OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson hasn’t resembled his MVP self this season, and it goes beyond his off-the-mark throws, missing open receivers and locking onto his favorite targets.
The NFL’s best dual threat has become a more one-dimensional quarterback. Jackson is averaging a career-low 8.2 rushing attempts per game after running the ball just twice in Sunday’s 27-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Last season, Jackson kept drives alive and defenses on their heels when he broke into the open field, unleashing spin moves and jukes for highlight-reel runs. But the designed runs have dipped this year, along with Jackson’s propensity to scramble from the pocket.
Jackson has run the ball less than eight times in five career games, and three of them have come in the first five games this season.
"We’re winning, so it really don’t matter,” Jackson said of his decreased running. "We’re 4-1. It’s a plus for us right now.”
Baltimore is off to its best start since its 2012 Super Bowl season, but the offense has plummeted from No. 2 last season to No. 24 through five weeks of the regular season. Last season, Jackson’s 1,206 yards rushing -- an NFL single-season record for a quarterback -- ranked sixth in the NFL and represented 18% of the offense.
This year, Jackson’s 238 yards rushing is 27th in the NFL. He’s not even the top rushing quarterback anymore. Arizona’s Kyler Murray has run for 296 yards.
"It’s cool, I guess,” Jackson said. "As the season goes on, we’re going to see if we need to [run more]. Coach is going to adjust. Right now, we’re doing perfectly fine without me running so much."
Jackson has wanted to be known more for passing than running -- remember his “not bad for a running back” comment after throwing five touchdowns in the 2019 opener -- and has advocated him running the ball less over the last two offseasons.
But Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the team didn’t enter the season with a plan of running Jackson less.
"We understand that things are always going to change and evolve,” Harbaugh said. "That’s the nature of football. One week to the next, one year to the next and how we’re defended … we’re just trying to move the ball and score. There are no rules in terms of what direction we go with those kinds of things. We just want to find ways to get it done.”
Opposing defenses had a full year to dissect Jackson’s game, and how they’re playing him could be a determining factor in how frequently offensive coordinator Greg Roman puts the ball in Jackson’s hands to run. Jackson has noticed how defenders are coming downhill on Baltimore and stuffing running lanes.
This year, defenses have loaded up the box (eight-plus men at or near the line of scrimmage) against the Ravens 45.1% of the time -- up from 35.5% last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Perhaps, as a result, Jackson’s designed quarterback runs have dropped from 116 in each of his first two seasons to 25 in 2020 (which puts him on a pace for 80).
Marcus Spears, a former NFL defensive lineman and current ESPN analyst, believes the only way the Ravens can win the Super Bowl is with Jackson taking advantage of stacked lines and operating from the pocket at a higher level.
"That’s what you’re supposed to do when defenses are committing the whole damn defense to making sure you don’t run the football,” Spears said.
Outside of Jackson's 50-yard touchdown sprint against Washington, he hasn't had many electrifying or even memorable runs. His 18-game streak of at least 40 yards rushing, the second-longest active one in the league, ended Sunday when he managed three yards.
His lack of rushing last game can be attributed to a sore knee that kept him out of one practice. But his declining rushes has been a season-long trend. Jackson is on pace for 131 rushes, which would rank as the sixth-most by a quarterback but would fall 46 short of his quarterback record 176 last season.
Ravens running back Mark Ingram said Wednesday the offense is searching for its identity. Part of what's been missing is what made Baltimore and Jackson so dangerous -- his running.
"Ultimately, use what your best guy can do and that’s him being a dual threat," said Jeff Saturday, a former NFL offensive lineman and current ESPN analyst. "Allow him to be a dual threat, so your offense gets back on track."