So, San Francisco, the NFL’s best-coached team, tried and failed. It’s now time to ask the question that absolutely everyone has.
How do you beat Lamar Jackson?
We first need to understand what we’re dealing with when we play this Ravens unit, and why they’re so tricky to compete with.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have beaten …
Those teams have a combined 36-9 record on the season ? pic.twitter.com/E8iVCeNHZQ
— ESPN (@espn) December 1, 2019
It’s worth looking at how defences are trying to cope with the challenge, and why each measure doesn’t seem to be working.
First thing’s first – Lamar Jackson is perhaps the quickest quarterback who has ever played the game not named Terrelle Pryor – a failed experiment that saw a wide receiver convert to a signal-caller just for the sake of running an offence that would have, ironically, look like the Baltimore Ravens’ unit does now.
And even then, some suggest Jackson ran a 4.34 at the Louisville Pro Day, which would put him at 0.06 seconds faster than the 4.40 official time of Pryor in the 2011 NFL Combine.
Last year, the Ravens flashed their potential in a Week 16 win over the Chargers, only to come undone against that very same team in the playoffs.
Why? Because Gus Bradley, instead of opting for their usual defensive packages, went for seven defensive backs and four down linemen. The reason behind this was to bring in speedier players on the backend to defend against Jackson’s rushes.
Put simply, LA did not believe Lamar Jackson could win a game when he was forced to throw.
This year, to counter that, Baltimore needed to do exactly what New England did against the Chargers a week later and bruise them with a running back. Defensive backs are fine against receivers and lighter players like Jackson, but Sony Michel and his backfield committee ran power against six slight men in Foxboro and massacred them.
An alarm went off in John Harbaugh’s head, and the Ravens threw money at pending New Orleans Saints free agent Mark Ingram in the offseason. He is complemented by Gus Edwards in the backfield, someone appropriately nicknamed ‘Bus’.
If you play six defensive backs against Baltimore, they’ll power run through you. They’re massive fans of heavy packages, which analytics show us, have more success for the pass because it’s a traditional run formation so it surprises defences and matches tight ends against smaller defenders – as well as working for both designed quarterback runs and Mark Ingram.
So what can you do to counter this seemingly impenetrable scheme? You have two options.
The first is to do the same thing that Bradley did – you force Jackson to throw the ball. He has gotten significantly better as a passer, but he’s still not elite by any stretch.
The Ravens defeat the 49ers 20-17.
The Ravens have now won 8 consecutive games, tied for the longest winning streak in franchise history.
Lamar Jackson: 105 pass yds, 1 pass TD, 101 rush yds, 1 rush TD. pic.twitter.com/vIEnQs6n4q
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 1, 2019
If you can commit to stopping the run – both quarterback and running back on first down – that’s half the battle. If Lamar is on third-and-long, he’ll find it harder to make up the yardage if a play breaks down.
In this situation, you utilise a defensive back as a quarterback spy, tracking the QB throughout plays. Given the speed, you need to trust them to be able to tackle in the open field.
This means Jackson has to throw into man coverage if you play a Cover 1 scheme overtop and their receivers simply aren’t good enough. The only issue is the superb tight end tandem of both Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst.
Those are mismatches that he’ll look to, but even the very best quarterbacks will complete only two-thirds of their passes. This, and only this, will see Jackson struggle.
The second option? Score more points and attack their defence instead.
However, the only team that can match them in this regard are the Kansas City Chiefs – the team I have pencilled in to win the Super Bowl.
They are the foolproof reason why the Baltimore Ravens will not be winning a Vince Lombardi trophy this year.