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Ravens QB Lamar Jackson ‘locked in’ like never before entering biggest game of his career

“Locked in.” It’s been a consistent theme all season.

From the doldrums of training camp, through a sluggish start to the season, to a dominant run of 11 wins in their past 13 games, including last week’s divisional round blowout against the Houston Texans, Lamar Jackson has leaned on the mantra. It’s cliche, sure, but the Ravens quarterback has more important things to worry about than providing profound insight.

Notably, he will play the biggest game of his career Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs when the teams vie for the AFC championship at M&T Bank Stadium. The 27-year-old has already won one NFL Most Valuable Player Award, when he was the unanimous choice in 2019, and is the favorite for the honor again this year. He has been a two-time All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowl selection. At $260 million over the next five years, he is the third-highest-paid player in the league in terms of annual salary. The only glaring hole in his resume, of course, is getting to the Super Bowl.

Now he’s on the precipice and “locked in” like never before, according to the teammates, coaches and former players The Baltimore Sun spoke to about Jackson.

What does the mantra actually mean?

“Small details [and] things that I probably would overshadow years in the past,” Jackson said Wednesday. “But now, I’m trying to think about all the small details [and] what will help us in every situation. That’s pretty much what I mean by staying locked in and focused.”

It is, as coach John Harbaugh said, self-explanatory, a marriage of all parts of Jackson’s physical gifts but his mental ones.

“You come to work ready to go to work and get locked in on what your responsibilities are and what your job is and make sure you’re prepared,” Harbaugh said. “When you line up, you lock in. You lock in on your job, your responsibility, your eyes, your feet, your hands [and] your communication of the whole thing. [You’re] just supremely focused, not looking left, not looking right, [but] looking straight ahead [and] looking forward, short-term and really long-term, too.”

Teammates have noticed.

“His athletic ability hasn’t changed,” wide receiver Rashod Bateman told The Sun. “Obviously he’s playing better than he has been, but just more so from a vocal standpoint, he’s been leading. He came in the locker room [against the Texans] and handled business like he should. I haven’t seen that side of Lamar.”

That side, according to Jackson, was a profanity-filled halftime speech that helped propel Baltimore into the first conference championship game of the quarterback’s career.

“He doesn’t say much, but when he does you listen up,” Ravens cornerback Brandon Stephens told The Sun. “He brings a contagious energy.”

And a certain level of focus that, by all accounts, had been at times lacking earlier in his career.

It didn’t help, either, that injuries derailed each of his past two seasons. Jackson missed 11 games in that span, including last year’s wild-card-round loss against the Cincinnati Bengals, which he watched from home in disgust.

This season has been different. Jackson has played every meaningful snap and has played some of his best football in the Ravens’ biggest games, including a 56-19 destruction of the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 to secure the AFC’s top seed and a first-round bye.

Along the way, he threw for a career-high 3,678 yards with 24 touchdowns while rushing for 821 yards and five scores. He also set career bests in completion rate (67.2%) and average yards per attempt (8.0) in his first season under offensive coordinator Todd Monken, hired to maximize Jackson unique and wide-ranging talents.

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“I think Monken challenges him to be more vocal in the offense to get us in and out of stuff,” second-year Pro Bowl center Tyler Linderbaum told The Sun. “I think he’s taken big leaps and strides that way. At the end of the day, we lean on him. We go as he goes. We wanted to give him all the confidence in the world that we can block for him and that playmakers are going to do their thing.”

Those outside the team’s Owings Mills facility have seen a transformation as well.

“They gave him their confidence in terms of trusting him to execute this offense as he sees it in real-time on the field, particularly in the passing game, in a way that he wasn’t allowed to do before,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick told The Sun. “That’s where it has all started for him.

“Todd has given him that trust, they have developed that relationship and he has worked at it and worked at it and worked at it to the point where he is in total command now. … Now he has confidence and trust, he has, structurally, an offense that looks much different in terms of the passing game, and, lastly, they got him weapons now.”

The impact of those changes, on offense and on the players around him, can’t be overstated.

Monken has given Jackson the most control and input on offense he’s had since his college days at Louisville, where he won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. Zay Flowers has been one of the best rookie wide receivers in the NFL this year, and Odell Beckham Jr. has been what Riddick called the team’s “pied piper,” his influence a cohesive jell that has drawn them toward the singular focus of pursuing the game’s ultimate prize.

“It’s all clicking,” Riddick said, adding that the switch of Tee Martin from wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach is also one of many genius moves Harbaugh has made.

There’s been a certain genius in Jackson’s evolution, too.

“The offense has evolved a while from where they were at the beginning to where they are now,” Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner told The Sun. “Lamar was trying to play more on schedule early, but there wasn’t a comfort level yet … so it looked a little more disjointed early on. But the number of times they’re playing that way has been on an uptick as the season has gone along, as they’ve gotten more comfortable and as Lamar has gotten more comfortable with what he’s seeing and where he’s supposed to be going with the football.”

Warner cited two plays that stood out to him against the Texans. One was Jackson quickly recognizing that he could run for the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown burst up the middle. The other was a third-and-2 from the Texans’ 27-yard line in which he quickly identified that running back Justice Hill would be open in the flat against the defense’s coverage and an oncoming blitz.

“Lamar stays within himself,” ESPN analyst and former Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday told The Sun. “You have to be disciplined. People don’t realize how hard that is. It’s not always about making the great play, it’s about making the consistent play so you’re making everyone else around you better. They have done an excellent job of that.”

Hill, in his fifth year with the Ravens and their most versatile if not lead back following injuries to J.K. Dobbins in Week 1 and undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell in mid-December, said he has seen a more focused Jackson as well.

“He’s locked in until we get [a Super Bowl],” he told The Sun. “Just not satisfied, no complacency, just keep working until the job is done.”

Added Beckham: “He’s the leader, the heart and soul of this team.”

Now all that’s standing in his and the Ravens’ way is the reigning Super Bowl champion and last year’s MVP, quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It’s the Chiefs’ sixth straight AFC championship game and the first for the Ravens since the 2012 season.

Jackson likened it to a “heavyweight matchup” and said he expects a “higher-level atmosphere” at M&T Bank Stadium for Baltimore’s first conference championship game since 1971, when the Colts defeated the Oakland Raiders. But he’s not putting any pressure on himself, even if he has occasionally let his mind wander toward the thought of playing for the Vince Lombardi trophy.

When it does, he just goes back into being locked in, he says.

“No different feeling,” Jackson said. “It’s another game.”

AFC championship game

Chiefs at Ravens

Sunday, 3 p.m.

TV: CBS

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2