© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
On Sunday, when the 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, you may just see a preview of this year’s Super Bowl. You’ll also likely be seeing this year’s MVP, Lamar Jackson, who, despite erroneous criticisms of his game and suggestions — motivated by outdated quarterback archetypes and race — that he should be a wide receiver, is currently the best quarterback in the National Football League.
Jackson doesn’t need to lead the league in passing yardage because he’s so unrelenting, along with running backs Mark Ingram II and Justice Hill, in the ground game.
Yet, he is tied with Russell Wilson for the lead league with 24 touchdown passes, and has just two more interceptions (five) than Wilson’s three. His 111.4 passer rating is third in the league and his 66.9 completion percentage is 11th-best (min. 150 attempts).
As a runner, he averages the 10th-most yards per game (79.6) and has by far the most rushing yards per attempt at 7.1 yards. Kyler Murray is next-closest with 6.2 yards per attempt, but that’s on just 67 rushing attempts. It is actually Jackson’s backfield partner, Ingram, who is the second-highest in yards per attempt (5.2 yards) with a minimum of 100 rushes.
Ingram is also fifth in the league with nine rushing touchdowns and Jackson, with six, is tied for 11th, alongside the 49ers’ Tevin Coleman. Jackson is on pace to throw for more than 3,000 yards with 30-plus touchdown passes, and run for more than 1,000 yards, with a chance at double-digit rushing touchdowns. It’s been clear just how dynamic Jackson is on the field, but those stats bear repeating.
“If you are that generational type of runner, then you’re going to get some better passes, too,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan on Wednesday. “He’s been more than good at doing well in those situations. The way he’s thrown, he’s gotten it to the right guys, and if the looks aren’t there right away, he’s been unbelievable turning it into a run just like you see Russell [Wilson] do a number of times.
He’s going to get better, as everyone does, with the reps and more looks that they have throwing the ball more in the league. But, when you are as special as he is running the ball, you can be a lot more patient with that because his looks aren’t going to be quite the same because of how much he scares everyone on every other play.”
So, what on Earth is the plan to defend the Ravens’ offense?
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who was the 49ers’ OC under Jim Harbaugh and designed much of the Colin Kaepernick-led offense from 2011-14, has built the offense around Jackson, which is why its such a snug fit.
He runs pistol and wildcat formations, and while he does use the zone read, he frequently runs power and counter plays rather than zone runs or those delayed handoffs that take time to develop. This is a run-first team with a dominant offensive line and quality tight ends that wants to run the ball through, not around you.
It’s why defensive coordinator Saleh put a damper on potentially going to dime looks to cover Jackson’s speed, because the Ravens’ strength up front requires matching.
“That’s a lot of the challenge is that they are a downhill, power running football team,” Saleh said. “Then you implement the read-zone stuff that is kind of designed to spread you out and do all that stuff. He’s got a good system going, so it’s going to be a good challenge. They’re a physical bunch. We’ve got to bring it to them.”
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon told KNBR that as of yet, the 49ers haven’t even watched pass tape of Jackson. Asked which Ravens player he’d line up against most frequently, Witherspoon laughed.
“Lamar Jackson,” Witherspoon said. “I don’t know. They run the ball… Honestly, we watched all run tape today. It’s not gonna be a bunch of covering cute routes and all that, it’s gonna be downhill football.”
Witherspoon likened the matchup to the 49ers’ Week 3 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in that both teams have talented, massive offensive linemen who try to run the ball downhill.
“It’s kind of the same message going into that week, stop the run first with them,” Witherspoon said. “It’s the same idea with them, try to make them one-dimensional.”
But for all the film that the 49ers will watch before they fly to Baltimore, there are only three defensive players — in Kentavius Street, Dee Ford and Tim Harris Jr. — who have had to deal with Jackson in person, and there’s a good chance none of them plays on Sunday.
Street has seen Jackson about as much as anyone prior to the NFL. At NC State, he played Jackson and the Lousiville Cardinals once a year, and three times in total. Both in their second NFL season, he and Jackson also started playing big minutes in college at the same time and left for the NFL at the same time.
While Street has spent the full duration of his time on injured reserve (though told KNBR he’s healthy enough to practice, as Shanahan confirmed), he has some less-than fond memories of trying to contain Jackson — Louisville beat the Jacoby Brissett-led NC State Wolfpack 20-13 in 2015 and 54-13 in 2016, before NC State won 39-25 in 2017.
“It was a pain, because even when you think you got him sacked, he’d just squirt out of there and get out of there,” Street told KNBR. “I think a lot of people kind of sleep on how flexible and elusive he is. Because even when you have him wrapped up, he finds a way to slip out of there, his jukes, he can get skinny so fast. He’s a really good athlete.”
The consensus seems to be that Jackson is fast on tape, but he’s unfathomably quick in person. Street agreed, and recalled a time playing Jackson in NC State’s home stadium in Carter-Finley, North Carolina, in 2017 and being awed by a failed sack.
“Definitely. I can remember they came to Carter-Finley one time, and I had him on a read option,” Street said. “Had him dead to rights, he juked. [If he has] maybe two or three yards to the sideline, he finds a way to slip out of there for a first down. It’s just crazy what he can do.”
This looks like the play Street (No. 35) was talking about:
In Roman’s offense of shotgun, pistol and wildcat looks, Street said Jackson is given the freedom, trust and comfortability to go to another level than he was at in college. It brought back memories of another transcendent running quarterback from the early 2000s.
“It kind of reminds me of what, Madden 2001? When Mike Vick was running around,” Street said. “He’s just that much faster that much more creative in that offense and just like I said that comfortability is adding to his weapon.”
Ford is the only defensive player on the 49ers to have played Jackson in the NFL, and did so on December 9 of last year in a 27-24 Kansas City Chiefs win. Emmanuel Sanders and the Denver Broncos also played Jackson, and Kwon Alexander’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers did too, but only after he tore his ACL.
While Ford didn’t get a sack in that game, he tackled Jackson three times, including assisting on a sack for a loss, which was one of two overtime tackles. There was one word that came to Ford’s mind when asked about Jackson:
The Pro Bowl edge rusher said teams overthink Jackson, though that reaction is understandable.
“You just got to play sound, you got to play together, you gotta tackle, gotta stay on the ball and play as one,” Ford said. ‘It sounds simple, but nobody’s done it yet.”