Steelers get 1st look at Ravens QB Lamar Jackson as starter
There’s a saying in Baltimore: “You’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers.”
If that’s so, for all Lamar Jackson has done in accounting for 24 touchdowns over his first 12 NFL starts, he apparently won’t truly become a Baltimore Raven until this coming Sunday night at the earliest.
“Well, actually, last year we did (win at Heinz Field),” Jackson said this week with a laugh, referring to a 26-14 win Sept. 30, 2018. “(Joe) Flacco was the (starting) quarterback, but I was part of the team, so definitely … I say I beat the Steelers already.”
Not yet as a starter, though Jackson had nine carries and one completion in two games against the Pittsburgh Steelers as a change-of-pace QB. In the 11 months since the Ravens last played the Steelers (Jackson was promoted to starter the week after a Steelers’ win in Baltimore on Nov. 4), Jackson has become something of a league-wide phenomenon.
Steelers QB Taryn Christion’s role for 1st week: imitating Ravens’ Lamar Jacksonhttps://t.co/NdK9eud3Mj
— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) October 4, 2019
A dual-threat speedster with a cannon of a throwing arm, Jackson won eight of his first nine regular-season starts and carried Baltimore to last year’s AFC North title.
This season, Jackson is fifth in the AFC in passing yards (1,110) and 11th in rushing yards (238) and has accounted for 11 touchdowns through four games.
“We’ve seen some of Lamar Jackson, but we hadn’t seen the totality of it in the ways a lot of people have,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Looking at the tape, obviously it’s grown and he’s experiencing the natural maturation process that you expect from guys from Year 1 to Year 2. He’s doing an awesome job of administering the offense. The offense is really challenging, quite frankly, because it stresses you in a lot of ways.”
Jackson’s running prowess long has been known. He reportedly can run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds, and he had 4,132 rushing yards over 38 career college games.
But Jackson’s arm talent was up for debate in some draft circles and among scouts, and perhaps even more after a rookie season that, although a success on whole, saw the Ravens cater their offense to a run-first style that gave the appearance they did not trust Jackson’s arm.
Jackson averaged 13 completions over his seven regular-season starts during his rookie season. His young career perhaps hit its nadir after three quarters of an AFC wild-card playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers in January. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the Ravens were trailing 20-3 with a net of 7 passing yards and Jackson was 3-for-9 passing with an interception.
Although Jackson had a strong fourth quarter in nearly leading Baltimore to a comeback win, Jackson’s longterm viability as a passer was questioned.
That storyline was trampled in the Ravens’ opener, when Jackson threw for 210 yards and touchdowns of 47, 83, 33 and 5 yards during the first half of a 59-10 victory at Miami.
📱: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
— NFL (@NFL) September 8, 2019
Minkah Fitzpatrick was still with the Dolphins then. He joins cornerback Steven Nelson as the only Steelers defensive players who have faced Jackson as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
“We were in a defense thinking he was going to get the ball out quick and try run the ball,” Fitzpatrick said of the Week 1 Miami defensive gameplan, “and they didn’t do that. Instead they did a lot of max protection, a lot of shots (downfield), enough to put us in a tough situation in the back end, coverage-wise. And he hit a lot of (deep) shots.”
Jackson has been one of the league’s best deep throwers this season. According to Pro Football Focus, only two quarterbacks have a higher percentage of pass attempts 20 or more yards downfield (17.2%). Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson are the only AFC quarterbacks to account for more yardage on such deep passes.
Don’t forget 14 of Jackson’s 36 rushing attempts have given the Ravens a first down. Only six players in the AFC have more rushing first downs.
“We are trying to limit the quarterback as much as we can,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “He’s done a good job for them the first four ball games.
“Are you surprised he’s coming on this quickly as a thrower? No. I think they do a good job of coaching in terms of limiting what they want him to do and just trying to call plays that he feels good about. I think they do a good job of that. It’s a lot of a challenge for us.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .