After Lamar Jackson was drafted No. 32 overall and first arrived in Baltimore, he told coaches he was prepared to learn. Like the front office and coaches were telling fans, Jackson believed he was scheduled for a developmental year.
"I just wanted to learn as much as I could from a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. I told Coach that," Jackson said this week. "But I was always ready."
Jackson was focused in practice and taking diligent notes in meetings. Beyond his role as an occasional offensive wrinkle, Jackson was behind-the-scenes practicing what it would be like to be the Ravens' starting quarterback.
When Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury on Nov. 4 against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson's time as the Ravens' starter began earlier than he, or anyone in Baltimore, thought.
"I didn't really look forward to starting this year, but it happened," Jackson said. "So my job is to help my team win, and that's what I'm doing."
Jackson is 2-0 as an NFL starting quarterback. He ran for 119 yards in his debut against the Bengals, then threw for 178 yards, including his first touchdown pass as a starter, versus the Raiders. He's proven not only that he's a dynamic runner, but that he can throw the ball well too.
"It's the Lamar show," wide receiver Michael Crabtree said after Sunday's win. "You just have to sit back and watch, because he's electrifying."
Flacco is still an option for Sunday's game in Atlanta, but he's only had two limited practices this week and Head Coach John Harbaugh spoke about his excitement about seeing how Jackson would handle a road environment. It seems he will at least have a large role.
Here's a look at the effect Jackson has had on the Ravens, both offensively and defensively:
In just two weeks, the Ravens have gone from No. 27 in the league in rushing yards per game (92.7) to No. 11 (122.1). It's a stunning reversal for an offense that was struggling to move the ball on the ground.
The Ravens' 509 rushing yards over the past two weeks are the most in the NFL and most in franchise history over that span. That's a lot of numbers. So how is it happening?
There's the obvious threat of Jackson simply taking off and running. Linebackers and defensive ends have been left in the dust by Jackson's speed getting around the edge.
Jackson ran for 119 yards in his debut, then 71 yards in his second start. That's the kind of production expected from a top-tier running back.
"I know our defense here always tell us they hate chasing him around the field," wide receiver Chris Moore said. "A lot of them don't even want to chase him because he's going to make them look bad.
"It wears out a defense over the course of the game, just having to chase him sideline to sideline. It changes the game completely."
Everybody knew that Jackson could run, but Gus Edwards' emergence has come out of nowhere. The undrafted rookie running back averaged 4.3 yards per carry in his final college season at Rutgers. He's averaging 5.4 in the NFL.
Edwards deserves a lot of credit. He's running through arm tackles, showing good feet, explosion through the line of scrimmage and a punishing style. But there's no doubt that Jackson's presence on the field also helps open things up for Edwards.
"He definitely takes pressure off of me. All defenses have to respect the read option," Edwards said.
With Jackson on the field, it's 11-on-11 instead of 11-on-10 in the rushing attack because Jackson is another runner. That threat makes defenders (especially linebackers and defensive ends) hesitate, and that hesitation has helped Baltimore's offensive linemen in run blocking.
"This game is all about angles up front," guard Alex Lewis said. "With a guy like Lamar, backers are going to fall back and spying him to see which way he steps. That sets up our timing up front. So, ultimately, that makes our job easier."
The improved running game has lit a fire in Baltimore's offensive linemen. During Sunday's game against Oakland, left tackle Ronnie Stanley implored the Ravens coaches to keep running the ball, waiving and shouting toward the sideline.
"As an O-linemen, when you're running the ball like that, that's going to get you juiced up," Stanley said. "If we feel like the run's working and they're not going to stop it, we're going to let [coaches] know."
"O-linemen love pounding the rock," veteran guard Marshal Yanda simply said.
Time of Possession
The big bonus of an improved run game has been the Ravens' domination of time of possession. The Ravens had the ball for 16 minutes, 18 seconds longer (more than a full quarter) than the Bengals, and eight minutes, 24 seconds longer than the Raiders.
This has huge benefits for the Ravens' defense. Baltimore's defense played 80 snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Week 9 loss. They played 55 against the Bengals and 58 versus the Raiders.
That means the Ravens defense is fresher, especially late in games. Instead of losing a three-point lead over the Bengals in the fourth quarter, Baltimore's defense forced them off the field this time. The play that essentially sealed the win over the Raiders was a Matthew Judon and Terrell Suggs sack-strip-fumble recovery touchdown. Judon had three sacks on three straight snaps.
