OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Defensive coordinators spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to stop Lamar Jackson, whether it’s sending a blitz, putting a spy on him or devising some unique wrinkle to take down the slippery Baltimore Ravens quarterback.
It’ll work to perfection, where defenders have Jackson in their sights and a sack is the inevitable outcome. That’s when Jackson goes off script and the most exciting play in the NFL commences. Once he escapes the pocket, Jackson turns the NFL into a backyard game and he is the baddest guy on the block. He fakes out the sport’s best athletes so badly they collapse to the ground, creating instant and embarrassing GIFs. If you believe he’s only going to run the ball when the original play breaks down, Jackson will bait defenders toward him before uncorking a 50-yard pass downfield.
How can teams prepare for the unexpected with Jackson?
“Playing Madden,” Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “This guy is extremely dynamic, can make plays when you do not think there is a play there to be made. He is just Houdini, I guess.”
Jackson is football’s ultimate cheat code. He has an NFL-best 262 scramble yards this season — 88 more than anyone else — by spinning, sidestepping, stiff-arming and slashing his ways through defenses. But he can also hurt teams with his arm, having produced three touchdown passes when throwing on the run (which ranks only behind Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett).
For teammates, Jackson’s improvisational skills can lead to excitement, confusion and sometimes awkward collisions. For defenders, it’s a mixture of frustration, mind games and awe.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said he always wanted to play against former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and now he can say he has faced a new-era version of him. Others believe Jackson is even more unique.
“He’s one of one,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “You see he’s special — some of the plays he had where he’s running full speed and stops on a dime and lets the defender go past. You knew you were going to have your hands full containing him. …”
“… He’s very fast and he’s definitely a hard guy to handle. …He’s a problem. He’s definitely a problem.”
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick
Here is a 360-degree view of Jackson in action:
When the linemen see Jackson scrambling, they’re taught to sustain their block until the whistle blows. There is some nuance to it, however.
The linemen can’t immediately go upfield, just in case Jackson decides to throw the ball. But they also want to provide a block on a linebacker or defensive back if it can give Jackson more room to run.
The advice given is based beyond their sight.
“When they feel a breeze going by them, they say, ‘Hey, let’s go. We better follow that breeze,'” offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said.
For the most part, this has worked. The Ravens have only been penalized twice for an illegal man downfield.
There have been times when the breeze has followed them. Against the Arizona Cardinals, Jackson saw a wide-open middle of the field as soon as he dropped back on third-and-20. He ran so fast he accidentally ran into the back of center Matt Skura before breaking outside, where he blew through the arm tackle of one Arizona defender and faked out another for a 19-yard gain.
“You just let him do his thing. That’s the easiest way you can say it,” Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda said. “There’s no magical comment. In heat of moment, we’re just playing football.”
Mark Andrews has a special connection with Jackson.
With 446 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns, Andrews leads the Ravens in both categories.
Their relationship shows up most when the second-year quarterback is extending the play.
In Kansas City, Andrews tried to get Jackson’s attention when he was open in the end zone and threw his hands up in the air. Jackson, though, felt he had run past the line and responded by throwing his hands up while running.
The Ravens converted that fourth-and-3 in the red zone and gained a new appreciation for that next-level communication.
“I knew what was going on,” Andrews said. “I kind of gave him that, ‘Come on,’ and he kind of was like, ‘I’m running this.’ It’s crazy to think back on it. It’s like I can replay it in my head in slow motion. The game kind of slows down like that.”
Jackson is continuing to show improvement as a passer, and he is making strides throwing on the run. His 95.6 passer rating outside the pocket ranks higher than the marks of Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.
It’s been preached to Baltimore’s wide receivers to run their scramble routes when Jackson is on the move.
“When I see him [leave the pocket], I just take off to the end zone,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. “When we feel scramble, we break into an open area or get into a rhythm with Lamar depending on which way he goes.”
In Seattle, Jackson bounced to the outside after Clowney crashed the edge. With all eyes on Jackson, he threw a 50-yard pass with the flick of his wrist to rookie receiver Miles Boykin, who got one-on-one coverage deep downfield.
“We understood his arm talent was a lot better than what people thought nationally, or [what] the critics thought,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s why we drafted him as a quarterback. We knew he could throw. But it takes time in this league to develop a little bit in any kind of an area. And he can hurt you throwing.”
In Pittsburgh, Ingram was running upfield to become a target for Jackson before ending up as an obstacle. Jackson decided to run and collided with Ingram.
