Lamar Jackson, Delaying the Spectacular, Shows an M.V.P.’s Steadiness

Lamar Jackson, Delaying the Spectacular, Shows an M.V.P.’s Steadiness

BALTIMORE — By Lamar Jackson’s third touchdown pass Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens’ 41-7 victory had started to resemble so many others this season: an unequivocal romp by the N.F.L.’s scariest team. But it was still missing something.

Jackson had merely throttled the Houston Texans’ defense, not juked his way through it. He hadn’t accelerated into a spin move, as he did last week, or left clusters of defenders grasping at air, as he does every week, or added to his loop of highlights that’s as long as the “Godfather” trilogy.

Jackson slogged through the first quarter, masterfully controlled the second and waited until the Ravens led, 21-0, in the third to unbridle the spectacular. On second-and-1 from the Baltimore 41-yard line, he faked a handoff, eluded one Texan behind the line of scrimmage, shed four tackles, darted into open space and then careened into another defender, punctuating a 39-yard scamper with power and urgency.

In the stands at M&T Bank Stadium, fans roared and danced in the aisles and, soon, serenaded Jackson with chants of “M.V.P.” On the field, running back Mark Ingram, worried for his quarterback’s safety after watching tacklers’ pursuit, chided him.

“Look, I’m good with everything,” Ingram said, “but that last one I’ve got to have you get down.”

Ingram was smiling as he spoke at a lectern after the game, Jackson seated to his left wearing a black T-shirt that read, “Nobody Cares Work Harder.” As he finished talking, Ingram, who caught two touchdown passes, introduced Jackson: “The man, the myth, the legend, the M.V.P. front-runner. And anybody else that thinks something different about that, they come see me.”

Jackson improved his candidacy on Sunday by, again, straining the bounds of credulity. More than that, he smothered the Texans (6-4) — an allegedly good team that, like Baltimore (8-2), has a dynamic quarterback and leads its division — with his efficiency. After completing just one of his first six passes, Jackson connected on 16 of his final 18, ending with 222 yards, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also ran for 86 yards, which didn’t even represent a third of the Ravens’ total rushing output, a clock-controlling 263.

“He made some great plays with his arm, he made some great plays with his mind,” Coach John Harbaugh said. “I just think he played the position of quarterback exceptionally well, and you appreciate that.”

The Ravens have won six consecutive games, a stretch in which they have blasted three likely playoff teams — Seattle, New England and Houston — by a combined 65 points. They have won their last four by 101. They have soared to the No. 2 seed in the A.F.C. because they can bulldoze opponents in different ways, all of which were on display on Sunday.

Baltimore’s defense forced a fumble on the first drive, held the Texans scoreless through halftime for the first time all season and sacked Deshaun Watson seven times. The arrival of cornerback Marcus Peters in a trade last month with the Los Angeles Rams stabilized a secondary that on Sunday covered Houston receivers long enough for Baltimore’s pass-rush to pester Watson. By the time Houston finally scored, midway through the fourth quarter, the Ravens led, 34-0.

“It surprised me, as well,” safety Earl Thomas said.

Instead of forcing Jackson into an existing scheme, the Ravens had the forethought to assemble one that maximized him. They promoted to offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who had experience tutoring other mobile quarterbacks, like Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick. They surrounded Jackson with talent. They did not view it as a risk so much as necessary, so steadfast was their belief in him, and upended conventional wisdom by focusing on the run. The result? Baltimore is the first team to run for more than 2,000 yards in its first 10 games since New England in 1978.

All week, the Texans pondered how to contain Jackson. Force him to pitch? Make him hand off? Blitz, or three-man rush? The problem with deploying a spy to force him into an outcome is that the defender must be able to catch Jackson. As the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Don Martindale, quipped last week, “What happens in the game where you’re playing a mobile quarterback is, when you’re practicing, you see a guy go by and say, ‘I got him.’ In games, they don’t ‘got’ him.”

They did not get Jackson, who has swatted away the misconception that he is a running back who can pass instead of a quarterback who can run. When told he became the first Raven to throw for four touchdowns in multiple games, Jackson nodded. “I like that stat,” he said. “I’d rather throw them than run them.”

He commands an offense that can splatter defenses on the ground — averaging 7.3 yards per run Sunday with three rushes of at least 25 yards — and torment them in the air. Before departing in the fourth quarter, Jackson had completed passes to nine different receivers.

“Maybe there’s no weak links?” defensive end Chris Wormley said.

That is, at this point, a rhetorical question. It is also a misleading one. Every contender is flawed, from the Patriots to the Ravens to the 49ers to the Saints. Those who endure maximize their strengths but, most important, they minimize their weaknesses.

The Ravens are poised to linger as contenders because they rarely beat themselves. They do not turn the ball over often and, though they committed eight infractions Sunday, they rank among the least penalized teams in the N.F.L.

Perhaps most important, they also have Jackson, who has outdueled Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and, now, Watson. All are special in their own right, but even on a day when Jackson restrained his penchant for the remarkable, he proved that he — and his team — might just be the best in the league this season.

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