully, the Ravens’ offense.
“I’m gonna say they beat our ass,” Urban said with a laugh, “and he’s gonna say, ‘They keeping score tomorrow?’”
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