“Sometimes he’s scrambling, and we’re all out there like, ‘Do we block? Do we try to get open?'” Ingram said. “You’re trying to be there for him, but he’s just doing crazy stuff.”
Jackson can outrun most running backs. He’s been clocked at 20 miles per hour on a running play this season, which is faster than the three highest-paid running backs in the NFL in Todd Gurley (19.5 mph), Ezekiel Elliott (19.3) and Le’Veon Bell (17), according to Next Gen Stats.
Jackson is also as elusive as any running back in the league. The Ravens’ website put together Jackson’s best juke moves in the first seven games, and it totaled 17 highlights in the 90-second clip.
Juke man, Juke man, yeah that’s @Lj_era8❗️
(we really put all his best jukes in a video 😂) pic.twitter.com/Q3x3WGEevo
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) October 25, 2019
Jackson’s 1,132 yards rushing through 14 starts are more than what six Hall of Fame running backs had over that same span: Terrell Davis (1,117), LaDainian Tomlinson (1,053), Marcus Allen (1,043), Emmitt Smith (901), Thurman Thomas (854) and John Riggins (769).
“I don’t know how he does it, but man, he’s a beast,” Ingram said. “I feel like he’s going to be the greatest one day.”
For Jackson, the runs don’t always have to result in touchdowns to change the momentum in games. He regularly turns what should be a sack into a first down.
In Seattle, many quarterbacks would’ve been dropped for a 10-yard loss when a blitzing defensive back came unblocked off the edge. Instead, Jackson not only outran that defensive back, who was already closing at full speed, but two other Seahawks defenders for a 28-yard gain.
“I’m just trying to move. Don’t get sacked,” Jackson said. “I’m protecting the ball, trying to make a positive play out of nothing.”
Jackson’s scrambling is a major reason he ranks in the top 10 in rushing (82.3 yards per game). If he can run for 100 yards against New England, he would become the first quarterback in NFL history to record three straight 100-yard rushing games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Asked what goes through his head when he sees a defender in the open field, Jackson said, “I don’t want to give it away. I just do me. On one-on-one, I’m either trying to get the first down or trying to score. Nine times out of 10, I’m trying to score if I do decide to run. …”
After facing Jackson, the common response from defenses is he’s faster than he looks on tape. But Jackson’s amazing balance and anticipation when maneuvering around tacklers in the open field are also hard to account for.
In Kansas City, Jackson was a one-man wrecking crew when he scored a 9-yard touchdown. He beat Chiefs defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah to turn the right corner, sidestepped defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and spun past safety Daniel Sorensen to reach the end zone.
“It’s tricky because, in your mind, you’re thinking he’s elusive and maybe I should just take a shot at him and lunge at him,” Mathieu said. “Even with that play and me in particular, you see me approaching him and he’s waiting for me to launch, so he can put himself in position to make that move. That’s what he does. That’s why it’s important for guys to rally to the ball. He’s that good. He’s going to make the first guy miss.”
Jackson’s 262 scramble yards are the third-most through a team’s first seven games since ESPN began tracking such plays in 2006. Only Vick (393 yards in 2011) and Robert Griffin III (289 in 2012) had more.
“That’s the most frustrating thing for a defense,” Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “You have a play covered, and he’s an elite athlete. We’ve played a couple of good athletes. He’s one of the rarest I’ve seen in person. Just one little crease, and he’s got 30 yards on you.”
On Sunday night, Jackson faces the league’s top defense in the New England Patriots (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
Since 2001, two quarterbacks have rushed for more than 65 yards against a Bill Belichick defense. Jackson could have the edge. According to ESPN pass coverage metrics, New England plays man coverage at the highest rate in the NFL (70%) — it’s a defense that allows an NFL-low 3.7 yards per dropback. Jackson is averaging 13.2 yards per scramble against man defense and 7.8 vs zone. The Patriots have also allowed the second-most yards per rush on scrambles in the past 10 years.
“Yeah, he’s very fast and he’s definitely a hard guy to handle,” Belichick said. “A lot of times he just outruns people. I mean, he’s got good moves, too. I’m not saying that, but a lot of times he just outruns people with his speed. Catching him is an issue, especially when he keeps the ball. A lot of times he’s running against a defensive end and the ends just aren’t fast enough. They have him but they don’t have him. He’s a problem. He’s definitely a problem.”
ESPN reporters Adam Teicher and Mike Reiss contributed to this article.