BALTIMORE — Lamar Jackson lost his postseason debut. He did not lose the faith of his teammates.
Despite what was largely a nightmarish postseason debut, the Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback received strong support in the locker room after Sunday’s 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that he will make dramatic improvement in the offseason. The consensus is the youngest signal-caller ever to start a postseason game will use his struggles as a lesson going forward.
“He’s devastated right now, and that’s what’s going to drive him in the offseason,” safety Eric Weddle said. “And, he’ll come back 10 times better than he was this year.”
What Jackson has to focus on is problems that have plagued him throughout his rookie season as well as on Sunday: ball security (three fumbles Sunday, including one with 19 seconds remaining) and accuracy (48.2 percent against the Chargers).
The Ravens are banking on Jackson ironing out these issues while getting a majority of the reps with the starters throughout spring workouts, training camp and the preseason. This past season, Jackson worked primarily with backups throughout the offseason and didn’t get many reps in the first nine weeks of the regular season when Joe Flacco was the starter.
In September and October, Jackson went with quarterbacks coach James Urban for a half hour after every practice to work on fundamentals. With Flacco expected to be traded or released, Jackson will get every opportunity to take the next step.
“With a year under his belt, I feel he can come out and do the same thing, but even better,” wide receiver Willie Snead said. “He’s going to get to grow, he’s got a lot of confidence. I think the future is really bright.”
In order for Jackson to make any strides, he has to learn how to hold onto the football. He finished tied for the most fumbles in the regular season with 12 (Derek Carr, Dak Prescott and Jared Goff were the others).
When you count the three fumbles on Sunday, Jackson totaled 13 in his eight starts (he fumbled twice before he became the starter). That projects for 26 in a full season as a starter, which would set an NFL record.
Harbaugh has always stressed ball security, once describing the football this summer as “everybody’s ambitions, dreams, hopes and everything else are in your arms.” After Sunday’s game, Harbaugh was optimistic about Jackson lowering his fumbles.
“The ball-handling in an offense like this is the thing,” Harbaugh said. “When you’re basing the offense on the principles on which we’re basing the offense on, you have to be a great ball-handling team. The truth is, we didn’t get enough work at it in the offseason, in OTAs [organized team activities], training camp, all that. To be a great ball-handling team, you can’t put the ball on the ground. That’s something that we’ll go to work on when we come back. That will be priority one — to be a great ball-handling team.”
The other area where Jackson has to grow is hitting his targets in the passing game. He completed 3 of 10 passes for 25 yards in the first three-plus quarters Sunday. In the regular season, Jackson connected on 58.2 percent of his throws (99-of-170) and struggled at times to throw catchable passes to wide-open receivers downfield as well as running backs in the flat.
How far does Jackson have to go as far as accuracy? The league average this season was 65.5 percent.
“This was his first year, and he’s already excited about what he gets to do in the offseason,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “You know, if you add a Peyton Manning passing game to this offense, you may have the greatest quarterback of all time.”
Jackson’s struggles Sunday weren’t uncommon. In 2008, Flacco was 9-of-23 for 135 yards (59.1 rating) in his playoff game as a rookie.
Given his experience, Flacco offered some advice to Jackson in the second half.
Said Flacco: “I just told him, ‘Listen, finish strong. At some point you’re going to be proud of how you finished no matter what happens. This is all part of it. You know, dealing with the situation right now. It’s still a game, so go out there and do what you can to get us back in it. Handle yourself the way you would like to see yourself handle the situation.'”
Jackson finished the wild-card game by completing 11 of his last 19 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. He took the Ravens from being down 20 points (23-3) with nine minutes remaining and brought them to within one score in the final two minutes.
But the concern will be how teams adjust to Jackson after having a full offseason to dissect the game film. The Chargers were the first team to face him twice in a season, and they held him in check (54 yards rushing) by matching his speed with a smaller lineup.
Los Angeles used seven defensive backs for 57 of 58 defensive plays, which limited Baltimore to 90 yards rushing. In Jackson’s seven starts in the regular season, the Ravens averaged an NFL-best 229.6 yards rushing.
“Lamar is fast. He’s real fast,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “We thought putting the speed guys in there … we didn’t know if that was going to work, but we wanted to take a look at it. We feel like, today, it worked fine. They could run it down or at least catch him. With the linebackers in there, the physical guys, the bigger guys, that didn’t work out so well the first time.”
Jackson exceeded expectations in his first season, going from the last quarterback selected in the first round to the first to reach the postseason. He went 6-1 in the regular season, the second-best record in a rookie quarterback’s first seven starts. He nearly beat the top-seeded Chiefs in Kansas City, he upset the Chargers in his first prime-time game, and he defeated the Browns in the regular-season finale with the season on the line.
While Jackson stumbled in his first playoff appearance, the Ravens feel the foundation is there for Jackson to develop into a franchise quarterback.
“I am proud of him,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “Once he finally took over the team, his composure, his demeanor says a lot about him. The game was not too big for him. Once he got on the field, you could see his talent. I think his future is bright. That’s great for us as a team. Once he gets this offseason, he’ll take the next leap. Once he gets his eyes set, his mechanics will improve, and let’s see what we got with Lamar.”