It's hard to overstate how aggressively the Ravens are zigging while the rest of the NFL is zagging. In a league that has never been more pass-heavy, Baltimore is on pace to break an all-time team rushing record that has stood since 1978 and hasn't been sniffed since the mid-1980s. They are the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense. Jackson has rushed for 1,247 yards in his 16 career starts and, with 637 rushing yards in eight games this year, is on pace to shatter Michael Vick's single-season record for a quarterback (1,039).
Sunday night's performance highlighted just how difficult it is for even the greatest defensive mind to solve a problem like Lamar. The Patriots held Jackson to 61 yards rushing, a number that the second-year pro topped in all but four of his 15 previous career starts, including the playoffs. But the quarterback still gashed them early and provided one-on-one blocking opportunities for his excellent offensive line, helping Mark Ingram and friends rush for 149 yards on only 25 attempts. The Ravens ran north-south with furor in the first half and used their speed laterally in the second half, finding lanes the whole time. Jackson's decision-making and ability to read the Patriots defense on his run-option plays kept the Ravens on schedule. The 2019 Patriots defense is unlikely to prove historic, but this Ravens rushing attack should be.
Baltimore's passing game is the complement that makes staying on the field possible. On his first third-down play against the Patriots, Jackson narrowly eluded a perfectly executed Dont'a Hightower stunt to find Marquise Brown open, delivering the throw while being hit to pick up the first. On the team's decisive third-quarter drive, he dropped a third-and-5 toss in the bucket to tight end Mark Andrews for 18 yards. In both cases, Jackson identified the kinds of one-on-one matchups the Ravens' running game provides.
It's safe to say the Chargers' defense didn't provide a "blueprint" in the playoffs last season to stop Jackson, a notion that was always ridiculous. In Jackson's 16 career starts, the team has rushed for 3,336 yards; the NFL record for rushing yards in a season in the Super Bowl era is 3,165 by the 1978 Patriots. Jackson has thrown for 19 touchdowns with nine interceptions in those starts, averaging 7.34 yards per attempt. A favorite of the analytics crowd and an analytically-minded organization, Lamar Jackson's success is a reminder that fighting against accepted maxims can work. (And it gives lie to the perception that analytics is anti-run.)
Baltimore's offense is one of the best in football because it is so run-dominant on neutral downs. The Ravens have taken an approach that appears to have come out of the 1970s and made it new, because Jackson is unlike any quarterback in football, and he deserves an offense to match. This is the history of the NFL writ small, mixing the old and out-of-fashion with the cutting-edge, then racing to the end zone before the rest of the league can catch up.
Watching Lamar run wild every week is just one of football's joys this year. Now that we're officially past the midway point and headed toward Week 10, here's what else I'm loving about the 2019 season:
The Bosa Bros:Nick Bosa's Week 8 effort against the Panthers (three sacks and one pick) put the Niners rookie in the spotlight, but his brother Joey Bosa could be having the better year overall. With 8.5 sacks and, per Pro Football Focus, 45 total pressures, he's the No. 2 ranked edge defender according to PFF, behind only the Texans' J.J. Watt, who is out for the year after suffering a torn pec in Week 8. The last three weeks have been particularly ridiculous. Bosa put the team on his back against the Titans, Bearsand Packers, compiling 21 pressures in that span, ranking first in PFF grade and total pressures. He's playing a higher percentage of the Chargers' snaps (86.2) than ever before and defeating quality competition, like Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari on Sunday. Speaking of which ...
The wide open Defensive Player of the Year race: While there are too many weekly pronouncements on who is in the elusive "MVP conversation," it is almost impossible to forecast the DPOY race after nine weeks. Both Bosa brothers, J.J. and T.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, Za'Darius Smith, Everson Griffen, Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Donald would make my long list for first-half DPOY candidates, but there might be 10 more players with a legitimate chance to make a run in the second half. These awards usually sort themselves out in December, although there are seasons (like 2010 and 2011, when Troy Polamalu and Terrell Suggs won, respectively) during which no consensus emerges. Here's to chaos.
