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Lamar Jackson’s Next Challenge: Protect the Football

120518_JacksonMistakes

First NFL start. Check.

Prove he can, and will, throw the football. Check

First NFL road start. Check.

Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson has crossed a hurdle in each of his three starts so far. Jackson’s next challenge is to protect the football better.

The biggest blemish on Jackson’s resume has been turnovers. He’s thrown three interceptions and fumbled five times in his three starts. Last week in Atlanta, one fumble as he tried to escape out of the pocket led to a 74-yard return touchdown.

The Ravens have been able to overcome the mistakes and still win in each of Jackson’s three starts. But that’s partly because the Bengals, Raiders and Falcons are three of the NFL’s lower-tier teams this season (at least right now).

The Chiefs, on the other hand, are 10-2 and very capable of punishing opponents for their mistakes.

“I’d like to see us protect the football a little bit better than we have in the last few weeks,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “That’ll be really critical in this game, I think, the turnovers, both ways. Those are some things to work on too.”

In college at Louisville, Jackson had 25 career fumbles in 38 games. He lost 10 of them. So it’s not exactly a new problem. By comparison, Joe Flacco has 80 fumbles in 163 career regular-season NFL games. Of course, Flacco doesn’t run nearly as much as Jackson.

The Ravens don’t want to take away Jackson’s playmaking nature. They want him to escape the pocket and use his legs to make defenders miss. At the same time, they are emphasizing that he needs to hold onto the football.

Harbaugh uses specific drills, as do all coaches, to focus on ball security. Those drills may get some extra emphasis this week. Asked what specific technique he focuses on to protect the football, Jackson smiled and said, “Hold onto it. Hold onto the ball tight.”

“We can’t have those [turnovers],” he said. “We can’t be risking that out there on the field. That’s a great team we’re about to play. We’re going to try to do a good job and keep the ball in our hands.”

The Chiefs have struggled on defense; they’re ranked 31st in yards allowed, are giving up the most yards per carry in the NFL and the most passing yards per game. But Kansas City is in the top-10 in turnovers, and they can get after quarterbacks with pass rushers Justin Houston and Dee Ford.

It’s not just Jackson that has to focus on ball security. Running back Kenneth Dixon put the ball on the turf in Atlanta, and Jackson and running back Gus Edwards have had a couple botched hand-offs.

“It’s the first thing we talk about in meetings is protecting the ball,” Edwards said. “The ball is the most important thing out there. We’ve got to keep it and we have to do a better job of that.”

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