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John Harbaugh's trust in Lamar Jackson pays off on critical play

SEATTLE -- He had driven his team deep into Seattle Seahawks territory, all but ensuring a go-ahead score at a pivotal moment. Yet as he strode to the sidelines, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was pretty far from satisfied, and it showed.

Justin Tucker stood on the CenturyLink Field turf preparing for a 26-yard field goal attempt, its success as inevitable as rain in the Pacific Northwest, but a human storm had just hit the Ravens' bench area, and it wasn't subtle. As the play clock ticked down, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh saw his second-year signal-caller's face and did a double-take. Jackson wanted action. His craving was gaining traction.

"What?" Harbaugh asked Jackson. "You wanna go for it?"

"Hell yeah I wanna go for it!" the quarterback shot back.

It was fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 8 in a game tied at 13 with 1:24 left in the third quarter, and Harbaugh had a decision to make: Play the percentages, or defer to the fire in his young quarterback's eyes?

As Jackson lobbied Harbaugh, veteran guard Marshal Yanda chimed in: "If he wants to go for it, I wanna go for it!"

Harbaugh went for it. He called timeout, put Jackson back onto the field and sent his young quarterback through the heart of the Seahawks' defense on a designed run that offensive coordinator Greg Roman had saved for that type of situation.

A few seconds after taking a shotgun snap, Jackson was in the end zone celebrating with his teammates, and the Ravens (5-2) were off and running. After closing out a 30-16 victory over the Seahawks (5-2) in front of 69,012 rain-soaked fans, Baltimore flew home with a 2 1/2-game lead in the AFC North propelled by an emotional tailwind in the wake of their biggest victory since last December.

"I feel great!" Harbaugh told me as he stood in a private area behind the Ravens' locker room about 15 minutes after the game. "I feel really good. These are the kind of games that make this league fun."

In less than a year, Jackson's energy and competitiveness have triggered a massive mood swing for a franchise, its fan base and, especially, its longtime head coach.

As they headed into their bye week in 2018, the Ravens were in the midst of a three-game losing streak that had dropped them to 4-5. Joe Flacco, their starting quarterback since 2008, had suffered a significant hip injury, and there was chatter in league circles that Harbaugh would be fired after his 11th season as Baltimore's head coach. Then Jackson, the final pick of the first round of the 2018 draft, took the reins and rallied the team to an unlikely playoff berth, with Harbaugh receiving a four-year contract extension in January.

And now? The Ravens head into their 2019 bye week with a three-game winning streak, excited about what lies ahead -- most pressing, a "Sunday Night Football" showdown with the undefeated New England Patriots in Baltimore on Nov. 3 -- and aligned behind the vibrant young quarterback who has rejuvenated their franchise.

"We're just enjoying the moment," said Yanda, a 13th-year veteran who has been selected to seven Pro Bowls. "That (go-ahead) touchdown was cool -- an all-time great situation. We as an offense wanted to go for it. The field goal team's out there, and Lamar's in John's you-know-what and gets him to call timeout. Then we go out there, and we don't just get the first down, we score. It was an awesome moment.

"Lamar is such a dynamic player. When you have a competitive guy like that, and he's fired up, we want to roll."

The Ravens' fire was evident about 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday, when safety Earl Thomas came out for pregame warmups and roamed menacingly around the field where he made so many massive plays from 2010 through 2018. The former Seahawks star, who signed a four-year, $55 million free-agent deal with the Ravens in March, played a smart and solid but unexceptional game. Thomas' new teammates, however, helped cool off Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who went into the game as the presumptive early MVP frontrunner but completed just 20 of 41 passes for 241 yards against an aggressive Baltimore defense.

After giving up a combined 73 points in consecutive defeats to the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, the Ravens have allowed just 56 during their current three-game winning streak. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale has worked wonders with a revamped unit that lost a slew of key contributors (including edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith, linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle) after last season.

On Sunday, one key newcomer -- cornerback Marcus Peters, acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams last Tuesday -- announced his presence in a big way, picking off a Wilson pass and racing 67 yards for a touchdown to give Baltimore a 13-10 lead five minutes before halftime. He gave an extensive explanation of how Wilson's first interception of the season (and in 221 attempts) unfolded, but I'll reduce it to four of those words: "See ball, get ball."

The Ravens also scored a second defensive touchdown: One play after Tucker's 22-yard field goal extended their lead to 23-13 with 3:47 left in the game, third-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey (who, quietly, has played at a Pro Bowl level in 2019) scooped up a D.K. Metcalf fumble and sped 18 yards for the clinching score.

