Nickell Robey-Coleman noticed something about Lamar Jackson this week as he studied film of the Baltimore Ravens' dual-threat quarterback.
“What I see, what I’ve noticed, is that he’s trying to be more of a quarterback, more of a drop-back guy,” the Eagles cornerback said.
"He’s actually trying to make reads. He’s like a running back with the football in his hands. But now, I’m starting to see that he’s trying to read coverages, read defenses, and actually throw the ball to receivers and let them do their thing.
“That’s what I noticed from last year to this year. Last year, it was like, all run, scramble, run. When I look on film this year, he’s actually trying to sit in the pocket and make throws from the pocket.”
That’s not totally true. While Jackson hasn’t run quite as much as he did last year, when he carried the ball 176 times for 1,206 yards, his 238 rushing yards through five games still is nearly 30% of the Ravens' rushing total. So it’s not like he’s turned into Joe Flacco.
That said, his 10 rushing first downs are three fewer than Carson Wentz has. And he had just two carries for 3 yards last week in the Ravens' 27-3 romp over the Bengals. The week before, he had just seven carries for 53 yards in a 31-17 win over Washington, though 50 of those yards came on one of his patented catch-me-if-you-can touchdown runs.
Maybe he’s just been resting up for Sunday at the Linc.
“We have guys who run the ball very good for us, and we’re winning, so it really doesn’t matter,” Jackson told reporters Wednesday. "We’re 4-1, so it’s a plus for us right now. But it’s cool, I guess.
“As the season goes on, we’re going to see. If we need to [have me run more], Coach [John Harbaugh] will adjust. But right now, we’re doing perfectly fine without me running so much. So we’re doing good.”
Like his rushing numbers, Jackson’s passing numbers are down slightly from last year, when he ran away with the league MVP award. He threw a league-high 36 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. His 113.3 passer rating was the third-highest in the league. And, of course, there was the running.
Through five games this season, Jackson is 13th in passing with a 100.5 rating and has nine touchdown passes and just two interceptions. He’s averaging almost a yard less per attempt (7.0, down from 7.8 last season) and he’s getting sacked more frequently. He’s been sacked once every 12.2 drop-backs this season compared with once every 18.4 last year.
Eagles safety Rodney McLeod agreed with Robey-Coleman that Jackson does seem more focused on staying in the pocket, at least until he feels pressure, than he did last year. Although the difference in his snap-to-release average is negligible. He averaged 2.76 seconds with the ball last year and is averaging 2.81 this year.
By comparison, the quarterback the Eagles faced last week, Ben Roethlisberger, is averaging 2.24 seconds for the season and averaged 2.12 last week in the Steelers' 38-29 win.
“You do see him trying to get the ball out, work a lot more on timing,” McLeod said. "Noticing pressure. Finding the outlet a lot quicker.
"But he still has the ability to escape. He’s still creating plays with his legs. And what I mean by that is he’s able to escape the pressure, escape the rush. But he’s still looking down the field, which is something you’re seeing him do a lot more.
“We just have to do a good job on the back end of plastering [the receivers]. And up front, they have to contain him as much as possible and get him on the ground when we can.”
A Super Bowl lesson
Eight years ago, when he beat his brother Jim’s team, the 49ers, with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, in Super Bowl XLVII, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was skeptical about being able to win with a running quarterback.
His strategy against Kaepernick was to hit him early, often, and hard. Whether he kept the ball or pitched it. Take away his desire to want to run.
The Ravens took a 21-10 halftime lead only to watch the Niners and Kaepernick score 25 points in the second half and nearly win. Kaepernick finished with 62 rushing yards on seven carries, including a 15-yard touchdown run.
“You’re competing on that stage and you have to stop the quarterback,” Harbaugh said this week, recalling the greatest win of his coaching career. "So you devise a plan. We tried to be aggressive with it at the time.
"We won the game, but I don’t know that it really worked. You go back and look at that game, that second half, we didn’t stop them really at all until the end of the game, thank God. They were going up and down the field on us.
“Maybe that [game] changed my thinking as far as realizing how much of a threat those kind of [dual-threat] guys are, I don’t know.”
Whatever, six years later, the Ravens selected Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in the 2018 draft. He led them to a 14-2 record last year. They bring a 4-1 record to the Linc on Sunday.
“Talent is talent,” Harbaugh said. "Skills are skills. And ability really is valuable. You don’t ever want to dismiss different types of talent and say it’s not something that can fit. Whether it’s football or any other walk of life.
“You look at people and say, well, what can they do? What are their abilities? And can we find a way to use them and utilize them? A quarterback who can throw and run and do some other things is hard to defend.”
Indeed. On Sunday, while McLeod and Robey-Coleman and the rest of the Eagles' back seven try to cover the Ravens' receivers, their front four will try to keep Jackson in the pocket, pressure him, force some poor throws, and, with any luck, sack him a few times.
“He can get out of there fast,” defensive end Brandon Graham said of Jackson. “We can’t rush scared. But we’ve got to rush responsibly and be disciplined and make sure we’re on the same page.”
