Stopping Jackson? Miami had no answer
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.
The Dolphins ran an “Amoeba”-style defense during one play against the Ravens in Week 1.