Lamar Jackson is even better equipped to win MVP in 2020
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By Cameron Hogwood
Last Updated: 20/09/20 3:01pm
Lamar Jackson might be even better than we all thought.
Not that it is much of a revelation. He was always going to be better in 2020, the question was how much better on the back of a spellbinding breakout season.
The NFL's reigning MVP strutted into Week One and rather nonchalantly flicked his wrist for 20 passes (80 per cent), 275 yards and three touchdowns without ever really needing to turn on the afterburners as the Baltimore Ravens dismantled the Cleveland Browns 38-6.
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Awareness for his rushing artistry was a more powerful weapon than his ankle-breaking bursts themselves, Jackson recording just seven carries for 45 yards with a frightening self-assurance of his ability escape using his legs if need be.
For the Ravens to look so dominant without having to unleash Jackson on the ground came as a smug reminder of their post-December credentials. It was as though John Harbaugh was warning the rest of the league 'it's there if we need it'.
Jackson's arms were the talk of the town this offseason. Following January's playoff elimination against the Tennessee Titans, outsiders pressed to know whether this Michael Vick, Cam Newton-esque dual threat could hurt teams in the air. Ask the folk in Cleveland, they were hurting.
His composure and authority in the pocket was striking, the smoothness to his passing glorious on the eye, his decision-making unflinching. This was not a quarterback being weighed down by challenges on his arm talent.
Jackson finished 10 of 10 for 128 yards on play-action passes, nine of 10 for 180 yards on passes for 10+ yards and three of four on tight-window throws, according to ESPN.
The only near-miscue came on the opening touchdown pass to Mark Andrews, who had to stretch for a stunning one-handed grab after Jackson had put a little too much zing on the throw. Nonetheless, the play provided a glimpse of Jackson's maturity as he jolted half of the Browns secondary to the left with his eyes before switching back to find his tight end wide open in the middle of the endzone.
Hollywood Brown was on cue to feature in an exhibition of Jackson's passing ability when he latched onto a perfectly-weighted 49-yard bomb on a deep-corner route. Exquisite touch and precision was matched by patience in the pocket as Jackson eased the ball into the stride of his wide receiver.
Later in the game Jackson stood unfazed after some confusion from Gus Edwards in the fake, calmly feeling pressure from the left and hitting Brown on the slant while taking the contact. Not only was the play another reflection of his demeanor, but it reaffirmed his even greater understanding of this Ravens offense and his growing trust in Brown to be where he needed to.
"It's now our job to be at the spot, because that's where he's putting it," said Brown after the game.
"He's doing a good job of throwing it away from defenders and throwing it to where you can catch and run. So, he's been doing a good job of just improving his game."
Growth in his choices with the ball was evident as well, one play seeing Jackson make a simple pass to a wide-open Willie Snead to set up a first-and-goal situation. There was no burning need to do the spectacular, with coach Harbaugh complementing explosiveness with simplicity.
Deeper in the game Jackson fired a dagger to Andrews for his second touchdown of the game with a conviction and accuracy that instructed his tight end where to be.
Week One can tempt us into jumping to conclusions, but Jackson's expansion as a passer has been evident since last season. With Sunday's performance he has now completed 70.6 per cent of his passes for 1,752 yards, 28 touchdowns and one interception in his last nine regular seasons.
Jackson himself will be the first to say he is blessed with a fine supporting cast, including offensive coordinator Greg Roman who you suspect has barely scratched the surface of his plans for the man under center.
His bulging playbook may well have got bigger in the summer upon the arrival of second-round pick J.K. Dobbins as an injection of added variation in the Ravens backfield.
The rookie, who rushed for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns in total last season, played 23 snaps against the Browns, while veteran Mark Ingram played 21, Edwards 15 and fullback Patrick Ricard 23.
Baltimore adopted the look of a committee backfield in the opening weekend, previewing the kind of rotation that promises to make life even tougher for defenses scheming ways of thwarting the threat of Jackson as a runner.
"There's no exact science there," said Roman on the Ravens' use of their running backs. "It'll be different every week. We like to keep people guessing."
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Dobbins ran in for two touchdowns on his debut for the team, although did not make a catch having recorded at least 20 in each of his three seasons at Ohio State for a combined 645 yards. Expect to see that part of his game more as the season progresses.
On the outside Brown produced encouraging signs of embracing the No 1 wide receiver role with five catches for 101 yards after struggling with injuries and consistency in 2019. His ability to create separation as a deep and intermediate threat across the field will be a nice addition to the seam-action of tight end Andrews in stretching opposition defenses.
Additionally, Myles Boykin looks primed to play a more prominent role as a vertical threat in the Ravens offense after making just 22 catches for 198 yards and three scores in his rookie year, while sixth-round pick James Proche, who returned punts on Sunday, will have his chance to serve as a target in the open field.
One man not being spoken about quite as much as other rookies is third-round pick Devin Duvernay.
The Texas product became Sam Ehlinger's lead receiver in 2019 with 106 catches for 1,386 yards and nine touchdowns, asserting himself as one of the top options in the slot while averaging 6.9 yards after the catch. His only reception in Week One came in the form of a 12-yard gain from a checkdown.
His aggressive style with the ball in hand hints at an opportunity for him to mirror the kind of multi-purpose role Deebo Samuel stepped into during his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers. With Roman's plans for variation in the backfield in mind, do not be surprised to see him run one or two jet sweeps with Duvernay.
The game slows down for Jackson at little bit more with each drive, which can only be bad news for the rest of the NFL. To top it off, a strengthened backfield and a deeper receiver corps means the Ravens have a greater freedom to pick and choose when they let him loose.
One of the most exciting players of his generation meets another this weekend when Jackson comes up against Deshaun Watson and a Houston Texans side looking to recover from their opening day defeat to the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs.
Watch the Texans host the Ravens live from 9:25pm Sunday on Sky Sports NFL, followed by the New England Patriots at the Seattle Seahawks.
J.J. Watt says the Houston Texans must look to contain Lamar Jackson as they attempt to bounce back in Week Two against the Baltimore Ravens.
"It's a great challenge for us and we're looking forward to it; we want to try to contain him, Watt told Sky Sports' Neil Reynolds.
"He's very dangerous when he gets out on the run, so the first thing is we want to try and keep him in that pocket.
"But he's also good in the pocket, so when he is, you want to pressure him, get after him and gets as many guys to the ball as you can to make it as difficult as possible. That's our goal."
Former NFL coach Rob Ryan insists the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must "meet Tom Brady halfway" after the quarterback endured a forgettable debut in their Week One defeat to the New Orleans Saints.
Head coach Bruce Arians didn't refrain from criticising Brady publicly after the game, particularly when it came to his two interceptions and Ryan disagreed with that approach.
"First of all, I thought his team was grossly out-coached in the game," said Ryan on Inside the Huddle. "Not with Todd Bowles, I thought Todd Bowles did a great job on defense but I'm talking about first of all, the special teams was atrocious.
"'If you want to get ripped publicly, I'll rip you publicly', because that's the wrong thing to do to Tom Brady. He would get ripped by Bill Belichick privately and in the meetings amongst his peers. How about rip yourself?"
It's Shane Warne and Nasser Hussain's turn to take on Sky Sports' weekly NFL predictions... can they repeat Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher's Week One success?
Click on the video above to watch Warne and Hussain make their Week Two predictions, with Warne showing the love for Tom Brady and Hussain tipping the Ravens and Saints for the Super Bowl - if he can read his phone!
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