"It keeps us off the field, refreshes us and makes it easier to play down the stretch," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "When our offense is on the field running the ball, it's a direct correlation to us winning."
Dominating time of possession also means the opponent has fewer offensive drives. As long as the Ravens are getting points at the end of those drives, it forces the opponent to score at a higher rate. In an increasingly pass-heavy, offense-driven league, shortening the game could stymie some team's style.
"It definitely puts some pressure on the opposing team," safety Eric Weddle said. "They can't have any mess-ups. They can't have a sack or penalty, because they're not going to get the ball back for a while."
The Ravens are hoping that pressure forces teams to make more risky decisions, which could help Baltimore get more turnovers, something the unit has been yearning for more of.
Plus, limiting the opportunities for high-octane offenses like the Atlanta Falcons (No. 7 overall), Kanas City Chiefs (No. 3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 1) and Los Angeles Chargers (No. 6) to score points will help keep the Ravens out of shootouts.
"Sometimes the best defense is keeping their offense on the sidelines," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "So [Jackson] running the ball, taking minutes off the clock, is going to be big for us."
Big-Play Potential in Passing Game
Jackson hasn't put up gaudy passing numbers yet. He threw for 150 yards in his debut and 178 last week against the Raiders.
But just because Jackson isn't a traditional pocket passer like Flacco doesn't mean he can't throw the ball effectively and still generate big plays through the air.
"Joe throws like he's a God in there. He's so tall and the ball comes downhill at you, and it's basically a receiver's dream," rookie tight end Mark Andrews said. "Lamar puts it where it needs to be. They have such different throwing motions, but they're both quality throwers."
With Flacco under center, the Ravens' passing offense started with a bang, especially with Flacco and wide receiver John Brown connecting on big plays.
But after teams adjusted to put more attention on Brown, the Ravens leaned on short and intermediate throws to methodically move down the field. Baltimore's offense became more of a grind-it-out chain-moving unit, but without a strong running game (when Jackson wasn't used) to keep opponents off-balance. Flacco is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt.
Jackson has thrown it a lot less but is averaging 7.41 yards per passing attempt. And there's reason to believe that big plays in the passing game could be on their way.
One way is on broken plays, such as when Jackson darted out of a sack against the Bengals and saw Brown break wide open for a 23-yard gain over the middle, which set up a field goal before halftime. It's not traditional, but it works
Jackson also showed his deep ball touch against the Raiders. He hit Andrews in stride on a 74-yard catch and run. Andrews only got so open because cornerback Rashaan Melvin hesitated looking in at Jackson. It won't go down in the box score because of a holding penalty, but Jackson delivered a perfect 48-yard strike to Brown down the right sideline against the Raiders.
"Him just being on the field opens up the passing game," Moore said. "Teams are scared of his legs. They're scared. They're terrified. So that in itself is a factor. But that dude can spin the ball."
Questions That Remain
Jackson has dazzled in his two starts, but it's two starts. There's still a lot more for the rookie to show.
Asked whether he feels he's done enough to lead the offense moving forward, Jackson said Sunday, "I don't feel like I've done enough. There's always room for improvement."
Level of competition: The Bengals and Raiders entered their games against Jackson with two of the lowest-ranked defenses in the NFL. They have been particularly generous against the run this season.
Can Jackson beat a top defense? What happens if a team sells out to stop his rushing ability? The Falcons enter Sunday's game ranked No. 28 overall, so it remains to be seen whether they will be a good test of either factor.
Interceptions: Jackson has thrown three interceptions in two games, an average of one every 19 attempts. Flacco has tossed six interceptions, an average of one every 63 attempts. Interceptions haven't severely cost the Ravens yet, but they could against better foes.
"I hate them," Jackson said of interceptions. "Everything bad that happens, I remember."
Playing on the road: Experience matters, particularly knowing how to perform in a tough/loud road environment. Jackson played in huge stadiums, in front of loud crowds, in college, but Sunday's game in Atlanta could be his first NFL road start. It remains to be seen how he'll handle the communication aspect of the job.
"I don't really know what I'm getting myself into," Jackson said. "I have to wait to see what Atlanta brings us."
Health: Jackson has run 37 times over the past two weeks and he isn't too keen on sliding. Jackson has a knack for avoiding big hits, but he admits he's taken some. Plus, the little hits pile up. The Ravens have a target for how many carries they want Jackson to have in a game, and it's fewer than the 27 he had in his debut.
This week, former dual-threat quarterback Michael Vick told ESPN that Jackson should, "proceed with caution."