Lamar Jackson will make his first start against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, putting his initial imprint on one of the NFL’s most intense rivalries. It’s a huge game for both teams, but one of Jackson’s many strengths is his ability to handle the hype.
Jackson tunes out the talk and focuses on the task. He respects the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, but he isn’t fazed by it.
He was still the backup quarterback last year in both games against Pittsburgh, and one of Head Coach John Harbaugh’s messages to the team this week was, “You’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers.”
Did Jackson hear the message?
“I’m not paying attention to that, then,” Jackson said smiling, drawing laughter from the assembled media. “Actually, last year we did (beat Pittsburgh). (Joe) Flacco was the quarterback, but I was part of the team. We beat them last year, so I say I beat the Steelers already.”
That’s just Jackson being Jackson. He keeps it real, even if it’s not the answer you were expecting.
However, here’s something that’s unquestionably on Jackson’s mind heading into Sunday’s game. The Ravens (2-2) have lost two straight, and Jackson hates to lose. Jackson threw his first two interceptions of the season against the Cleveland Browns in Week 4, and Jackson hates throwing interceptions.
Regardless of Sunday’s opponent, Jackson wants this game badly. The fact it’s against the Steelers only adds more spice.
“I know it’s going to be crazy,” Jackson said. “Steelers Nation is going to be pumped for the game, and we’re going to have our Flock Nation in the building. Rival game. I’m ready.”
The Steelers want to be ready for Jackson, but that’s easier said than done, especially when you haven’t seen Jackson in real time, playing at game speed.
Jackson’s quarterback rating (109.4) is fourth among starters, trailing only Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (120.4), Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks (118.7) and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys (113.7). And Jackson leads all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards (238), far ahead of Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills (131).
Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin said his team would have to be extremely disciplined to keep Jackson from breaking containment once he decides to run.
“We just don't believe that that's something that you can prepare for in a week,” Tomlin said. “We think that it's fundamental. I think you always have to stress leverage and responsibility football, and when you face the type of quarterback mobility that he has, it really stresses it or exposes it if it's not up to snuff. So, I'd like to think that we've been preparing for Lamar since Day 1, because we're fundamentalists in our approach to teaching in terms of responsibility.”
Jackson’s emergence as the Ravens’ franchise quarterback has added a new dimension to the rivalry, as more of the prominent faces that have defined Ravens-Steelers football have moved on. Ravens all-time sack leader Terrell Suggs is now with the Arizona Cardinals. Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season following elbow surgery. Former star Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is out of the NFL.
Younger stars like Jackson and Steelers rookie linebacker Devin Bush are now the future faces of the rivalry. It’s a dynamic Jackson hadn’t thought much about, but he couldn’t deny it.
“I haven’t looked it like that, but since you said, it, yeah,” Jackson said. “Pretty crazy. No Ben, a whole new team, new era. We just have to get ready for it.”
Watching Ravens-Steelers from the sideline last year, Jackson noticed the intensity.
“Physical, everyone after each other,” Jackson said. “I just can’t wait to perform in it. They play that little song (Renegade), they wave their little flags and stuff – the little towels – around. It was pretty dope. I enjoyed it.”
Jackson said he couldn’t compare Ravens-Steelers to anything he experienced in college at Louisville, not even his games against interstate rival Kentucky. However, one theme from playing against Kentucky carries over with Jackson to the NFL.
“I really didn’t have any animosity against those guys (Kentucky) until they beat me,” Jackson said. “Then I was ticked off. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not happening again.’”
This is Jackson’s first experience losing back-to-back starts with the Ravens. While there has been plenty of focus on Baltimore’s defensive issues, Jackson wants to be sharper, more efficient than he was Sunday against Cleveland, knowing the Ravens may need his best to win in Pittsburgh.
“I did well in some parts of the game, but I could’ve done a lot better,” Jackson said. “Could’ve helped my team more. We got stopped like five times. The game would’ve been totally different. We’ve got to be better and it starts out here [in practice].”