MAQB: Lamar Jackson's Improvement, Jonathan Taylor is Ready, More NFL Notes

The Ravens blew out the Browns, but there's one small area where we already see improvement from Lamar Jackson. Plus, the Colts' rookie runner is ready to step up, silver linings for the Vikings and Falcons, and players to watch on Monday night.
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Lots to get to in the first in-season edition of the MAQB of 2020 …

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• Sunday wasn’t the explosion that Week 1 of 2019 was for reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. But trust this—the Ravens staff saw some pretty significant, and important, steps forward from the third-year quarterback. And one example that was raised to me came in the final 41 seconds of the first half, with Baltimore taking possession at its own 31.

Now, one of the criticisms of the Ravens’ offense, as it’s constituted now, has been how it’s not built to come from behind. To do that, your team needs the ability to throw the ball when the other team knows you’re throwing it. And in this spot, with 69 yards to cover in 41 seconds, that really was the challenge for Jackson. Safe to say, he surmounted this one.

On the first snap, Jackson stepped up and ran down the line of scrimmage to his right, eventually flicking the ball downfield to Willie Snead for 20 yards. Two plays later, similarly, he ran down the line to his right after stepping up and found Hollywood Brown downfield for 16 yards. And the play after that, he snuck out of a collapsing pocket to his left and hit Mark Andrews for another 11 yards to set up first-and-goal. Then, on third-and-goal, Jackson found Andrews for the touchdown, with 6 second left, from the pocket.

So there was a little bit of everything there. Jackson was running, not to run, but to throw. Jackson was managing the clock. Jackson was throwing when the defense expected him to. And Jackson won from the pocket on third-and-goal from the 9. In a blowout win, it can sometimes be hard to pick these sorts of things out for young guys. But there was definitely improvement there from Jackson.

• As a follow-up to our MMQB lede, I got Washington QB Dwayne Haskins on the phone on Monday, and asked him about the halftime speech that impressed coach Ron Rivera so much, with Rivera off getting an IV at the time. Turns out, it all happened pretty organically. “I didn’t even know that coach Rivera was getting an IV,” Haskins told me. “We had a couple minutes before we went out on the field for the second half and you could just tell nobody was ready to break it down and go back out there. So I got everybody up, gave them my two cents. It worked out.”

Nonchalant as that may sound, the coach saw it as a big step forward for his quarterback, and Haskins didn’t disagree with that notion, actually saying the challenges Rivera created for him “probably showed up most in the halftime speech, just having been able to earn that trust to bring those up like that.” And those challenges showed up in his play too.

On his 1-for-6 start, Haskins echoed his coaches’ assessment of his (and his offense’s) play—the decision-making was sound but the execution had to be better. That finally turned on a 2-minute drive before the half, with Haskins going 4-for-4 for 45 yards and a touchdown on the possession, which played into what he actually told the team at the break. “I definitely challenged them,” Haskins said. “[I said that the] whole first half everything that could’ve gone our way didn’t go our way. That’s football, and it’s really about how you respond. We ended up responding pretty well.”

So Washington has something to build off now, both from a team standpoint, and with a young quarterback who’s coming along.

• There’s positive and negative in the Vikings’ season-opening loss to the Packers, and both relate to areas of concern for the team coming into the year. On the bright side, an offensive line that’s caught its share of grief helped pave the way for 134 yards rushing and allowed just two sacks, good signs when you consider the horses Green Bay has up front. On the flip side, things were less encouraging for the Minnesota secondary. Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams is Davante Adams, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling is better than people realize. But there wasn’t a whole lot of resistance there from the Viking defense, and the defensive backfield is a good place to start looking for why.

• If you’re the Chargers, seeing Hunter Henry play like he did has to make you feel good after all the problems he’s had staying healthy. And Mike Williams remains perhaps the most underappreciated big-play receiver in the game—he had four catches for 69 yards on Sunday, and that’s not counting a positively spectacular one-hand grab he had early on, on which he happened to be just out of bounds. If the offensive line holds up, and that’s a big if, Anthony Lynn’s group is going to be tough to contend with, even without Derwin James around.