The biggest touchdown, however, was the one Jackson scored on fourth down after Harbaugh reconsidered and called off the field-goal attempt -- a noteworthy act in and of itself, given the coach's aversion to wasting timeouts. Jackson, as he came off the field, felt as though he'd wasted an opportunity, especially after having just gained 13 yards on a third-and-15 run.

"I was mad," Jackson said. "I was ready to score. We needed a touchdown."

Most of Jackson's teammates agreed. "Everybody on the sideline felt it," Thomas said. "We were saying, 'Go for it. Go for it.' Coach Harbs rode with us, just like we ride with him, and it paid off."

Said Harbaugh: "My thinking was to kick it. And then Lamar came off and basically he and Marshal were not happy: They wanted to go for it and win the game. They were very vehement. You could just tell. So I called timeout."

One reason for Harbaugh's confidence was his faith in offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who spent the offseason engineering a creative overhauling of the Ravens' attack designed to maximize Jackson's speed and playmaking abilities. In this case, Roman dialed up a play he'd been saving for a critical situation, one asking Jackson to carry the ball into the middle of the Seattle front.

"I'm (normally) playing it safe, keeping myself safe," Jackson said. "But whatever it takes to get the first down. Coach had faith in us. We couldn't come up short."

The play featured fullback Patrick Ricard (who doubles as a defensive tackle) motioning across the formation from left to right, just in front of Jackson, as a diversionary tactic. The idea, Roman said, was to exploit a balanced formation on defense that allowed Jackson to run away from star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

"(Jackson) had the choice to run it or not," Roman explained. "If we didn't get the look we wanted, we probably would've taken a delay and kicked the field goal. We were looking for a balanced defense and hoping the game-wrecker Clowney would be on our left. Once I saw him on the left in their 'under' front, I knew Lamar would run the play to the right."

Center Matt Skura's snap arrived just before Ricard crossed in front of Jackson, with the fullback raising his arms and arching back to ensure the ball didn't hit him. Jackson started to his right, where Ricard had set the edge and helped give the Ravens a numbers advantage. Then the quarterback abruptly planted his foot and swept back inside to his left, beating three Seattle defenders to the end zone.

He spiked the ball excitedly as Harbaugh exhaled.

"It's Lamar running up inside, so as a head coach, it's like ... uh, no," Harbaugh said. "But G-Ro said, in a critical situation, that's the play he wanted. And we'd been working on it, so we went for it."

To Jackson's credit, he has no problem adapting his approach to fit the circumstance. In the Ravens' season opener, the Miami Dolphins stacked the box and dared him to throw: He completed 17 of 20 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns, rushing just three times in a 59-10 victory. Last Sunday, conversely, the Cincinnati Bengals' defense was vulnerable to quarterback runs, and Jackson carried 19 times for 152 yards in a 23-17 victory.

"Whatever it takes to help us win," Jackson said after completing just 9 of 20 passes for 143 yards against the Seahawks while running 14 times for 116 yards. "I'm trying to compete for my team and find a way to win. That's it."

For all of his eye-catching feats on the field, many of Jackson's most important actions have gone unseen.

If you're wondering why the other Ravens players revere him so much as a leader, consider this anecdote, shared by several sources who were on the Baltimore sideline during the previous Sunday's victory over the Bengals: With the Ravens holding a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, Jackson led the team on an 18-play drive that chewed up nearly 10 minutes. Cincinnati called timeout just before a third-and-goal play from the 2, and when Jackson came to the sidelines, he requested a pass targeting fifth-year tight end Nick Boyle, who has never scored an NFL touchdown.

Jackson's throw to Boyle fell incomplete, and Tucker came on to kick a 21-yard field goal, but the gesture was not lost on the rest of the Ravens.

Said one Ravens coach: "That's the kind of leader Lamar is."

On Sunday, Jackson was the fiery field general whose intensity convinced his head coach to burn a timeout and take a risk. It was a change of mind appreciated by many of Harbaugh's players, including the newest Raven.

"He's got the nuts," Peters said of Harbaugh. "He's got the balls. And he trusts his guys. You saw the outcome."

As Peters celebrated on the field after Jackson's final kneeldown -- it was the second game the cornerback had played at CenturyLink in the past 18 days, the previous one being the Rams' 30-29 defeat to the Seahawks on "Thursday Night Football" -- he shared his first impression of the quarterback who has earned Harbaugh's trust.

"Woooooooooooo," Peters said, shaking his head. "That mother------ cold. Stone cold."

*Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver. *

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