Josh Jacobs' quickness: The Raiders rookie running back plays with more decisiveness every week. His ability to make opponents miss with a lateral step in a small space is positively Frank Gore-like. So is Jacobs' ability to turn a 2-yard loss into a 4-yard gain. With the Raiders' offensive line banged up against the Lions on Sunday, Jacobs' ability to create with yards after contact keyed Oakland's victorious return home after its seven-week odyssey. ...
Meaningful games being played in the Black Hole: The energy around this Raiders team during home games this season is just different. One of football history's most unique relationships between a city and a franchise is ending in eight weeks ahead of the Raiders' scheduled move to Las Vegas, and there's a chance for something special ahead. This week's Thursday Night Football showdown with the 4-5 Chargers precedes a Week 11 home game against the 0-8 Bengals and a trip to face the 1-7 Jetsin Week 12. The Raiders close out life in Oakland with home games against the 4-5 Titansin Week 14 and the 4-5 Jaguarsin Week 15. These games are all eminently winnable for one of the most efficient offenses in football. While the 4-4 Raiders' talent-poor defense prevents any championship hopes, it's not crazy for Raiders fans to dream about running the table on their remaining home games, sneaking into the playoffs and sending the Black Hole out in style.
Watching Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay go get it: The Lions' loss in Oakland on Sunday was a reminder that this Detroit team (3-4-1) is stuck in the NFL middle again, but at least the Lions are getting there in a more entertaining fashion than usual. Only Tampa's Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have combined for more catches over 20 yards among receiving duos, but it's the way Jones and Golladay reliably steal one-on-one jump balls week after week that is so transfixing. The Lions' offense often amounts to Matthew Stafford believing that his guy is better than your guy, and Stafford is usually right.
The sublime connection between Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett: Through eight games, Wilson-to-Lockett almost felt too efficient. When Lockett caught all six of his targets -- most of them impossibly hard -- for 100 yards in the Seahawks' Week 8 win over the Falcons, the natural reaction was: Why not throw to this guy even more?
Wilson and Seattle offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer apparently listened, with Lockett nabbing 13 grabs on 18 targets for 152 yards against the Bucs. Lockett already has been targeted more in 2019 (72) than he was all of last season (70), yet he's caught a preposterous 81.9 percent of passes thrown his way. Only New Orleans' Michael Thomas (82%) has a higher number among wide receivers with 50-plus targets, and there's really no other wideout close to those two in terms of mixing volume and efficiency. Like Thomas, Lockett should be discussed among the very best receivers in the game.
The 49ers running on passing downs: Anything beyond third-and-2 in today's NFL is a passing down. The 49ers routinely call runs on third-and-4 or greater, and they convert, because they are so creative before the snap. The 49ers converted a 5-yard run on third-and-4 in the first quarter against the Cardinals on Thursday Night Football, then hit Arizona with a 30-yard touchdown on the subsequent third-and-3. A successful run on third-and-3 against the Cardinals late in the fourth quarter kept their game-clinching drive alive. The Ravens and 49ers are both showing that teams can win by going against the grain, especially when they are playing to the strengths of their personnel and play-callers.
The sane, level-headed appreciation of Kyler Murray's season: Considering the wild ups and downs and overwrought pronunciations about the 2018 quarterback class, it's nice to see the 2019 No. 1 overall pick being allowed to develop without causing too much commotion. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury dramatically overhauled his offensive approach after September, using far fewer four-receiver sets and relying on a creative running game, which Murray directs. This is not an overly talented offense beyond Murray and the running backs, but Kingsbury has played to Murray's strengths while protecting him. The Cardinals have turned the ball over less than any team in the NFL, and Murray has only taken nine sacks in the last five games after taking 20 sacks in the first four. More than anything, Murray appears to be in control and slowly improving each week.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, OLBs, Pittsburgh Steelers
Watt and Dupree are bringing back memories of a time when the Steelers outside linebackers were among the most reliable position groups in the sport. They combined for 3.5 sacks, six QB hits and, per PFF, four more hurries against the Colts on Sunday. I thought losing DE Stephon Tuittto injured reserve on Oct. 15 would impact the production of Watt and Dupree, but they've only cranked up their play since their Week 7 bye. Watt has improved every season since being picked 30th overall in 2017 and is peaking, making huge plays every week. Dupree, picked 22nd overall in 2015, is having a contract year that could approach Dee Ford in 2018 territory if he continues on this path.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.