What NFL Defenses Must Do to (Try To) Stop Lamar Jackson and the Ravens

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterNovember 22, 2019

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the second half of a NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

The greatest mystery of the universe isn't if there is life on other planets. Or why Santa only works one day a year. It's this: How can a defense stop unstoppable Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson?

A brain trust of defensive minds across the NFL, particularly in the AFC North, has been trying to crack the Jackson code. It's the NFL's version of the Manhattan Project.

But all who have tried, so far, have failed.

That includes Bill Belichick—the best defensive mind of all time, the architect of game plans that have stopped some of the best offenses in NFL history (the 1990 Bills, Peyton Manning's Colts, the 2001 "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams and another historic Rams offense just this past Super Bowl, to name a few).

"There's not another quarterback in the league like this," Belichick said of Jackson before the Ravens handed the Patriots their only loss of the season, 37-20, earlier this month—before Jackson obliterated the best defense in football for 163 yards and a touchdown passing and 61 yards and two more TDs rushing.

"[Jackson] has his own style," added Patriots cornerback and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore. "I think a lot of people don't realize how fast he is. He can outrun anybody on the front seven probably, and probably in the secondary, too."

And Patriots safety Devin McCourty:

"Week 1, when they played Miami and everyone was saying like, 'He was a running back, he's a runner, he's a runner,' and he went out there and threw the ball all over the field. That's what I said, what makes him good is his ability to be really good at both things: throwing the football and running the football, because if you devote too much to him running, he's going to throw the ball. If you sit back too much and don't think he's going to run the ball, he's going to run the ball."

Nick Wass/Associated Press

What we're seeing with Jackson is Jim Brown, Steve Young, Bo Jackson and Tom Brady all mixed into one player. Is it possible to stop that?

According to two NFC assistant coaches who spoke to B/R this week, the answer is a definitive no.

You read that correctly. The thinking among some coaches is that, for the moment, Jackson is playing at such a high level, he can't be stopped.

Throwing accuracy, they elaborate, is the reason. If he was more one-dimensional, like Mike Vick, who was more of a runner, he'd be easier to contain. But Jackson is different. Not only is he 10th in the NFL in rushing—with 781 yards, more than Todd Gurley II, Le'Veon Bell and Adrian Peterson—but his 106.3 passer rating is higher than those of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Dak Prescott.

All of this information, and setup, is important because it shows what coaches are up against. When these coaches describe trying to stop Jackson, they sound like someone planning to attack Superman, knowing their bullets will bounce off his chest and their tanks will end up like twisted pretzels.

But still, they must try to stop him. Or at least slow him.

And maybe, these coaches say, there are ways to do the latter. To make him less lethal.

Five ways, to be specific. These are the things defenses must attempt if they're to contain Jackson. They might not work, but they would be the best attempts.

          

1. Try to trick him with shifting coverages

The caveat here: It's been tried, and the bottom line is that so far it hasn't worked.

One coach said he's seen defenses throw all kinds of mixed coverages at Jackson, and assorted blitz packages, and Jackson "eats them for breakfast."

"He's an exceptionally quick thinker," the coach said.

This is a huge reason Jackson has been so successful throwing the football. It's not just the accuracy; it's digesting how the defense is attacking him and acting accordingly.

        

2. Mush rush

This is an oldie but goody, and defenses still will utilize it. The defensive linemen rush Jackson, but not as aggressively as they would a non-scrambling quarterback. This, in theory, shuts down Jackson's running lanes.

The Bengals tried this sporadically (I saw this with my own two eyes), and Jackson simply waited until the lanes opened. And boy, did they open.

The problem is the less aggressive pass rush gives Jackson more time to throw. This was the dilemma defenses faced against Hall of Famer Steve Young. He'd use the extra time from a softer rush to throw dimes.

         

3. Take away running back Mark Ingram II

This is the only methodology that has worked so far. Or at least semi-worked.

Jackson is the engine of the Ravens offense, but Ingram is a close second. Ingram is a huge reason why the Ravens lead the league in rushing yards, attempts, yards per carry, rushing first downs, rushing touchdowns, runs of at least 20 yards and runs of at least 40 yards.

He prevents teams from focusing solely on stopping Jackson's running.

When the Browns blew out the Ravens in September, 40-25, Ingram had just 71 yards rushing and no touchdowns. This put the entire weight of the offense on Jackson's shoulders. Baltimore's only other loss, 33-28 to Kansas City, is also instructive. The Ravens fell behind at the half, 23-6, but they were able to use the running game late to make the contest close. Ingram finished with 103 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

         

4. Speed

Note what Gilmore said—Jackson is probably the fastest player on the field in many situations. This is part of the great challenge he presents. But a group of fast players can pseudo-slow him. That's what happened in the Browns game.

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 29: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens scrambles against the Cleveland Browns during the first half at M&T Bank Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Browns' 4-6 record doesn't show it, but there are elements of that defense that are extremely fast and athletic, particularly on the front line. They used that speed to swarm Jackson and hurry his throws. He had three touchdowns but also two interceptions and no rushing scores.

        

5. Keep Jackson off the field

This might, in reality, be the only way to do it. Jackson can't burn you as much if you use clock-consuming drives of your own to give him as few opportunities with the ball as possible. Pretty simple.

           

In the Ravens' final six games, there are three notable opponents who could cause Jackson problems: the Rams, 49ers and Browns. The Rams because defensive lineman Aaron Donald is a problem for every offense, the 49ers because they are fast up front and the Browns because of that athleticism on defense.

To those teams...good luck.

You're gonna need it.

                    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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