Is this the year NFL defenses figure out Lamar Jackson? The former MVP was posed that exact question at practice on Tuesday and was quick to dismiss the notion as nonsense.
“I”m gonna keep playing football and we’re gonna see. But I doubt it, dude. I doubt it. I strongly doubt it. I’m gonna play ball,” Jackson said.
We personally don’t blame Jackson for waving off the notion as ridiculous. It’s an exhausting topic that has rarely proven to be rooted in logic. Yes, Jackson’s numbers were down a year ago. After throwing for 36 touchdowns and rushing for 1,206 yards en route to his first MVP award in 2019, Jackson threw for 10 fewer touchdowns (26) and saw his rushing total decrease by 201 yards (1,005) in 2020.
Even with the slight step back in production, Jackson was one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in football a year ago. He led the Ravens to an 11-5 record and also won the first playoff game of his career after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Tennessee Titans by a score of 20-13 in the wild-card round. It was something that Jackson needed to do after receiving loads of criticism for his playoff failures in previous years prior to that contest.
Last year’s playoff win is a relevant topic to this subject because it was the Titans’ dominant defensive performance against Jackson in a shocking 2019 playoff game that helped start the “NFL defenses have Jackson figured out” narrative in the first place. There’s no denying that Jackson had no answer for the Titans’ defense that day as the Ravens managed a measly 12 points on 92 snaps after scoring at least 20 points in all 16 regular-season games, 30 points in half their games, 40 points in five games, and 50 (!) points once.
If that game serves as a distant memory for you, it’s not one that Jackson was quick to forget. After a regular-season loss to the Kansas City Chiefs nearly a year later, Jackson was asked about what the Chiefs did on defense.
“It looked like the same thing from the 2019 divisional playoff loss to Tennessee, to be honest with you,” Jackson said.
What that means is quite clear when one revisits the tape from those two noteworthy games—both the Titans and Chiefs laid out the blueprint by attempting to force Jackson to drive up and down the field five or 10 yards at a time while limiting the explosive plays. The game plan was laid out quite clearly by at-the-time Titans defensive back Logan Ryan, who spoke as candidly as you’ll ever see from an NFL player following the victory.
“It’s funny, because a lot of people don’t fully understand football at the level [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees does,” Ryan said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Well, how are you gonna spy [Jackson]?’ Well, he can outrun almost every spy. So our whole thing was, we wanted to give him loaded boxes, pack the paint, play the receivers inside-out and make him throw field comebacks, have eight, nine in the box, play quarters coverage, man coverage, play cat coverage, where we say, ‘You have this cat, I have this cat.’
“It was a lot of what Buffalo did to them, where we have rules, real strict option football rules, with an eight-man, nine-man box, and corners on their own. Buffalo played them like that. Buffalo played them really well. It’s just, Buffalo’s offense didn’t score touchdowns,” Ryan concluded.
It’s the ultimate bend-don’t-break style of defense and one that doesn’t always work, as seen during Jackson’s triumphant playoff revenge win over the Titans in 2020. To “stop” or “limit” Jackson takes a lot of discipline, a lot of composure, and even more fortune.
To answer this question in short, NFL defenses are definitely better equipped to slow Jackson down now than they were in 2019, but it’s still incredibly difficult to do so on a consistent basis. If defenses haven’t “figured out” Jackson by now, there’s zero reason to believe they’ll be doing so anytime soon.