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Lamar Jackson Bent Football to His Will and Made the Ravens the Center of the NFL Universe

Baltimore has ushered in a new model of offensive scheming by having the courage to build around its generational talent at quarterback

Efi Chalikopoulou

“Somewhere in the world is the most invincible man.” —Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

When something amazing happened, Wells Dusenbury first checked the tape to make sure he got it. He needed only three highlights from the high school football spring game, but he kept rolling and got a fourth, better than the other three, and perhaps better than anything he’d ever seen. He breathed a sigh of relief because it was there on his camera: a clip of a Boynton Beach high school junior named Lamar Jackson outrunning a Village Academy defender, stopping mid-sprint and juking another defender who fell out of bounds, and then walking into the end zone.

Dusenbury watched the clip a few times to make sure it actually happened. Once he got a handle on what he captured, he laughed. He sent the clip to the television station he worked for in Palm Beach County, Florida. As Dusenbury pointed out, it was 2014, the height of popularity for Vine, a now-defunct video app, and the beginning of video on Twitter. Jackson timed his run perfectly in that regard, too. His play went viral that weekend, well before anyone knew who he was, and garnered millions of views. It was the first example of Jackson being right on time—taking advantage of the era he was in and making the era bend to his will. It wouldn’t be the last.

On the other side of the field was Village Academy coach Don Hanna, who saw two of his defenders converge on Jackson. Hanna waited for Jackson to be pushed out of bounds, then saw him “stop on a dime” and walk into the end zone. His assistants looked at him and asked what happened. No one could actually say. A few months later, Hanna’s team played Jackson again in a regular-season game. “We’re feeling more confident of being able to contain him—not shut him down—but slow him down and contain him. We had film on him. We felt better. Then, we do a very good job of slowing him down running, and he starts using the arm. He beats us in the air,” Hanna told me. “I’m saying, ‘I can’t believe this.’” Hanna was devastated. “I started to question, ‘What are we doing as coaches?’ I looked in the mirror. ‘Is there something I am not doing to put my kids in position to be successful?’” The feeling stayed with Hanna for a long time. Jackson had made him question his own coaching.

“Fast-forward two years later and I’m watching Florida State and Louisville. I can’t believe what he’s doing against one of the top teams in college football. I feel a lot better,” Hanna said. “Fast-forward another two years, he’s in the NFL, and no one can tackle him, and I said, ‘I can’t believe this.’ Fast-forward to this year, and I feel like, ‘Hey, maybe I should go coach in the NFL.’ I did just as good of a job stopping him.”

Here is the problem facing NFL defenses: Lamar Jackson crosses the line of scrimmage at 13.7 miles per hour, by far the fastest speed in the league. He is also the third-most efficient passer by passer rating. The blending of these two things is not normal. It is the reason he is the presumptive MVP and the reason the Ravens are the top seed in the AFC. They will face the Tennessee Titans in their first playoff game Saturday.

This is the season of Lamar Jackson. It is the year that he and his offense stretched the limit of what was possible on a football field. The Ravens broke the record for most rushing yards in history with 206 yards per game, besting the 1978 New England Patriots. Jackson shattered the record for most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback with 1,206. Jackson also throws darts all over the field, and the Ravens are the only team in the league to score on more than half of their possessions. They are an aggressively modern team that takes bits from every era of football to create one of the most interesting regular-season teams in the sport’s history. The organization went against the established trends of the era and dominated. It is one of the best team-building jobs of the decade. In the process, it may have created a new era.

High school experience comes up a lot in conversations with Jackson’s teammates. It’s the only analogy most of them have for what the second-year quarterback, who turns 23 on Tuesday, does to defenses. “He makes NFL players look like they are playing in high school,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “The classic reaction is for players to throw up their hands and say, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ and look over at their coaches.”

