Four months before he threw his first pass of the 2023 season, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson considered an NFL record within his reach. He wanted to throw for 6,000 yards, he said, half-seriously, after signing a massive contract extension. No one in league history had ever thrown for more than 5,477 yards in a season.
“I’m not an individual-award type of guy or stat watcher,” Jackson said in early May. “I just want to do that because no one’s ever done it. I feel like we have the weapons to do it.”
If Jackson’s regular season is indeed over, the Ravens’ No. 1 seed possibly relegating him to a spectator in their Week 18 finale, he will have fallen well short of that goal. Entering Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson has thrown for 3,678 yards — a career high, but far from the league’s all-time mark.
What Jackson’s 2023 season has lacked in quantity, however, it has more than made up for in quality. After one of the best games of his career, Jackson is the clear favorite to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player award. He has thrown for 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 67.2% of his passes, another career high.
In the Ravens’ 56-19 win Sunday over the Miami Dolphins, which clinched an AFC North title and home-field advantage through the conference championship game, Jackson showed just where he has thrived as a passer this season.
On Jackson’s fourth drop-back Sunday, he faked a handoff to running back Gus Edwards and waited. And waited. And waited.
Jackson had all day to throw. Only two wide receivers were out in the pattern, and the play’s third option, Edwards, wouldn’t join them until he slipped out of the backfield. By the time Jackson finally ripped a pass to wide receiver Zay Flowers, running a deep out toward the right sideline, 5.39 seconds had passed since the snap, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats — an eternity for a quarterback.
Jackson’s 25-yard completion came from a clean pocket. But even on messy plays, Jackson knows how to buy time to throw. And, just as important, he knows what to do with it.
Fourteen quarterbacks have attempted at least 20 passes this season on drop-backs of five-plus seconds, according to TruMedia. Jackson (58.6%) is the only one who’s completed more than 50% of those passes. He’s one of just four who have completed even 40% of those passes.
Overall, Jackson is 17-for-29 for 285 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on extended drop-backs, averaging a stellar 0.20 expected points added per attempt. (The league-average EPA for quarterbacks on throws after at least five seconds is minus-0.08 per drop-back.)
A few completions rank among his best of the season. There was the 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Nelson Agholor in the Week 16 win over the San Francisco 49ers:
The 26-yard pass to tight end Isaiah Likely against the Jacksonville Jaguars a week earlier:
And the 43-yard bomb to Flowers in a Week 4 win over the Cleveland Browns:
Outside the numbers
As Jackson’s passing ability has evolved, so has his actual range as a passer. According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson has thrown a career-high 44.4% of his passes outside the numbers this season. During his MVP season in 2019, when the Ravens’ passing offense relied heavily on passes over the middle of the field, just 36.9% of his attempts went there.
Despite occasional struggles throwing out wide this season, especially to wide receiver Rashod Bateman, Jackson ranks seventh in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt (8.8) and 12th in completion percentage (72.9%).
Since the Ravens’ Week 13 bye, he’s been lethal. Over the past four weeks, according to TruMedia, Jackson ranks second in EPA per outside-the-numbers attempt, behind only the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford. He’s completed 76.2% of his passes for 695 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception since Week 14. Against both the Rams and Dolphins, three of his touchdown passes went out wide.
Jackson started the season as one of the NFL’s best red-zone quarterbacks. Then he hit a skid in October, a brief stretch marred by a handful of wasteful trips in the Ravens’ Week 5 loss to the Steelers.
But for over two months now, Jackson has been his usual effective self. Over the past 10 games, he’s 25-for-38 (65.8%) for 179 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Among quarterbacks with at least 20 red-zone throws in that span, he’s eighth in EPA per drop-back.
On Sunday, Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken helped turn down the difficulty level for Jackson. A pick play gave him a comfortable throwing window on his 20-yard touchdown pass to running back Justice Hill in the first quarter, and Likely and fullback Patrick Ricard were wide open on their chip-and-release scores in the second half.
You don’t need a lights-out running game to have a capable play-action attack. But it doesn’t hurt to have the NFL’s best running game, as the Ravens do.
Jackson, as he has throughout his career, is thriving off run fakes this season. He’s completed 73.7% of his play-action passes, fifth best among qualifying quarterbacks and by far a career high. He’s recorded 1,328 passing yards (second in the NFL) and is averaging 10 yards per attempt (10th), both career highs. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is 4.5 (sixth), another career high.
Overall, Jackson ranks fifth in EPA per play-action drop-back, according to TruMedia. The only regular starters ahead of him in efficiency are the 49ers’ Brock Purdy and the Rams’ Stafford. On Sunday, Jackson went 9-for-10 for 159 yards and three touchdowns on play-action passes, good for a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
One of Jackson’s best throws of the game — the fourth-down connection with Likely that the tight end ran in for a 35-yard score just before halftime — didn’t just come under pressure. It came with a defender at his knees.
Blitzing safety Brandon Jones got an arm to Jackson’s right knee as he stepped up in the pocket and fired to Likely on a crossing pattern. With star safety Jevon Holland undercutting the route, Jackson managed to put the ball where only Likely could get it — and Likely did, with just one hand.
Under-pressure throws are not part of a recipe for offensive efficiency. But Jackson has handled them just fine this season. He’s fifth in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks in EPA per pressured attempt, having completed 67 of 132 passes (50.8%) for seven touchdowns and one interception. He also leads the NFL in yards per attempt (8.7) on pressured throws.
Jackson’s elusiveness and arm talent routinely help turn would-be negative plays into big gains. Against Detroit, he improvised and dumped off a short pass to Edwards that went for 80 yards.
In Cleveland, Jackson eluded pressure long enough to throw across his body to tight end Mark Andrews, who shook off a would-be tackler before rolling to a 36-yard gain.
“Every week, he does something and it’s like, ‘Really?’” cornerback Arthur Maulet said after Sunday’s win. “I played against him in Pittsburgh. ... I’m glad I’m on this side now. I don’t have to chase him around.”