Stop­ping Jack­son? Mi­ami had no an­swer

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jonas Shaf­fer

Late in the sec­ond quar­ter Sun­day, the Mi­ami Dolphins had al­ready been bowled over, run by, carved up and outscored 35-3. So with the Ravens fac­ing a third-and-7 from their own 24-yard line, their de­fense got weird.

Re­ally, noth­ing had worked so far. The Ravens reached the end zone on their first four pos­ses­sions. On their fifth, Mi­ami forced a punt, then muffed it. The Ravens re­cov­ered and scored another touch­down. The Dolphins seemed out of ideas for how to stop La­mar Jack­son. Then they found another one, from some­where in the back of their play­book.

At the snap of the ball, there were no down line­men. There was only one Mi­ami de­fen­sive line­man on the field, end Charles Har­ris, and just two lineback­ers, Jerome Baker and Sam Eguavoen. The rest were de­fen­sive backs — four cor­ner­backs and four safeties. The Dolphins de­fend­ers who weren’t split out wide drifted in and out of the box, like plas­tic bags caught up in a breeze.

First-year Mi­ami coach Brian Flores had spent three sea­sons in New Eng­land with the Patriots’ de­fen­sive staff, who em­ployed a sim­i­lar “Amoeba” for­ma­tion in a win last sea­son against the Min­nesota Vik­ings. The un­con­ven­tional de­fense flus­tered quar­ter­back Kirk Cousins. The one time it showed up Sun­day, Jack­son did not seem both­ered. Against a four-man rush, he calmly com­pleted a throw to tight end Mark An­drews. Had the 6-yard pass been a lit­tle higher, or had An­drews not dived for it, per­haps think­ing he’d al­ready cov­ered the nec­es­sary dis­tance, the of­fense would’ve been on the move again.

The Ravens’ 59-10 win Sun­day at Hard Rock Sta­dium of­fered a glimpse of the po­ten­tial of their ex­otic, re­designed of­fense and of Jack­son’s abil­ity to cap­tain it. It also revealed how de­fenses might try to stop him. Play­ers and coaches have said the at­tack will evolve from week-to-week, mak­ing it less pre­dictable, but the Dolphins’ litany of fail­ures can at least of­fer a les­son plan for for­mer Ravens star Ter­rell Suggs and the Ari­zona Car­di­nals (0-0-1) ahead of their trip Sun­day to Bal­ti­more.

“We wanted to keep — ba­si­cally make La­mar throw the ball,” Mi­ami de­fen­sive tackle Davon God­chaux said af­ter the Ravens set a fran­chise record for points and yardage and Jack­son posted a per­fect passer rat­ing (158.3). “Like I said, I give my hat off to the Bal­ti­more Ravens. La­mar had a great game. He threw the ball, threw some touch­downs. I don’t know how many he threw, but [he] threw some touch­downs. Hats off to those guys. Those guys had a great game plan, great ex­e­cu­tion. They just flat-out beat us.”

The Dolphins were rather rigid in their personnel group­ings Sun­day. Even as Jack­son com­pleted 17 of 20 passes for a ca­reer-high 324 yards and five touch­downs, Mi­ami rarely di­verged from its plan. Ex­clud­ing two goal-line passes, the Dolphins used a nickel pack­age (five de­fen­sive backs) on 14 of Jack­son’s 18 pass­ing plays, ac­cord­ing to a re­view of game film. The four ex­cep­tions were two base pack­ages (four de­fen­sive backs), a 3-3-5 look and the 1-2-8 “Amoeba” play.

With the Ravens’ run­ning game al­ready a known threat, the emer­gence of an aerial at­tack could ren­der ob­so­lete any off­sea­son blue­prints for stop­ping Jack­son and Co. Af­ter their win Sun­day, the Ravens’ sea­son-end­ing play­off loss in Jan­uary feels dated — closer to 9 years old than 9 months old. In that 23-17 loss, the Los An­ge­les Charg­ers used seven de­fen­sive backs on all but one of their de­fen­sive snaps, ac­cord­ing to NFL Next Gen Stats, count­ing on a dis­rup­tive front four and Jack­son to strug­gle as a passer.

The Ravens didn’t need Jack­son to run wild Sun­day. He had just three car­ries for 6 yards in what proved to be the best game of his ca­reer. And the of­fense still fin­ished with 265 rush­ing yards.

“If they al­low La­mar to run, he’s go­ing to run,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said at his weekly news con­fer­ence Mon­day. “They didn’t. They were tak­ing it away, for sure. It was part of their plan not to al­low him to run. If peo­ple de­cide that that’s go­ing to be the way it’s go­ing to go, he’s not go­ing to run. That’s the way the of­fense is or­ga­nized. So we’re not wor­ried about it at all.”

One de­fen­sive strat­egy for stop­ping Jack­son, or any NFL quar­ter­back, is to have as good an edge-rusher pair­ing as the Charg­ers had. But the Dolphins do not em­ploy Joey Bosa or Melvin In­gram. So when they wanted to pres­sure Jack­son, they blitzed. On Jack­son’s 20 passes, they brought five or more rush­ers six times, a fairly high blitz rate of 30%.

It did not go well. On Mi­ami’s first blitz on a pass­ing play, Eguavoen va­cated an area that Jack­son ex­ploited on a run-pass op­tion, hold­ing the ball and de­liv­er­ing a dart over the mid­dle to rookie wide re­ceiver Mar­quise “Hol­ly­wood” Brown on a 47-yard catch-and-run score.

When the Dolphins brought the house in the sec­ond quar­ter, send­ing seven de­fend­ers af­ter Jack­son on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, he bought him­self just enough time on his drop-back for rookie wide re­ceiver Miles Boykin to get open in the back of the end zone. Jackon’s fifth and fi­nal score, a 1-yard pass to full­back Pa­trick Ri­card near the end of the third quar­ter, came against the blitz, too, mean­ing he scored against half of the blitzes he faced as a passer.

In his postgame film study, Har­baugh said he saw a “re­ally good” team per­for­mance. But he cau­tioned Mon­day that are still “many things to work on.” Jack­son will not have a par­tic­u­larly long list of notes. His only in­com­ple­tions Sun­day were an over­throw on a deep ball to Brown, a throw-away against a goal-line blitz and a dropped pass by wide re­ceiver Wil­lie Snead IV.

Jack­son thrived against blitzes, four­man rushes and even we-dare-you-to-pass align­ments. He com­pleted his long­est pass, an 83-yard bomb to Brown, af­ter the Dolphins dropped eight play­ers into cov­er­age.

“The of­fen­sive line did a great job,” Jack­son said Sun­day. “I didn’t have — I barely had pres­sure. The re­ceivers did a great job of get­ting open, catch­ing the ball and scor­ing touch­downs. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what we did to­day.”

Notes: The New York Jets waived for­mer Ravens kicker Kaare Ved­vik on Tues­day, two days af­ter he missed a 45-yard field-goal at­tempt and ex­tra-point at­tempt in a 17-16 loss to the Buf­falo Bills. The Min­nesota Vik­ings, who traded a fifthround pick to the Ravens to ac­quire Ved­vik last month, had ear­lier waived Ved­vik af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing pre­sea­son. … The Ravens added cor­ner­back Ter­rell Bonds and run­ning back Mark Thomp­son to their prac­tice squad, re­plac­ing wide re­ceiver Sean Mod­ster and linebacker Don­ald Payne. They also waived linebacker Alvin Jones af­ter reach­ing an in­jury set­tle­ment.

NFL GAME PASS

The Dolphins ran an “Amoeba”-style de­fense dur­ing one play against the Ravens in Week 1.

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