On his longest run of the season, Lamar Jackson did not run particularly fast. The Ravens quarterback’s 30-yard scramble on Christmas Day was more hang glider than sports car, a looping flight through the heart of the San Francisco 49ers’ defense, as if he’d been carried downwind by some sudden gust inside Levi’s Stadium.
Jackson has a reputation as one of football’s quickest players, but on that third-and-long scramble he reached only 17.82 mph, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, not even one of the top 100 speeds for a ball carrier in Week 16. Even defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, who outweighs Jackson by a good 90 or so pounds, hit 17.84 mph chasing down Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud for a Week 1 sack.
As the top-seeded Ravens prepare for Sunday’s AFC championship game against the third-seeded Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson’s metamorphosis at quarterback has been the season’s most significant transformation. Fully empowered as a passer and deeply committed as a leader, he is just weeks from likely claiming his second Most Valuable Player award and just a win from making his first Super Bowl trip.
If the game has slowed down for Jackson, so, too, has Jackson himself. His top speed of the season (19.62 mph) is the lowest of his six seasons in Baltimore. He has downshifted as an open-field runner, seldom hitting the gears he did in seasons past. He relies more on sudden bursts than sustained sprints, happy to take first-down scrambles and second-chance throws instead of mad dashes to the end zone.
Theories abound for the apparent slowdown. It is possible Jackson has simply lost a half-step. He suffered season-ending lower-body injuries in 2021 and 2022, has taken countless hits over his football career and, before the 2022 season, said he added 12 to 15 pounds of muscle mass.
Jackson, who’s listed at 215 pounds, doesn’t think the weight gain robbed him of any speed.
“I would probably say I got tired a little faster. That’s about it,” he said Wednesday with a grin.
And yet, improbably, Jackson remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous runners. He had 11 carries for 100 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s divisional-round romp over the fourth-seeded Houston Texans. His 821 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in 2023. He finished fifth overall in rushing yards over expectation and ninth in success rate, according to NGS, ahead of 49ers star running back and MVP contender Christian McCaffrey in both categories.
“His fifth, sixth gear is some people’s 100th,” linebacker Malik Harrison joked, “so he doesn’t have to get all the way up there unless he’s got to.”
Jackson has rarely gone full throttle this season. According to a review of the 64 regular-season plays in which he covered at least 25 yards of total distance, Jackson hit 17 mph just 25 times (39.1%). That amounted to a notable drop-off for Jackson, who reached 17 mph on well over half of those long-winded runs in each of his first five seasons.
With lower speeds, though, comes better steering. Jackson averaged one broken tackle every 10.6 carries this season, according to Pro Football Reference, the second-best rate of his career. On his long run against the 49ers, he eased past a hard-charging Fred Warner, one of the NFL’s best linebackers, in the middle of the field before making a nearly 90-degree turn to elude safety Ji’Ayir Brown and pick up another 5 yards.
Harrison, a former high school basketball star, has practiced against Jackson enough times to know that sometimes he is the Ravens’ Russell Westbrook, a balls-to-the-wall speed demon, and other times their James Harden, a master manipulator of time and space. A “freak of nature,” Harrison called Jackson.
“He turns it on when he wants to, when he’s got to,” Harrison said. “And I think that just gives him an advantage, because you never know. You might be going hard, and he’ll stop real quick and just let you fly by, just like in high school on that one clip. Guys that can accel[erate] and decel[erate] like crazy, you just never know.”
“You don’t have to be the fastest guy, but you definitely need to be able to change directions quick, faster than that person” defending you, running back Justice Hill said. He added: “I think he still has his wheels. He just chooses when he wants to put them on.”
Jackson’s elusiveness and acceleration are preternatural, but it’s his experience that perhaps explains his enduring efficiency as a runner. Running back Dalvin Cook, in his seventh NFL season, said he recognizes “tells” in the defense that were imperceptible to him as a younger player. An edge defender lining up in a “wide-9″ alignment, one gap over from their opposing offensive tackle, for instance, would key Cook to target the back side of a running play.
“I think he still has his wheels. He just chooses when he wants to put them on.”
Running back Justice Hill and Lamar Jackson
There’s wisdom in moderation, too, according to Hill. He pointed to Olympic sprint champion Carl Lewis, who was known for overcoming slow starts with a steady, methodical approach. Why push for maximum velocity when it’d only be temporary anyway? “If you hit 85% and maintain it,” Hill said, “it looks like you’re going way faster than it actually is.” Just ask the defenders who try to keep up with Jackson.
“To me, the greatest compliment would be being hard to tackle,” coach John Harbaugh said. He invoked a quote from legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes: “‘You could tell what a great running back looked like carrying the ball by how many tackles people miss trying to tackle him.’ I think that’s true for wide receivers [with] run after the catch. It’s true for quarterbacks on scrambles. Patrick Mahomes is one of the best at making tacklers miss. Lamar’s unique that way. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, obviously, anybody’s ever seen. He’s a tough tackle.”