Lamar Jackson has made a great start to the NFL season. The Baltimore Ravens are 2-0 and Jackson has continued in the same form from his MVP season last year. And now, on ESPN's Monday Night Football primetime matchup, he faces his biggest rival.
Patrick Mahomes' status went to another level at the end of last season. The dramatic fashion with which his Kansas City Chiefs went through the playoffs put him in his own stratosphere. But he wasn't there during the regular season. After winning the league MVP the season before, Mahomes had just a so-so regular season. He hadn't been sharp even before his midseason knee injury.
He's back in that same play to start this season.
Mahomes has been very good. In Week 1, he picked the Houston Texans apart with exclusively underneath throws. In Week 2, he made exceptional throws and led another comeback to beat the Los Angeles Chargers. This back shoulder dime down the right seam didn't even count because of a holding penalty. Mahomes is playing better than 90% of the league's starters can even comprehend. But we don't compare Mahomes to the 90% anymore. There's no need to. We compare him to Lamar Jackson.
Jackson has been better than Mahomes to start this season. He was also better than Mahomes through last year's regular season. He only had one playoff game but was outstanding in that game accounting for more than 500 yards of total offence. John Harbaugh took an unnecessarily-aggressive approach to fourth downs in that game, while the defence misplayed the Titans offence to put the quarterback in a hole.
The Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions and have beaten Jackson's Ravens in both of their prior matchups. This is the first time the two teams are equal. It's the first time the Ravens might actually be better. It's also the first time they face off in Baltimore and not Kansas City.
If the Chiefs win, they're going to need Mahomes to play more like he did during last year's playoffs and less like he has in the regular season.
On 79 attempts so far, Mahomes has thrown three interceptable passes (two against the Chargers and one against the Texans). None of have been caught. Jackson has thrown one on 49 attempts. Jackson has an 80.4% accuracy rate against Mahomes' 75.3%. When adjusted for depth, Jackson's accuracy is 80.4% while Mahomes' falls to 60.4%. The primary difference between the two quarterbacks comes in the intermediate range. Not only has Jackson thrown a higher rate of his passes into the 11-20 yard range, he's also hitting them at a higher rate. Jackson has been 85.7% accurate while Mahomes is at 55.6% accurate.
Mahomes' intermediate struggles directly correlate to bouts of sloppiness in the pocket.
The Chargers took a very aggressive approach to the Chiefs. Mahomes should have been intercepted on the opening drive of the game when the defence played press-man coverage against Tyreek Hill. Hill ran a deep route but was covered well by cornerback Micahel Davis. He punched away Mahomes underthrown ball instead of catching it. Hill caught one deep ball, it was a physics-defying throw from Mahomes between two defenders, but that was all as the Chargers' pressure approach rattled Mahomes.
On this Third-and-9 play, Hill runs a vertical from the slot on the right side of the field. He takes away space over the middle, giving Mahomes two options: Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce.
Watkins is open early in the play. He's running a route shallow of the first down line in behind the Chargers all-out blitz. If Mahomes throws the ball to him on time (and accurately), Watkins will run through the ball and continue upfield away from the defender trailing him for the first down. That's the blitz-beating throw. Instead, he holds the ball for a beat too long in the pocket. He invites the pressure in and ultimately throws the ball while jumping backwards away from the arriving defensive end.
For as talented as Mahomes is, and for how often he makes the spectacular look routine, he's never going to be as efficient as he can be if he chooses the more difficult throw over the smarter throw too often. His MVP season wasn't built on spectacular plays, it was built on spectacular efficiency that was created by his intelligence and poise in the pocket. This ball should have found Watkins quickly for the first down.
Kelce has no chance of catching the ball thrown low and behind him. If he had caught it, he'd have been bailing out his quarterback.
The Chargers coaching staff was aggressive but not predictable. They called a great game, mixing up coverages and changing up the pass rush to force Mahomes to react and adjust every snap. A three-man defensive line appears on this Third-and-10. A fourth pass rusher comes from the middle of the field while the rest of the defence plays off-man coverage with a switch in the middle of the field.
The switch in the middle of the field sees the defender who was covering Sammy Watkins off the line of scrimmage pass him on to double Travis Kelce.