Space is the lifeblood of modern football, and Jackson understands how to exploit it better than anyone. Defenses have gotten faster and more athletic, and Jackson uses that against them. He understands how to use his own speed and can use his agility to defeat defenders. Defenders say if you come at Jackson too quickly, you will get embarrassed. If you come too slowly, you’ll never get close to him. “He understands angles very well. He understands his own ability very well. He understands exactly how fast he is. He can stop. He understands that if you’re coming in too fast that there’s no possible way you can stop him,” Jerome Baker, a Dolphins linebacker told me. “If you come in smoking hot, he understands exactly how to make the cut to make sure you can’t stop him.” I asked Baker how to stop Jackson. He laughed and mentioned a handful of things defenses could do to try to slow him, but nothing an individual could do. “If you think you can do it by yourself, that’s when he gets 250 yards in a game,” Baker said. Everyone is fast now—Jackson knows that, and he’s faster and smarter than basically everyone.

The Ravens, of course, saw this coming, which is why they took him in the first round of the 2018 draft, put him behind a league-best offensive line, and built a scheme that blends power and speed better than any in recent memory. The 2019 Ravens will unquestionably change football, insomuch that every great team leaves a mark on the sport. Jackson’s impact on the league will depend on whether other teams can figure out what makes this Ravens team special. One thing is clear: The Jackson experience is not replicable. If you are an NFL team looking for the next Jackson, you will fail. “It’s hard. He’s a generational player. I don’t think there’s anyone else like him,” Ravens tight end Nick Boyle said. “There might be people who are kind of like him, but it can’t be exactly like him. He’s just too talented.”

Instead, the lessons teams will learn from the Ravens will be more abstract. They will be about creativity. About avoiding square pegs and round holes. About taking a special player and making him more special instead of the default NFL mode, which seems to be taking a special player and making him more like the NFL norm. “The lesson that can be learned from Lamar is that you don’t have to try to change quarterbacks’ games when they first come into the league,” Ravens backup Robert Griffin III said. “Because any system that you believe in can work. You just have to buy into it. It can’t be a part-time thing.” Griffin told me the offense, designed by coordinator Greg Roman under head coach John Harbaugh, thrives because it forces defenses to overthink: The Ravens use presnap motion more than any other team. They confuse defenders in the backfield with fakes and handoffs and then they “struggle not to overrun” Jackson. Or, of course, Jackson just nails a pass.

“I think we’re totally changing the game,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “To scouts, Lamar is not your prototypical quarterback, but he’s totally changing the NFL and is going to be the MVP. He’s going to change how quarterbacks are evaluated. To me, what the Ravens did putting this team together is pretty incredible.”

The Ravens didn’t invent anything: Jackson is not the first fast quarterback, and the Ravens are not the first team to build around the run game in the modern era. The difference though, is that they are the best. They embrace analytics and are aggressive on fourth down—though they aren’t the first to do either of those things, either. They aren’t the first to do anything. They are, to be scientific, just really smart and really freaking good.

“Teams have fast linebackers and pass rushers off the edge. Teams have former corners at safety who can run and cover because that’s what the league has turned into, a passing league,” Griffin said. “So any time a running team comes around, teams tend to struggle because they aren’t built to stop it. The linebackers 20 years ago were 260-pound guys banging up the middle. Now you’ve got 220-pound linebackers running a 4.4 40.”

Griffin smiled as he started talking about a famous Marshawn Lynch clip from 60 Minutes. “This team reminds me of that Marshawn Lynch clip. “He said, ‘I’m gonna run through a [motherf------s] face,’” Griffin said (he paused instead of using the actual curse word). “Over and over and over. And over and over. I think that’s kind of where we’re at. We’re just trying to impose our will over and over and over. And we can spread the ball out and throw it.”

Jackson’s brilliance can pop up at any moment, and his teammates have a pretty important job to do on each play blocking for him. They typically don’t get a chance to see his most famous plays; instead they have to exchange stories on the sidelines about what exactly happened on the field.

