‘I’m in line with the greats:’ Inside Lamar Jackson’s historic pursuit of 5K rushing yards
BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks were tied at 13 late in the third quarter on Oct. 20, 2019, and second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson convinced coach John Harbaugh to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 8-yard line. Harbaugh called for “Quarterback Power.”
The play was designed for Jackson to dart up the heart of the defense, and the Ravens QB didn’t stop until he reached the end zone, leaving two tacklers in his wake.
“Lamar is one of the most spectacular athletes in the National Football League,” then-Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson told ESPN earlier this month. “I love his competitiveness, what he can do on the field.”
Four years later, Jackson likely will be joining Wilson in the record books. Jackson needs 28 yards rushing to become the fourth quarterback in NFL history to run for 5,000 yards, joining Wilson, Michael Vick and Cam Newton. He can do so on Sunday night, when Baltimore plays at the Los Angeles Chargers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
It’s fitting he would join that group, because Jackson blends the speed of Vick, fearlessness of Newton and elusiveness of Wilson into his own style.
“That mark is a special mark,” said Wilson, who was the last quarterback to surpass 5,000 yards rushing when he did so on Sept. 17 against the Washington Commanders. “But there’s a lot more football left to be played [for Lamar]. I think Lamar is definitely going to get a lot more yards in his lifetime in football.”
Jackson has taken the production of the dual-threat quarterback to the next level in his six NFL seasons. He set the single-season rushing record for a quarterback with 1,206 in his 2019 NFL MVP season, and he is the only quarterback to produce multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Now, he is set to eclipse 5,000 yards rushing in the fewest amount of games for a quarterback. It took Vick 104 games, Newton 129 and Wilson 175 to reach 5,000. Sunday will be Jackson’s 82nd.
“I’m in line with the greats,” Jackson said Tuesday. “That’s cool.”
It was third-and-3 in the third quarter on Oct. 18, 2020, when Jackson made the Philadelphia Eagles pay for their mistake. Half of the Eagles’ defense ran to the right after Jackson faked the ball to running back J.K. Dobbins, and the other half shifted to the left to follow a couple of pulling Ravens offensive linemen.
That left a huge hole in the middle, which essentially gave Jackson a track lane to the end zone.
Jackson sprinted 37 yards untouched for a touchdown, outrunning three defenders, including one who appeared to have a good angle on him. He reached a maximum speed of 21.01 miles per hour, which, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, is the fastest he’s been clocked.
“He’s like a roadrunner,” former Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr said. “His feet go so fast.”
How fast is Jackson? He didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL combine, but a day after being the last pick of the first round, Jackson was asked for his fastest time in the 40.
His answer: 4.34 seconds.
“I ran it with turf toe, too,” Jackson said.
Since Jackson entered the league in 2018, he has produced 70 runs when he has reached a max speed of 19 mph or faster, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. No one else in the NFL — running backs included — has totaled more than 51 during that span.
“Lamar got a gear not many human beings got,” Newton said in 2020. “I say Michael Vick, I say Lamar, I don’t even think I’m in that stratosphere.”
After Jackson’s second career start in 2018, Vick offered him some advice.
“With quarterbacks, we’re not used to getting hit all the time,” Vick said. “When we do it, it can either get you into the game or it can shake you up a little bit.
“It’s not like a guy sitting in the pocket, you run the risk of getting injured. I’m not saying that should deter Lamar or scare him, I’m just saying proceed with caution.”
For those who’ve watched Jackson’s 828 rushing attempts, no one would ever accuse Jackson of running scared.
Since NFL Next Gen began tracking designed runs for quarterbacks in 2006, Jackson’s 3,271 are the most by any quarterback through their first six seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Newton is second with 2,117.
And Jackson isn’t taking the ball and racing to the sideline. He has gained 2,216 yards when running in between the tackles. That’s more than double every quarterback since 2018, other than Josh Allen (1,904) and Jalen Hurts (1,130).
“When you ask him to run the ball up inside, he has toughness and vision,” Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “That’s probably the biggest thing — toughness and vision that some guys don’t have.
“They may be athletic, but they don’t have a great feel for rush or running lanes, and he does have that. It’s unique.”
Jackson’s toughness is underscored by the amount of contact he’s sustained. He has taken an NFL-leading 1,012 hits since 2018, which is an average of 12.5 per game.
Ravens coaches have said over the years that there is a better chance of Jackson getting hurt in the pocket — when his eyes are focused downfield — than when running. When Jackson’s two season-ending injuries are brought up, he is quick to point out that he was hurt both times when trying to throw.
“He’s like a cat out there,” Ravens backup quarterback Tyler Huntley said. “You know when you chase a cat, they find every which way to find a way to get out there. I just pray he keeps doing what he’s doing.”
Jackson’s most electrifying run of his career came in Cincinnati in 2019, when an open-field spin move became the defining moment of his MVP season.
To get around two defenders at the Bengals’ 32-yard line, Jackson pivoted and corkscrewed himself with a 360-degree move to break free for a 47-yard touchdown. The touchdown probability for that run was 0%. In less than 24 hours, that highlight had generated six million views on the NFL X feed.
“They’ll be watching that run for decades and decades,” Harbaugh said.
Jackson’s 508 yards after contact are the most by any quarterback since 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“That’s the most frustrating thing for a defense,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “You have a play covered, and he’s an elite athlete.
“We’ve played a couple of good athletes; he’s one of the rarest I’ve seen in person. Just one little crease and he’s got 30 yards on you.”
After Jackson reaches 5,000 yards rushing, the next milestone is surpassing Vick for the most all-time rushing yards by a quarterback. Jackson trails Vick by 1,137 yards, which means he will likely break that record next season.
Until then, how can teams prepare to stop Jackson running the ball?
“Playing Madden,” 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “This guy is extremely dynamic, can make plays when you do not think there is a play there to be made. He is just Houdini, I guess.”
ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this article