As the Chiefs offence is wont to do, they are seeking out a shot play here. That means Mahomes has to hold the ball in the pocket. The Chiefs have two of their eligible receivers chip the defensive ends at the line of scrimmage while their three primary receivers run a slow-developing route combination downfield. All three receivers come tight to each other at the top of Mahomes drop. He has nowhere to throw the ball at this point.
He also has pressure arriving on the right side. Mitchell Schwartz is typically one of the best right tackles in the NFL. He's struggled this year after tough matchups with Joey Bosa and J.J. Watt. Schwartz is conceding the edge but remains attached to Bosa. The rest of the offensive line has created a pocket for Mahomes to step into. Stepping forward will take away Bosa's angle, recreating leverage for Schwartz to push him upfield.
It would also buy Kelce a moment to continue further across the field in his route.
Kelce would be wide open and Mahomes would get to throw from a balanced platform had he stepped forward when needed. But similar to the previous play, he tries to force a more difficult throw. The ball sails over the head of Kelce, landing somewhere between the tight end and Tyreek Hill deep downfield.
His interceptable pass that was dropped against the Texans came on a similar miss. Hill runs a deep out route and Mahomes tries to fit the ball into a tight window in zone coverage. He overthrows the ball again. This time it's from a completely clean pocket. Plays such as this are rarities for Mahomes over the course of his career.
The Texans get to be the common opponent for Mahomes and Jackson so far this season. Neither quarterback struggled against them. Jackson took a couple of sacks and missed Marquise Brown when he was open for a touchdown. But he was consistent overall and had one play in particular that emphasized the difference between him and Mahomes so far this season.
Jackson sets up near his own endzone on this play. It's Third-and-10. The Texans take advantage of the long down-and-distance to disguise their blitz. The shift in the front seven sees both of Jackson's primary outlets covered over the middle of the field. Willie Snead's curl route is short of the first down line either way. Mark Andrews is the receiver Jackson wants to throw to. The linebacker in the middle of the field has the leverage advantage against his route.
This means Jackson has to throw past the defender to a spot where Andrews can get the ball. He's anticipating and placing the ball in a spot. But he can't do it just yet.
After Jackson hit the top of his drop, he recognized the timing problem so he held the ball. He made small steps forward to negate the edge rushers and settle in a condensed pocket. Jackson even uses a subtle pump fake before throwing past the hands in his face to hit Andrews for the first down.
Not many quarterbacks in the NFL make that play. Mahomes is one of the few who can. Jackson is just doing it more often right now.
Ronnie Stanley, the Ravens' outstanding left tackle, is beaten around the edge on this Third-and-9. Jackson feels the pressure and steps up into the pocket again. He then shortens his throwing motion so the defender can't knock the ball out from behind. That altered motion doesn't prevent him from throwing over the linebacker in his passing lane to hit Brown for the first down.
Jackson preceded the Texans game with arguably the best performance of his career against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1.
This is a somewhat similar play when the Browns' blitz gets home. Jackson lifts the ball over a defender in the passing lane while being hit to connect with Brown.
For this tight-window throw to Mark Andrews, Jackson creates leverage for his offensive linemen by purposely shifting out of the pocket then jumping back in. He forces the defensive linemen to redirect even while they were rushing contain with a flat stunt on both sides of the defensive line.
Jackson beat another stunt with this touchdown pass to Willie Snead. The defender came free up the middle, in the face of Jackson as the ball came out. Snead released against press-man coverage from a tight alignment on the right side. Jackson saw the corner playing underneath with the safety over the top. He perfectly lofted the ball into Snead's hand, leading him away from both defenders for the uncontested score.
As players, Mahomes and Jackson are equal talents. Considering Jackson's added value as a runner, there's even an argument that Jackson is flatly better than Mahomes.
Regardless of who has the better skill set, the difference is negligible overall. The best quarterback of these two will always come down to who is in better form. There's no question entering this game that Jackson has been more consistent so far this season. Mahomes could turn it all around in an instant.
No matter who wins on Monday night, this is going to be just one early chapter in a generation-defining matchup between two great quarterbacks. The NFL has its new Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.