Figuring the Eagles
The Eagles have 36 rushing first downs in their first five games. Miles Sanders has 18 (62 carries), Carson Wentz 13 (23 carries), Boston Scott 3 (19 carries), and Corey Clement (11 carries) and Jalen Hurts (5 carries) one apiece. Sanders had 30 rushing first downs on 179 carries last season. Wentz had 21 on 62 runs.
Scott and Clement played a combined 23 snaps in the last two games. Sanders played 98. After missing the season-opener with a hamstring injury, Sanders had 62 of the Eagles' 77 rushing attempts by running backs in the last four games. Scott had 10 (for 28 yards) and Clement just 5 (for 11 yards).
The Eagles converted all three of their red-zone opportunities in the loss to the Steelers. Wentz was 5-for-5 in the red zone with two touchdown passes.
Five of Travis Fulgham’s 10 catches against the Steelers came on third down. All five resulted in first downs. Twenty-two of Wentz’s 50 third-down pass attempts this season have resulted in first downs. Fulgham and Greg Ward, both former practice-squad players, have 13 of them.
The Eagles have been outscored in the second half this season, 83-45. That minus-38 second-half scoring differential is the second-highest in the league. Only the Bills have a higher second-half scoring differential (minus-39).
Fennell rates the QBs
The 2021 draft still is 6½ months away, maybe longer if COVID has its way. Whenever it’s held, there is little mystery as to who will be the first overall pick..
Trevor Lawrence, come on down.
NFL scouts have been salivating over the Clemson quarterback since his high school days in Cartersville, Ga.
“He has an ideal pedigree to succeed in the NFL,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “It’s not that he’s some freak prodigy. I just think we saw it earlier and got really excited about it and kind of anointed him as the next great thing.”
And is he? The next great thing?
“There’s been a lot of next-great-things at the quarterback position,” Fennell said. “So I’m not willing to say he’s going to change or revolutionize the position or have success faster than others. But he’s an awfully good player and clearly the best quarterback in this draft class.”
If the draft were held tomorrow, Fennell thinks three quarterbacks likely would go in the top 12 – Lawrence, Justin Fields of Ohio State, and Trey Lance of North Dakota State.
“Lawrence is the clear-cut No. 1 CEO quarterback,” he said. "Then there 's going to be some conversation about who No. 2 is, Fields or Lance. But I see all three going in the top 12.
"After that, the next five or six guys are bunched together. Some of them might be able to separate themselves from the rest this season, like maybe Mac Jones (Alabama) or Sam Ehlinger (Texas). But none of them has anything to wow you.
The one possible exception might be Georgia’s Jamie Newman. Newman transferred from Wake Forest, but he isn’t playing this season after opting out because of COVID.
“He’s the best-looking kid on paper,” Fennell said. “He’s huge. He’s tough. He’s athletic. He’s got a rocket arm. But he played at Wake Forest. You wanted to see what he could do in the SEC, but he opted out. But he really looks the part. Some team might like him enough to take him toward the end of the first round.”
A breakdown of Fennell’s top 12 quarterbacks:
1. Trevor Lawrence
6-foot-5, 220 pounds
Fennell: “Lawrence has that rare combination of size, arm-strength, and athleticism. He has a lot of confidence in his arm. He’s not afraid to pull tight-window throws and trust his arm and trust his receivers to make plays for him.”
Con: “The speed of his progressions. Tends to lock on to his initial read. Has some issues with ball-placement consistency. Wide receivers with large catch radiuses have bailed him out.”
Comp: Carson Wentz
2. Justin Fields
Ohio State, Jr.
Fennell: “Fields is a natural passer with an effortless, compact motion. He’s a loose athlete with light, agile feet. He’s an alpha quarterback. Strong. Athletic. Confident.”
Con: “Poise against pass-rush pressure. Pocket movement. Tight-window throws.”
Comp: Marcus Mariota
3. Trey Lance
North Dakota St., RS-Soph.
Fennell: “A tough, thick, smooth athlete with a well-built frame. Played in a run-based/play-action-based offense. Has a strong throwing base and can get plenty of zip on the ball. Able to make throws in a phone booth.”
Con: “Needs to learn to protect himself better and take fewer hits. Inconsistent accuracy. Has only played in 19 games at North Dakota State.”
Comp: Dak Prescott
4. Kyle Trask
Fennell: “Trask is a strong first-read quarterback. Good placement and anticipation. He can move and manipulate defenders to create throwing windows. He’s a poised, controlled leader of the offense.”
Con: “Not a lot of experience. He was a backup in high school. His arm strength and athleticism are average.”
Comp: Nick Foles
5. Jamie Newman
Fennell: “Transferred from Wake Fortest, then opted out of playing this season. He has an ideal physical makeup. Petri-dish frame, length, arm and mobility. Tough kid who is willing to stand in the pocket. Can quick-twitch throws. A tough and determined runner both in and out of the structure of the offense.”
Con: “Accuracy and ball-placement. Puts unnecessary velocity on a lot of his throws.”
Comp: Cam Newton/Josh Allen
Best of the rest
6. Sam Ehlinger, Texas, 6-2, 224
7. Mac Jones, Alabama, 6-2, 205
8. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh, 6-1, 216
9. Brock Purdy, Iowa St., 6-1, 210
10. KJ Costello, Miss. St., 6-4, 217
11. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M, 6-4, 225
12. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati, 6-3, 220