Bucs preparing for Ravens dual-threat rookie QB Lamar Jackson

The first-round pick from Louisville is 3-1 since tacking over from Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl winner who will be No. 2 vs. the Bucs.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Published December 12 2018

TAMPA — It isn't every day that an NFL coach would pick a rookie quarterback to start over a healthy, 11-year vet with a Super Bowl ring. But then it isn't every day that a talent like Lamar Jackson bursts onto the scene the way he has for the Baltimore Ravens.

The first-round pick from Louisville has not only gone 3-1 since being thrust under center when Flacco suffered a hip injury, but Jackson has ignited the offense with his legs, rushing for 475 yards and three touchdowns on 95 carries.

Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was asked Wednesday if he had played against such an explosive dual threat at quarterback.

"Yeah, Michael Vick," Pierre-Paul said. "That was years ago. As (Jackson) gets into this league, next year he's going to be even better than he is now. It's going to be fun to watch him grow."

In announcing that Jackson would start, Ravens coach John Harbaugh also said  Flacco would serve as the No. 2 quarterback and have a role in the game plan.

Jackson tried to downplay whether this represented a symbolic passing of the offense to him from Flacco.

"Joe is still a part of the team," Jackson told reporters.  "It's his team still, just like it's mine. It's all of our team. We're brothers. We're here together, each and every day. We've been here since camp putting our life on the line. It's still his team, man — nothing changed."

Oh, but it has changed.

Since taking over from Flacco in Week 11, Jackson has led the Ravens to wins over the Bengals, Raiders and Falcons before suffering a 27-24 loss in overtime to the AFC-leading Chiefs.

Flacco's resume is pretty impressive. He led the Ravens to two AFC North titles, appeared in three conference championship games and beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII following the 2012 season.

But before Flacco was injured, the Ravens were stuck in neutral at 4-5 this season. Flacco was playing good, not great, completing 61.2 percent of this passes for 2,465 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Jackson hit the ground running — literally. In his debut against the Bengals, he rushed for 119 yards on an astounding 26 carries. He's had more than 70 yards rushing in each of his past three games. No wonder the Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in rushing with 134.5 yards per game.

Jackson has been a little less steady as a passer, completing only 58.4 percent for 687 yards with four TDs and three INTs.

But because the Ravens design runs for Jackson, the Bucs defense will face a difficult challenge. Normally the defense has a one-man advantage since you don't normally account for the quarterback as a runner, receiver or blocker.

"Huge challenge," Bucs defensive coordinator Mark Duffner said. "Since Lamar's gotten in that offense and got it rolling they're averaging over 200 yards (rushing). The least they've had I think is 198 and I think they've had 265 as the most. They're running the offense at a very productive rate right now and it's a big, big challenge."

Of course, there also is increased exposure to possible injury to a quarterback who runs the football as often as Jackson.

Some, like 6-foot-5, 245-pound Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, have withstood the pounding. Others, like the Ravens' No. 3 quarterback, Robert Griffin III, have not.

"It's a really fair consideration," Harbaugh said. "It's something we have to think about. You know, when you run this kind of an offense, keeping the quarterback healthy is going to be a big part of it I think. How Lamar is coached by James Urban is a big part of it. Lamar has been doing it for a long time. He ran a similar offense in college and stayed healthy. That's real important. We've got to do a great job of that because you want your quarterback healthy and he's going to get hit when he runs the ball.

"It's changed our offense dramatically. Obviously, we're running the ball more. It's quarterback driven types of runs. We had these things in the package since we drafted Lamar and we were practicing them through training camp and dabbling a little bit when they were both playing. But now, obviously, it's the main part of our offense."

Pierre-Paul said the Bucs are preparing for one of their most physically challenging games of the season. The Bucs are 20th against the run, allowing 119.4 yards.

"Any time when you have a running quarterback, you're looking at a more physical game," Pierre-Paul said. "Just to play that is difficult. I'm not going to lie; their option stuff is difficult and anybody in the NFL — D-end-wise — if they say it's not that's a lie."

The Bucs face Newton twice a year, so some of the same rules on defense will apply. But Newton no longer possesses the kind of speed owned by Jackson, who didn't run the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine but said he would have been in the 4.38 range.

"You've seen him, he gets on an edge and then all of a sudden puts it into another gear," Duffner said. "My gosh, he's probably the fastest player on the field. And that coupled with what he can do with his arm — he's got a strong arm — he can snap it in a second. He's got a quick release. He's very dangerous."

For good measure, the Bucs also have to be prepared for Flacco to trot onto the field at any time with passing ability and let it fly.

"So we've got a two-headed dragon we're trying to slay," Duffner said.