“As soon as he gets out of the pocket, he’s probably going to make the first guy miss so I have to go get the second guy. Sometimes I get to see it but usually I’m trying to throw an extra block,” wide receiver Willie Snead said. “The one in Cincinnati, I didn’t even know he hit the guy with the spin move. I get to the sideline and everyone is talking about it and I find out he hit buddy with the spin move. Dang. Bro is elite,” Snead said. The most impressive play Snead saw live was Jackson’s juke against San Francisco. “He dead-legged him,” Snead said. “I’m thinking, ‘Dude, I’m having flashbacks to high school.’”

The first time his teammates see the full extent of the damage Jackson inflicted on the defense is after the game on social media or, at the latest, in team meetings. “The Bengals, I kind of saw it,” Andrews said, referring to Jackson’s 47-yard TD run Week 10. “But it wasn’t until I saw it on Twitter right after the game that I was like, ‘Man, he really did that.’ He’s just insane.”

This delay leads to some raucous film sessions: “Guys get to wow over those plays in the meeting room,” guard Marshal Yanda said. Of course, it’s a good thing that Jackson’s teammates are otherwise engaged. Fullback Patrick Ricard raved about the wide receivers’ blocking ability, and Mark Ingram told me the tight ends are the “heroes” for finishing opponents downfield on blocks. “It’s 11 people—tight ends, receivers, Patrick Ricard, offensive line,” Ingram said. “You cannot break long runs without 11 people.”

Jackson’s ability to spring a big run on any play can surprise even his teammates. “On one of the Seattle runs, I was on their sideline, and he’d broken the pocket and I see him running full speed at me and it was kind of an ‘Oh, shitmoment,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “I turned around and I said, ‘I guess I better start blocking,’ so I blocked a guy, got him a little bit off-balance, and Lamar took off past me like 30 or 40 yards. He’s able to break the pocket and you have to keep your head on a swivel because it happens when you least expect it.”

Teammates have to use context clues to figure out what marvelous thing Jackson has done. “If I’m running to the right, and all of the sudden my guy just stops, I know he ran left,” Ricard said. “Sometimes you hear the crowd erupt, which probably means a broken tackle. In the Buffalo game, I didn’t know he juked out the linebacker, 58, until we got on the bus and you see it and said, ‘Wow, he did that?’ You have to gas him up. We all have a good time.”

What makes the Ravens deeply unfair to opposing defenses is that their blocking creates so much space for a player who can pop big runs without it, because he creates so much space on his own. “You give him a yard and he makes 50 out of it,” Hurst said. This ability to create something out of nothing is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Ravens season. Griffin tells me Jackson’s feet are “always under him,” which allows him to have full control of his angles. “His ability to start and stop is unlike anything anybody’s ever seen,” Hurst said. “A good example of that is the San Francisco game.” It’s important to note here that Jackson’s teammates will often identify his memorable plays by the city it came against, which is all the information that’s needed. You’ll hear Buffalo, Cincinnati, San Francisco and you know which play they mean. “He almost acted like he didn’t see the guy,” Hurst said of the Niners play. “He was looking like he was going to run forward, the guy flew in and dove, Lamar puts his foot in the ground, and the guy goes rolling and tumbling.”

All of this delights his teammates. Jackson seems to poll at a 100 percent approval rating in the locker room, which is rarer than you think in the NFL. Lineman Orlando Brown Jr., when discussing how nice of a person Jackson is, mentions Jackson’s Christmas gift to his offensive line: Rolex watches. “That’s a big deal. Granted, he’s a first-round pick, but nobody’s that rich,” Brown said. “That’s damn near a whole house.”

I ask Brown about the runs he’s seen up close. He said he saw Cincinnati because, as luck would have it, he was simply facing that way during the play. “I end up blocking my guy for a few seconds. There’s not much I can do, I’m not a fast guy so I’m not going to run with him,” Brown said. “But on a lot of his runs I don’t get the pleasure of seeing him do a lot of that stuff.”

“Long plays take the life out of a defense,” Brown said. “Lamar does a great job, every series, every game—slowly stabbing them until they bleed out. For three quarters and then, by the time the fourth quarter comes it seems like he’s out of the game [resting].”

