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Lamar Jackson Is Evolving and Improving, Even If His Numbers Aren't As Eye-Popping As in 2019

Things haven't come as easily this year as they did during Lamar Jackson's MVP season. But a comeback win over the Colts shows how he is growing. Plus, what the Dolphins pulled off in Arizona, Joe Judge's culture is delivering, the Saints' defense shut down Tom Brady, COVID-19 at the season's midpoint and much more.

You might have noticed Lamar Jackson’s name has been moved off the marquee in the fall of 2020. In the space he occupied last year, for overall performance, you have Russell Wilson. And for a young phenom, you might take Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert.

The it factor that Jackson overflowed with in 2019—the week-to-week feeling of What could he do next?—hasn’t run empty, but it’s not as full as it was. And the work of defensive coordinators has, indeed, dialed back the excitement that’s come from the Ravens’ innovative, high-wire act of an offense.

So what’s left for Jackson now?

Well, to grow and evolve, and keep it moving, a necessity now based on what he’s seeing in his second full season as a starting quarterback in the NFL, and what he saw in particular on Sunday against the Colts.

“A little bit of everything,” Jackson said, over the cell from the locker room postgame. “They had guys spying on me. One player was a linebacker, Darius Leonard, or it’ll be a nickel or a safety or something like that. That’s one thing that’s been going on. Defenses like to change up their coverages against us. Like I said, beating us to the punch, but on occasion stuff like that [mixing it up]. So Coach is going to do his thing, dial them up, just out-scheme them.”

As such, the Ravens’ 24–10 win over the Colts in Indy wasn’t the headline-grabber that most of Baltimore’s 14 victories were a year ago. And that’s O.K.

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For one, it was a big game. The teams entered with identical 5–2 records, each locked in a race for playoff position in the division and conference. For another, what we all saw on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, in hushed tones, was Jackson starting to break down some walls in making his life as a top NFL quarterback more sustainable.

Maybe the 70-yard runs of last year are now seven-yarders. Maybe teams aren’t frozen by Jackson’s athleticism quite like they were, with coverages compromised as a result.

But this was always going to happen. NFL defenses and their coordinators are too good not to adapt, and thus there was always going to have to be a second adjustment from the 23-year-old. That second adjustment is happening now and, if you looked closely, Sunday gave you reason to believe Jackson’s growth is taking hold.

The Ravens, to be sure, are a pretty tough 6–2 team. And more equipped for what’s in front of them than last year’s group was, even if this edition isn’t winning quite as pretty as that one was.

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We’re midway through the season, and we’ve got a review of everything coming for you over the next few days on the site, including in my GamePlan column on Thursday. Today? Well, today, we’re gonna see if we can focus (mostly) on the actual football from Sunday of Week 9. Inside this space, you’ll find …

• How the Dolphins’ revival persevered on Sunday.

• Why Joe Judge is hitting right notes with the Giants.

• The Raiders’ unlikely Sunday hero.

• The Saints defense’s historic effort.

• A detailed COVID-19 update—and good news with the bad!

But we’re starting where we often started these columns in 2019, and that’s with a check-in with Baltimore and its young star quarterback.

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Here’s the twist on why Sunday was different for the Ravens—not everything went to plan right off the bat.

Last year, the Baltimore offense became accustomed to defenses scrambling to keep up, with easy money all over the field for the taking. It was fun to watch, for sure. It also was never going to last that way. OC Greg Roman was always going to have to keep evolving the scheme and Jackson, like any young quarterback, was going to have become a more sophisticated player.

One reason why was pretty elementary: In 2019, because they had defenses tripped up so often, the Ravens were almost always controlling the tempo and far more often than not holding a lead, and usually a big one. In that place, your playbook is completely open, and you’re naturally less predictable.

Sunday, as it turned out, was the antitheses of that. The Colts’ athletic, versatile defense had a bead on what the Ravens were trying to accomplish early on, were aggressive with Baltimore, and Jackson was stymied as a result. The Ravens punted on all five of their first-half possessions, and went into the break with 55 yards from scrimmage on 25 plays and just four first downs.

It was the first time in Jackson’s NFL career he’d been at the helm of an offense held out of the end zone through halftime, and the only reason the Ravens were even within three, down 10–7, was because Marcus Peters stripped Colts QB Philip Rivers in the second quarter and Chuck Clark ran the recovered fumble back 65 yards for six.

“I feel like their defense just beat us to the punch,” Jackson said. “All the stuff they dialed up that we watched film on, those guys were beating us to the punch.”

And with the shot to amend that in the second half, came another opportunity—the Ravens, with Jackson under center, had been 0–6 when trailing at the half.