NFL Week 14

Can Ravens pro­tect Jackson?

USA TODAY US Edition - - USA TODAY SPORTS - Mike Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – With each burst of ac­cel­er­a­tion, Lamar Jackson has car­ried the Bal­ti­more Ravens back to rel­e­vancy since tak­ing over as start­ing quar­ter­back three games ago.

The Ravens’ de­fense has cer­tainly played its part, hold­ing op­po­nents to an av­er­age of 211 yards and 18 points per game. And Jackson’s hero­ics haven’t come without con­tri­bu­tions from his of­fen­sive team­mates.

But the rookie has been cen­tral to Bal­ti­more’s suc­cess, di­rect­ing an of­fense that has dom­i­nated time of pos­ses­sion by ap­prox­i­mately 15 min­utes per game.

But more im­por­tant, he has in­fused the Ravens with op­ti­mism. Losers of three straight and the own­ers of a 4-5 record, Bal­ti­more pre­vi­ously ap­peared bound for ir­rel­e­vance but now stands as the AFC’s sixth seed.

Coach John Har­baugh turned to Jackson with start­ing quar­ter­back Joe Flacco side­lined by a hip in­jury, and the 2016 Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner has de­liv­ered. But there’s no clar­ity on how Har­baugh will han­dle the po­ten­tial quar­ter­back con­tro­versy once the 11-year vet­eran fully re­cov­ers.

Har­baugh said the 33-year-old Su­per Bowl XLVII MVP would ramp up his prac­tice ac­tiv­ity this week. But for now, the Ravens are op­er­at­ing as though Jackson will start against the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sun­day.

But an­other kind of uncer­tainty also looms re­gard­ing Jackson.

There’s no deny­ing his ta­lent. Jackson has speed and elu­sive­ness that ri­val Michael Vick and Robert Grif­fin III. He’s great in space, runs with good in­stincts and is hard to tackle. And of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Marty Morn­hin­weg has or­ches­trated an at­tack that has made him ef­fec­tive de­spite pass­ing skills that re­main un­re­fined by NFL stan­dards.

How­ever, each run and sub­se­quent tackle raise ques­tions about his sus­tain­abil­ity. NFL de­fenses al­most al­ways man­age to catch up. So what will hap­pen once de­fend­ers fig­ure out how to force him to re­main in the pocket and rely on his arm? More im­por­tant, how long can Jackson’s 6-2, 212-pound frame with­stand the hits he has sub­jected him­self to?

The Ravens haven’t had to worry about the first ques­tion, be­cause Cincin­nati’s, Oak­land’s and At­lanta’s de­fenses couldn’t con­tain Jackson. His av- er­age of 88 rush­ing yards on 18 at­tempts per con­test have over­shad­owed the fact that he has thrown for only 151 yards per game on 21.7 pass at­tempts.

Bal­ti­more al­ready suf­fered a scare last week when Jackson suf­fered a blow to the head at the end of a run and had to be checked for a con­cus­sion. He missed a series but re­turned to fin­ish the game.

The rate at which the Ravens have used Jackson as a run­ner has alarmed some. Af­ter Jackson gashed his team for 26 car­ries and 119 yards in his start­ing de­but, Ben­gals coach Marvin Lewis cau­tioned, “Quar­ter­backs don’t run for­ever in the NFL. Sooner or later, they get hurt, and they don’t run the same.”

Dur­ing a re­cent tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance, Vick pre­dicted that Jackson could break his all-time rush­ing record for quar­ter­backs. But he also said to “pro­ceed with cau­tion.”

Whether they want to ad­mit it or not, the Ravens are in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion. Jackson’s abil­i­ties have given them a chance to end a three-year play­off drought. But this ap­proach also threat­ens his safety and their long-term in­vest­ment.

“I guess you just jug­gle it. You bal­ance it,” Har­baugh said on Wed­nes­day. “We’re try­ing to win games and make plays and be good for the long haul. You never want any player to get hurt, but it does hap­pen. I think (with) your quar­ter­back, that’s some­thing that you have to keep in mind.”

Har­baugh ex­plained that Morn­hin­weg and quar­ter­backs coach James Ur­ban have a list of points of em­pha­sis they preach to Jackson, in­clud­ing bet­ter de­ci­sion-mak­ing and avoid­ing sub­ject­ing him­self to un­nec­es­sary risks. But they also don’t want to squelch his in­stincts.

“Ab­so­lutely — that’s what you never want to do,” Har­baugh said. “You never want to tell — these guys are just tremen­dously tal­ented, gifted guys. To get to this level and to play at this level is such an ac­com­plish­ment. … You don’t want to sti­fle their cre­ativ­ity ei­ther. But the fun­da­men­tally sound way is al­ways the way that we’re striv­ing for.”

But thus far, the Ravens have given Jackson a lim­ited pass­ing work­load. Each game Morn­hin­weg calls a num­ber of plays that give him the op­tion to pass or run, a pop­u­lar trend through­out the league.

At times, Jackson has ap­peared to give up on pass plays too soon. Even­tu­ally, Jackson’s coaches need to trust him more as a passer and keep him on a run­play pitch count.

A strong run game and the play-ac- tion pass­ing at­tack is the best friend of a young quar­ter­back.

Dur­ing Grif­fin’s rookie year in 2012, Wash­ing­ton’s coaches used the threat of his run­ning abil­ity to draw de­fend­ers into the box and then struck down­field on long play-ac­tion passes. But de­spite the Red­skins’ ef­forts to pro­tect him with more pocket passes, Grif­fin’s ag­gres­sive na­ture as a run­ner got him into trou­ble, with his knee giv­ing out — mul­ti­ple lig­a­ments rup­tur­ing — in a sea­son-end­ing play­off loss.

Now serv­ing as a backup in Bal­ti­more, Grif­fin could serve as a cau­tion­ary tale. But Jackson said his con­ver­sa­tions with Grif­fin don’t in­clude the plight of scram­bling quar­ter­backs. And when on the field, he’s not think­ing about risk of in­jury.

“I just play ball,” Jackson said. “I don’t think about all that when I’m out there. It’s just mov­ing the ball, get pos­i­tive pos­ses­sions, don’t get neg­a­tive plays and stuff like that.”

Jackson’s evo­lu­tion should even­tu­ally lead him to­ward im­proved bal­ance while still main­tain­ing his dual-threat ca­pa­bil­ity.

But for the good of the quar­ter­back, the Ravens and their fu­ture to­gether, the progress must ramp up sooner rather than later.

JOHN DAVID MERCER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Ravens quar­ter­back Lamar Jackson has led the team to three straight wins.

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