Lamar Jackson and Cam Newton lead all NFL quarterbacks in rushing attempts with 96. Jackson is built like a track star. Newton is built like a Mack truck.
Can Jackson keep running so frequently, but remain durable enough to lead the Ravens’ offense into the playoffs? Jackson and the Ravens are not afraid to find out, with Jackson currently leading the team in rushing yards with 471.
Jackson believes in using his head and his arm. But he also believes in using his legs.
“I’m trying to win,” Jackson said. “I don’t really care about that. [If] we’re winning, it’s going to happen. Players [are] getting nicked up in every game, believe me.
“They always tell me to protect myself. But you know, I’m going to put it all on the line.”
In his last two games, Jackson has dealt with injury concerns. He missed a series in Atlanta going through concussion protocol, after he was accidently kicked in the head by teammate Ronnie Stanley at the end of a run. Then in Sunday’s loss to Kansas City, Jackson missed the final two plays after suffering an ankle injury while being sacked.
Jackson didn’t suffer a concussion, and his ankle has not kept him from being a full participant in practice this week heading into Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg admits that Jackson is presented with a balancing act while running, trying to gain the most yards while avoiding the most contact.
Mornhinweg has given Jackson a protection plan for his running approach. Near the sidelines, Mornhinweg want Jackson to get as much as he can without getting hit before heading out of bounds. In the middle of the field, it gets trickier.
“In between the numbers, get as much as you can, get down, get underneath,” Morhninweg said.
Then Mornhinweg’s eyes lit up.
“Unless, of course, you think you can score,” Mornhinweg said, drawing laughter from the media. “Now, many of these young, great, athletic quarterbacks, they think they can score every time! So some of that is experience.”
Teammates constantly remind Jackson to protect himself when he runs. But they also marvel at what he can do in the open field, like when he accelerated between two defenders in Atlanta and scored on a 13-yard run. Jackson saw an opportunity to challenge the defense and won. But in non-scoring situations, the Ravens wouldn’t be upset to see Jackson slide more.
“I think we’ve been doing a good job of not putting him positions where he’s taking the big hits up the middle,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “He’s been getting to the edges, and at that point it’s just about him being smart, sliding when he needs to. The coaches know, and he knows, that he’s important to this team. He needs to slide more if there’s any threat of him getting hit.”
What the Ravens are doing, using their starting quarterback as a major running threat, is not often seen in the NFL. Since 1970, only six quarterbacks have led their teams in rushing – Bobby Douglass of the Chicago Bears (1972), Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles (1987, 88, 89, 90), Donovan McNabb of the Eagles (2000), Newton with the Panthers (2012, 17), and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks (2017).
Several of those teams reached the playoffs with their starting quarterback healthy. The Eagles went to the postseason three straight years with Cunningham, 1988-1990. They went with McNabb in 2000, and the Panthers went with Newton last season.
However, even most running quarterbacks don’t run as often as Jackson. He and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills (490 yards) are the only two quarterbacks leading their team in rushing yards this season. And most of Jackson’s runs are by design, not adlibs. He is the focal point of a running attack that has dramatically changed the Ravens’ season, and their offensive philosophy.
In Jackson’s four games as the starter, the Ravens are 3-1 and have soared from 27th in the league in rushing to fourth. They have run the ball at least 62 percent of the time three of those four games. By comparison, only 27 of the NFL’s 32 teams have thrown the ball at least 55 percent of the time this season.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh isn’t certain how often the Ravens, and Jackson in particular, will run the football over the final three games. But the Ravens will do what they think is necessary to win.
“I don’t know that we’ll continue to run 60 percent or not; that’s a high number,” Harbaugh said. “Hey, could get higher, though. You never know, the way we’re playing and the way games go.
“Running the football is important. I think in Baltimore, it’s something that’s always been a big part of the Ravens and a big part of our personality too, running and stopping the run. So, we believe in running the football, but you have to throw it as well. You have to make big plays. You have to score points. It just kind of all goes together.”
Harbaugh was asked how he approached limiting Jackson’s risk of injury without limiting Jackson as a player.
“Right now, I’m not worried about it,” Harbaugh said. “I want to win the game. That’s what we’re interested in. Keeping it simple.”
Keeping Jackson from running isn’t simple for the opposing defense, and it has been a catalyst for the team’s recent success. Jackson’s running style is a risk-reward proposition. So far, the reward has been obvious.
“He has been exciting,” said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who will have to deal with Jackson on Sunday. “He is fun to watch, that’s for sure, and they’ve been tearing it up with their run game. Their run game makes you play assignment football, and you can’t argue with the results.”