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Lamar Jackson's maturation on display in Ravens' perfect start

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BALTIMORE -- At some point, it's not going to matter who the opponent is for Lamar Jackson. All he can do is compete against whomever the schedule puts in front of him. His first game of this season revealed that he's more than capable of dominating what is easily the worst team in the NFL. His second just proved that he really could impress against anybody he's facing this fall.

Jackson continued to open eyes around the league in Baltimore's 23-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. He passed for 272 yards and two touchdowns. He carried the ball 16 times for 120 yards. After downing the Miami Dolphins with his arm in a 59-10 season-opening win -- he threw five touchdown passes and posted a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 in that contest -- Jackson showed the world that he can still do plenty of damage with his legs as well.

Of course, skeptics might point out that Arizona had the worst record in the league last season and fields one of the youngest rosters in football. They'll also say Miami already has its eyes on next year's draft. The reality is that all those facts obscure the truth about Jackson's growth in his second season. As Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said, "When you can run it like that and throw it like that, it's really hard to stop."

It's apparent that the Ravens are relishing Jackson's fast start to the season. Jackson told reporters in Miami that his numbers against the Dolphins weren't bad "for a running back," which was a reference to all the critics who knocked him as a limited passer who ran relentlessly last season. After this latest win, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh gleefully talked about how "it's going to be a real conundrum" for opposing defenses trying to contain Jackson in the coming weeks. What the Ravens didn't have to say outright was something that has become the overriding theme in Jackson's narrative: The dude has been sorely underestimated for far too long.

The Ravens have the perfect coach for Jackson, as Harbaugh has been comfortable enough to reconfigure his offense to fit his quarterback's skill set. Baltimore also has a creative offensive coordinator in Greg Roman -- the same guy who turned Colin Kaepernick into a multi-dimensional star in San Francisco -- to draw up plays for its young signal-caller. Most importantly, Jackson is brimming with confidence after starting eight games in 2018 (including the playoffs). So far he's only lost twice in the 10 games he's opened as the Ravens' quarterback.

On Sunday, Jackson became the first player in league history to throw for at least 270 yards and run for 100 yards in a game.

"I just had to take what the defense gave me, and sometimes I had to run," Jackson said. "Sometimes I had to make scrambles because they had great coverage and some of our guys weren't open. I just had to move the sticks. Like I said, I just take advantage of what the defense gave us and that's what we did."

Added Harbaugh: "Lamar is a football player. He has talents. He has abilities. He's out there playing the game. He's applying his gifts. He's applying his football IQ. He's applying his feel for the game. I would say more than anything, [Jackson is applying] his competitiveness. He's a super-competitive person. He wants to win."

This game was billed as a battle between two quarterbacks who have the potential to revolutionize the quarterback position. Jackson was the veteran, the player who blossomed in the second half of last season when many thought he might need two years to become a capable starter in the league. The Cardinals countered with Kyler Murray, the first pick in this year's draft and the man who would help Kingsbury introduce the Air Raid spread offense to the league. Jackson wasted no time showing the sell-out crowd at M&T Bank Stadium that he was better prepared for the moment.

Jackson led the Ravens on a seven-play scoring drive that covered 94 yards midway through the first quarter, culminating the series with a 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Andrews. Jackson also drove Baltimore 85 yards on nine plays late in the second quarter, when his 1-yard scoring toss to tight end Hayden Hurst gave the Ravens a 17-6 halftime lead. Murray did rally the Cardinals in the fourth quarter, as they closed the deficit to 20-17. However, Jackson led the Ravens to a field goal on the next possession before delivering the play of the game with three minutes left in the contest.

Baltimore faced a third-and-11 from its own 44-yard line when Jackson dropped back to pass. Instead of going with a conservative call -- as likely would've been the case last year -- the Ravens quarterback saw rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown working against Cardinals cornerback Tramaine Brock Sr. and delivered a perfectly thrown pass for a 41-yard completion. It's even more impressive that, as Brown revealed, the play wasn't designed for him when the Ravens came to the line of scrimmage.

"You don't know exactly who Lamar is going to go to until you see the coverage," said Brown, who finished with eight receptions for 86 yards. "Once I saw the coverage, I had a pretty good understanding that it might be coming to me."

Plays like those merely confirm why the Ravens are so excited about Jackson's maturation. Guard Marshall Yanda said it's Jackson's composure that really stands out at this stage. Tight end Mark Andrews -- who has quickly emerged as Jackson's favorite target with 16 receptions, 220 yards and two touchdowns over the first two games -- said Jackson's feel for the game has helped them develop a remarkable chemistry.

"It's the way he sees the game and the way I see the game," Andrews said. "It's very similar. ... It's just being able to play smart ball."

The Ravens look pretty smart right now. There was a lot of talk around the team this offseason, most of it focusing on the notion that Baltimore was going to unveil an offense that would blow people's minds. Given how rudimentary the Ravens looked late last season -- when they essentially had Jackson running read options nearly every down -- such hype sounded more like bluster than something worth believing. Today there is little doubt the Ravens have found something special.

Murray knew as much when this game ended. The Cardinals quarterback didn't have a bad day, as he completed 25 of 40 passes for 349 yards and became the second quarterback in league history to open his career with two consecutive 300-yard passing efforts -- but he also is just learning about life in the league. Jackson just gave him a lesson on how quickly a gifted player can get up to speed.

Said Murray: "I think everybody saw what he can do today. He's a very dangerous player. He can beat you running or throwing the ball. You've got to give credit to him."

Now for those who want to see Jackson face a tougher challenge, they're about to get their wish. The Ravens next game will be in Kansas City, where the Chiefs once again look like a serious threat to win the AFC. Of course, Jackson nearly led Baltimore to a win at Arrowhead Stadium last December. If not for some last-second heroics by Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, Baltimore would've avoided what ended up as a 27-24 overtime loss.

The Ravens will face a difficult task because they've lost a lot of defensive talent from the unit that harassed Mahomes in that contest. What they also have is a second-year quarterback who is in a much different place than he was a year ago. Anybody who thinks Lamar Jackson is playing better because he's playing lousy competition isn't paying attention. The longer he plays this season, the scarier he's going to become.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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