There is another challenge for anyone trying to learn a lesson from the Ravens this year other than how they use their generational talent at quarterback: Most of the things they are doing are obvious. Teams want good offensive lines. They want speedy wideouts. They want good downfield blocking from tight ends. The Ravens, however, have done this better than almost everyone.

There is something so urgent about the way the Ravens play. If you want to quickly explain what good football is, Lamar Jackson’s Ravens are on a shortlist with Patrick Mahomes’s Chiefs as good candidates. The Ravens’ dominance is so obvious that it obscures their more nuanced offensive strengths. “I think this offense,” Paul Alexander, a longtime NFL offensive line coach told me, “is sustainable.”

Alexander, who spent 2018 as the Cowboys offensive line coach after more than two decades as the Bengals line coach, tried to figure out the secret to the Ravens’ scheme. “I had a notebook with all of these different plays they ran. Then when I synthesized it, I realized it’s the same play out of different formations. They run these plays, out of every type of configuration, formation, and every type of shift motion—they lead the league in motion with over 700, and the league average is about 330. It confused me. It took me nearly the whole year to figure out it was the same thing … I don’t think defenders have come to peace with that. They are still seeing all of these different plays.” The play is what Alexander calls a “gap read”—it employs a different blocking scheme than the zone read and it looks, in one iteration, like this:

Alexander said he recently charted a game wherein the Ravens ran this read 18 times. “Running the same concept 18 times in the NFL, that doesn’t happen very often,” he said, citing Mike Shanahan’s Broncos teams, which relied heavily on their wide-zone concept, as a rare example. Alexander thinks the “college offense” label is overblown with Baltimore if you use the common NFL definition of college schemes: shotgun spread, RPOs, and zone read. The Ravens, he said, lead the league in play-action; he cites Pro Football Focus numbers that put Baltimore near the bottom in run-pass options called. He said he thinks most of the college influence in the Ravens offense can be attributed to the Nevada pistol offense that Greg Roman has borrowed from throughout his career.

Alexander explained that defenses are not equipped to handle this sort of offense. Teams don’t want to run man-to-man defense, he said, because it requires corners turning their back to the offense, which is a death sentence against Jackson. Instead, they tend to stack the box with eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, which, Alexander said, is easily handled by Baltimore’s superior blocking schemes. That leaves only one safety back to guard against explosive runs. “And they clearly lead the league in explosive runs,” he said. “The theory of defense right now is playing right into the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. They create movement, power, and thrust, and then they combine that with power and strength with exceptional speed and quickness with the quarterback. It’s a problem. It’s a very big problem.”

Alexander, like most people I talked with, thinks there are huge lessons to be learned from the Ravens’ success. A team could use their brand of bullyball offense—there are enough players coming through the college and high school ranks with traits similar to Jackson, even if they might not possess the same speed. However, Alexander stresses, you need a big, powerful offensive line instead of a slimmed-down, quick one. Rick Venturi, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator, spent time with Jon Gruden in Tampa in the months after Gruden was fired by the Bucs and before he joined Monday Night Football. The two watched film and charted the future of the mobile quarterback. Venturi knew this day would come. He also thinks the trend will continue. “When you saw it was so drastically different, you realize it was going to evolve,” Venturi said. “In the NFL we never, ever accounted for the quarterback [in run defense] except maybe a scramble or a bootleg. Jackson is the 12th man. If he runs a play inside, you still have to defend the edge, and you don’t just have to defend the edge, you have to have a man and a half out there because if he gets you one-on-one, you can’t stop it.”

Jackson, essentially, presents a math problem. Defenses built schemes based on the quarterback passing the ball, but he’s a threat to do anything. And you need multiple players to tackle him. “When you see how they stretch the defense, you are going to get more and more guys like that out of college,” Venturi said. “But you have to be careful with that. I don’t know how many guys are really like him. Lamar Jackson is such a unique talent.”

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