KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alex Okafor sat at his locker Sunday afternoon, his eyes wide as he shook his head.
The defensive end had just helped the Kansas City Chiefs hold on for a 33-28 home victory over the Baltimore Ravens, and while he was happy about that, his demeanor shifted to appreciation when asked about one of the highlight-reel plays that Baltimore’s magnificently elusive quarterback, Lamar Jackson, made over the course of the game.
“There was one earlier in the game where he put me in the blender,” Okafor told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “And listen, I learned my lesson.”
Lamar broke out the canned R2 Madden 02 juke right here pic.twitter.com/fADRBjERBK— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) September 22, 2019
Namely, when Jackson’s on the move, you better sink your hips, watch his feet and, well, pray.
“You gotta swarm, man,” Okafor said with a chuckle. “You gotta swarm.”
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And to hear others tell it, sometimes that doesn’t work.
“Y’all talking about Lamar,” asked defensive linebacker Chris Jones, who had just ambled over to the locker next to Okafor’s. “Aw, man. He sauced me up a couple times.”
“Sauce ain’t the word,” Okafor replied with a laugh. “Blender.”
All that praise might sound over the top, or easy to dismiss as a type of winner’s graciousness, especially given Jackson’s final stat line, as he completed 22 of 43 passes for 267 yards, zero touchdowns or interceptions while rushing for 46 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
But, really, you had to watch what Jackson did over the course of the game to fully appreciate what the 22-year-old did (especially late). With the Ravens on the ropes trailing 30-13 early in the fourth quarter, Jackson navigated two scoring drives that narrowed the gap to 30-22 with 6:39 left in the game.
Jackson did so largely by dodging defenders to extend plays‚ in spite of the controlled rush the Chiefs used to keep him in the pocket, often using his athleticism to pirouette away from trouble and lob downfield completions no one saw coming.
These plays make life miserable for defenders and makes teammates (and opponents) believe the Ravens are never out of the game.
“No. 8 [Jackson], he has it,” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports, shaking his head at his locker with the same wide-eyed appreciation Okafor had. “I think 15 [Mahomes] has it. Four from the Texans [Deshaun Watson], I think he has it. And obviously [Tom] Brady.
“Guys that [you] don’t look on the scoreboard — they’re always in it.”
And please believe, multiple Ravens swore that’s how they feel about Jackson, so much so that when told of the Chiefs’ repeated praise of their second-year teammate, they basically shrugged.
“I mean, you can’t lie when it’s on film,” running back Mark Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “We know Mahomes is special, but they know [Lamar’s] special. He gives defenses and coordinators headaches for sure. You can have a perfect play, defend it, and he’s able to make some crazy stuff happen. He’s the real deal, man.”
“Anything can happen at any time with this guy,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said.
“He’s ridiculous, man,” said wide receiver Willie Snead IV, a recipient of one of Jackson’s most eye-popping pass plays Sunday.
Yet, the Ravens fell to 2-1 after opening the season with wins over two of the NFL’s worst teams, the Dolphins and Cardinals. The Ravens came up short in their bid to prove themselves worthy of being mentioned among the AFC’s elite with the Chiefs and New England Patriots.
Some of the credit for that goes to the Chiefs’ improved defense, which contained Jackson on the ground for the most part (aside from a ridiculous red-zone scramble that led to a fourth quarter touchdown) and largely managed to take away the downfield and play-action shots the Ravens feasted on through the season’s first two weeks.
Lamar Jackson won't let the Ravens die 😤pic.twitter.com/00fpmqb3NJ— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) September 22, 2019
Kansas City’s main problem was the Ravens, who feature one of the NFL’s most varied run games, churned out 203 rushing yards and four touchdowns (three from Ingram). And with the ground game rolling, Jackson was also decisive in his check-downs and initial progressions, something that can’t be said for his performance at times in 2018.
“Oh, [he’s] so improved [from last year],” Chiefs inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “Oh yeah, definitely. He’s confident, he’s not dropping back and taking off … he’s actually reading his guys, throwing it quick, going through his progressions.”
Jackson still has ways to go to join the ranks of elite quarterbacks like Brady and Mahomes. Start with his field vision, as there were times he appeared to miss Mathieu (who nearly intercepted him twice) in coverage. What’s more, while Jackson is more decisive than he used to be in the pocket, he can become a more dangerous passer when he consistently hits his third or fourth reads.
The keyword is “passer.”
As an overall player, Jackson already fits that standard, so much so that multiple members from the Ravens and Chiefs privately noted that although the two teams aren’t slated to face each other again in 2019, a playoff meeting in January seems likely, largely because Jackson figures to get only better over the next three-plus months.
“All the guys that I knew on the [Chiefs], all of them said, ‘Yeah, we’ll see y’all down the line,’” Stanley told Yahoo Sports. “We know how good we are, we just have to keep getting better.”
And it’s a process that must start with their phenomenally gifted quarterback, one who must still improve but whose feats of athleticism Sunday still compelled his opponents to pay their respects, even in victory.
“Tells you what type of athlete he is,” Okafor said. “One of a kind.”
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