• Buy stock in Jonathan Taylor now. Marlon Mack’s down, and I wouldn’t bet against the second-round pick taking hold of that job and never looking back. And one reason why is because of the work he’s done in the passing game over the last year or so, which set him up to play in Frank Reich’s offense. Before the 2019 season, his final one at Wisconsin, coach Paul Chryst sold him on the idea of turning 50 or so carries he’d normally log into catches. They didn’t get there (Taylor wound up with 26 catches), but the then-college junior did put in all the work to improve in that area of the game. And that improvement was evident in his NFL debut—he had six catches for 67 yards. So if you add that to his obvious skill in the run game (he had more than 6,000 rushing yards in three years at Wisconsin), I think you’ll have something pretty cool. I know the Colts think so too. And I’ll leave you with this comparison between Taylor and Giants phenom Saquon Barkley”

Taylor: 5' 10", 226 pounds; 4.39 in the 40; 17 bench reps; 36.0" vertical; 4.24 short shuttle

Barkley: 6' 0", 233 pounds; 4.40 in the 40; 29 bench reps; 41.0" vertical; 4.24 short shuttle

• A silver lining for the Falcons coming off a tough loss: Everything those guys said about Calvin Ridley all offseason (and Dan Quinn and Matt Ryan were among the most bullish) came true. Nine catches, 130 yards, two touchdowns, and it’s not hard to see where Ridley is starting to look like a worthy eventually successor to Julio Jones as Atlanta’s No. 1 (and that’s saying nothing negative about Jones, who went for 157 yards on nine catches himself).

• Because MNF debuts tonight, we’ll give you some names to watch. And I’ll start with Steelers second-year WR Diontae Johnson—he can fly, and Pittsburgh has a great track record developing at his position. They’re pretty good at identifying guys too, and he was the No. 1 guy on their board going into the 2019 draft. For the Giants, Evan Engram is one guy who almost immediately won over the new coaching staff, and not just with his freakish athleticism, but also his professionalism and football smarts. Over in Denver, the Broncos have high hopes for their rookie class, and two guys in particular that they need to come through for them would be third-round picks Michael Ojemudia and Lloyd Cushenberry. And I’d just tell you, on Tennessee, that we might see another step from A.J. Brown (and he was pretty damn good last year).

• I know Bruce Arians’s airing out of Tom Brady got plenty of attention. I really don’t think it’ll wind up being a huge deal. This has always been Arians’s way, and Brady’s been MF’d his fair share of times. They’ll work it out. The bigger problem for 12? I’d say it would probably be coming to grips with all that went wrong around him on Sunday. In one game, the Bucs had a defensive player jumping offside on fourth-and-2, a field goal blocked, a kickoff fumbled and a couple instances where it looked like the Saints were in their heads (see: Marshon Lattimore vs. Mike Evans). Those are the sorts of things that’ll really take some getting used to for their new QB.

Tom Brady opted for a quarterback sneak in his first touchdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

• Ohio State CB Shaun Wade opted out on Monday morning, and that’s a fairly significant one. I believe he’s a top 20 pick, given his flexibility between safety and slot corner—and he had potential to play his way into Jeff Okudah/Denzel Ward territory if he’d gotten the shot to prove himself as an outside corner in 2020. As it stands, he’s in the mix with Alabama’s Patrick Surtain and Virginia Tech opt-out Caleb Farley to be the first corner taken in 2021. Here’s how one NFC exec who knows him well assessed Wade: “Really talented, really natural and instinctive. Would’ve loved to see him play outside more and that might bump him down a little, but with as much as people play sub, it shouldn’t.” So it’s understandable why he’d be done waiting for the Big Ten presidents to get out of their own way, and declare.”

• While we’re there, if the Big Ten season is restarted … it’ll be interesting to see which opt-outs actually signed with agents and which didn’t. And who, as a result, might have the chance to reconsider.