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Film Files: How To Slow Down Ravens QB Lamar Jackson

Film Files: How to slow down Ravens QB Lamar Jackson

By: Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17)

Editor’s note: Brad Kelly is PFM’s newest contributor and our resident NFL Xs and Os and NFL draft expert. 

Now in the home stretch of the NFL season, Week One almost feels like ages ago. Funny enough, however, was that Week One would be a sign of things to come for the Baltimore Ravens offense.

While the 59 points and 643 total yards that Baltimore produced against the Miami Dolphins wouldn’t become a weekly thing, recently they haven’t been far off. After five consecutive games scoring between 23 and 28 points following Week One, Baltimore’s offense has exploded in their last five games. The team has scored 30 points against Seattle, 37 against New England, and over 40 against the Bengals, Texans, and Rams. Star second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson has taken the league by storm, positioning himself as the MVP-favorite at this stage of the season. His unique blend of athleticism and arm strength has given defenses fits, as well as the way Baltimore has built their offense around his skillset.

Baltimore’s offense uses heavy personnel on a strong portion of their snaps, playing with multiple running backs or tight ends, often aligned in the backfield. This adds to their power running game, which is extra difficult to defend because Jackson’s speed has to be accounted for. With their passing game, Jackson has thrived throwing the ball up the seam and over the middle of the field, highlighted by rookie speedster Marquise Brown and talented pass-catching tight end Mark Andrews

On top of Jackson evolving as a passer, he’s able to use his legs when a passing play breaks down, giving the Ravens an unnatural third down conversion rate over the past month.

So, how exactly should an NFL defense play against the Ravens? I’m not an NFL defensive coordinator, and legendary defensive coaches such as Bill Belichick and Wade Phillips have recently struggled to design a game-plan to slow down Jackson and the Ravens offense. Besides, even when a play-call is sound, often times talent trumps scheme and it’s negated by Jackson’s heroics.

So there needs to be a disclaimer before the rest of this article. I’m simply an offensive coach who would get frustrated if I were calling plays for the Ravens, and the opposing defenses started using these schemes.

Baltimore’s offense starts with their running game, which includes their use of Lamar Jackson and read option style plays. This adds a new dimension to NFL defenses, who have to limit their gap exchanges for extra help to the outside. Generally, this means the edge player taking on kickout blocks with outside leverage, able to chase Jackson down towards the sideline. In order to stay gap sound against the inside run, this means a safety has to insert into the box.

This idea gives both the edge rusher and linebacker the ability to slow down Jackson on the outside when he pulls the ball out of the mesh point. However, the issue is the safety filling against power running backs such as Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards. The safety who rotates down needs to be the better tackler of the two.

There is a changeup to this that I believe could be successful, that the Patriots used a few times in their recent matchup. New England put Lawrence Guy, their best defensive lineman against the run, to the same side of the formation as the running back. His job was to win his inside gap, while linebacker Kyle Van Noy performed a “mesh charge,” sprinting at Jackson at the snap. 

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The mesh charge usually results in a “give” read, meaning that Jackson should hand the football to the running back. However, in case Jackson keeps, New England stacked Van Noy with Devin McCourty, the fastest of their defensive backs, for extra support to the outside.

This scheme kept the Patriots gap sound with their preferred personnel limiting Jackson.

The weakness to this changeup would be a quarterback counter play, as any “trap” or kick-out block against Van Noy could result in a massive hole. It would then be the safeties’ responsibility to take down Jackson in space, rather than chasing him towards the sideline and limiting his angle.

When it comes to defending the pass, defenses have begun to shy away from man coverages because defensive backs take their eyes off of Jackson to cover the receivers. I don’t believe that exclusively playing zone coverage is an answer, as Jackson has proven capable of picking defenses apart. This means that man coverage needs to still be incorporated, just situationally.

The first aspect of defending the Ravens with man coverage is to find Marquise Brown. The rookie receiver has proven capable of getting behind defenses, and the opposing team’s fastest or best cornerback needs to shadow him. New England deployed Stephon Gilmore against Brown on a strong portion of snaps, and other defenses need to take note of that.

The second thing that needs to be accounted for is the legs of Lamar Jackson, because he’s dangerous when breaking contain. Some teams have tried to use a quarterback spy against Jackson with a linebacker, and subsequently have gotten burned. This technique needs to be done with a defensive back.

On this upcoming play against the Patriots, New England covered Marquise Brown with Stephon Gilmore, and used linebacker Jamie Collins to cover the running back out of the backfield. Jonathan Jones rotated down to spy Jackson, who eventually scrambled, albeit for a minimal game.

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Later on, New England used a similar call that resulted in nearly identical results, sans a hands to the face penalty against cornerback Jason McCourty.

Exclusively using this call is playing with fire, as putting a cornerback on an island against “Hollywood” Brown and linebackers or sub defensive backs manning up the running backs and tight end Mark Andrews is asking to eventually get burned. That’s why zone coverage looks need to be relied upon.

Jackson has recently been ripping traditional spot-drop cover three, so defenses can’t be over-reliant on that call. On top of that, defensive line stunts need to be designed to take away Jackson running straight ahead and abusing dropping linebackers in the middle of the field.

Seattle used a blitz that took away any inside scramble from Jackson, as the nose tackle got across the face of the center and the linebacker blitzed to the opposite “A” gap. Jackson’s only outlet was an outside scramble, but underneath zone defenders were squatting on shallow routes. This “fire zone” call is a way to generate pressure while forcing Jackson’s running outlet to a place on the field where the defense already has speed.

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Pittsburgh used a similar look, with more pre-snap defensive back movement to confuse any pre-snap read and a defensive line stunt that covered up the “A” gaps. With a lot of traffic in the middle of the field, Pittsburgh was able to take away a quick throw to tight end Mark Andrews, and the stunt did a good job of keeping Jackson in the pocket.

Defenses have struggled to slow down Baltimore, and no defensive scheme will be a cure-all. However, when defenses have made plays against the Ravens offense, these core principles have been used.

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Baltimore has talented playmakers on their offense, but none more talented than their quarterback. If an NFL defense can incorporate these core principles into their game-plan, I believe that it would force the Ravens to rely on the rest of their offense. Right now, that gives an NFL defense their best shot at slowing down Jackson and the high-powered Ravens offense.

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