Caution: Objects are faster at close range than they appear on film.
Chicago Bears safety Tashaun Gipson said that was his recollection from facing Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson two years ago. Play the wrong angle or get juked and — in a flash — a would-be tackler will appear in Jackson’s rearview mirror.
The Bears are preparing to face Jackson for the first time Sunday at Soldier Field, although he missed practice for the second consecutive day Thursday with what is being reported as a non-COVID-19-related illness.
“He’s probably going to make the first guy miss, you know?” Gipson said. “The speed is there on film, but when you’ve seen him live in person, the dude can run. I played him earlier in his career when his legs were probably more dangerous than his arm, but now it’s even more dangerous because when he’s scrambling, he’s not scrambling to take off running, he’s scrambling looking to throw the ball downfield.”
Gipson’s encounter with Jackson occurred with the Houston Texans in 2019, a game the Ravens won 41-7. It was one of 14 regular-season victories for the Ravens, and Jackson went on to become the youngest MVP in NFL history.
Jackson is in the thick of MVP discussion again this season. He passed for 3,127 yards in 2019 and is on pace for 4,622 yards this year. He rushed for 1,206 yards in ‘19 and is on pace for 1,207. The threat of Jackson as a dynamic ball carrier remains and is unparalleled for a quarterback. He has grown exponentially as a passer, specifically a pocket passer.
The Bears catch the Ravens and presumably Jackson — provided he’s healthy in time — coming off a clunker against the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 11. The Ravens lost 22-10, their lowest point total in 46 career regular-season starts by the quarterback.
The Dolphins used a combination of Cover-Zero pressures and then showed Cover-Zero and rushed six while dropping out two defenders. The Ravens were flustered throughout in one of the bigger upsets — and there have been a handful — across the NFL in the last month. What’s unknown is if the game was an aberration, a well-executed plan by a struggling Dolphins team on a short week when the Ravens struggled to adjust or a blueprint for success against an offense averaging a robust 414 yards per game.
“We’ve seen it (before),” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “It forces you to play quick and efficiently. It’s one of those things that until you’ve hurt it consistently or hurt it big, you’re going to keep seeing it.”
The Bears aren’t about to tip their hand about strategy. They’ve relied much more on man coverage in the secondary in Sean Desai’s first year as coordinator than they had previously. That could be dangerous because when defensive backs have their backs turned to Jackson, he can extend plays to the edge of the pocket and create explosive plays with his legs.
Of course, the Dolphins did that time and again in their victory, relying on man coverage on the back end while sending the kitchen sink at Jackson and the Ravens offensive line.
“The Dolphins put it on him,” an NFL scout said. “Can the Bears copy that? Possibly. Do they have the personnel that Miami does in the secondary? They don’t. They don’t have Xavien Howard, Byron Jones and man-to-man corners like Miami does.”
The Dolphins played almost a quarters match over the top and had their defensive backs aligned at the sticks. Jackson’s process was sped up with the pressure coming, and it made it difficult to find routes at the first-down marker.
“A lot of teams against Lamar will be more zone heavy. But what type of zone?” the scout said. “You’d like to play split safety against Greg Roman’s pass game because they are more vertical base. But do you have safeties that can fill the alleys? Because if you play split safety and pull your safeties out of the box, now you have to deal with the run game, the misdirection of the run game and the multiplicity of the run game and Lamar as a consistent threat as a runner. That’s what makes them challenging to defend.”
It remains to be seen how many key players will be back for the Bears defense. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who missed the last two games with a sprained left foot, remained out of practice Thursday. Free safety Eddie Jackson was limited after missing the Steelers game with a hamstring injury. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (ankle) and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan (knee) also were held out.
Desai has been aggressive at times this season and figures to dial up some pressure to see if the Ravens, with extra time coming off their Thursday flop in Miami, have sealed the leaks. But he has to be able to adjust and can’t count on a copycat game plan working in consecutive weeks.
“In this league, I don’t think there’s any one way to do anything,” Desai said. “Baltimore lost a couple games this year and they lost them differently, and they’ve come back on a couple different teams that played them differently. They had three comeback victories where three of the teams were leading in the fourth quarter with different plans. Was that the way? No. Is it a way? For sure. Is it one way that worked on one night? Yes.
“You look at blueprints and say, ‘Hey, let’s just copy this.’ That can work. It could also blow up in your face the same way. So, you’ve got to make sure you play to the strengths of your team.”
The Bears were much better against the run before their bye week, doing a nice job of slowing Najee Harris and the Pittsburgh Steelers. They didn’t have to worry too much about Ben Roethlisberger taking shots at them over the top. Jackson will do that when the chance presents itself, so stacking the box to slow the Ravens ground game, which ranks first in the NFL at 154.1 yards per game, could create problems on the back end.
The Bears need to find a way to pen Jackson in the pocket and try to expedite his processing. They have to prove they can stop the run early in the game too. They need to be disciplined and be able to make plays in space.
“I think Desai will be more split-safety based in obvious passing situations,” the scout said. “He has to get numbers in the box and numbers to the play side. Here’s the thing about Lamar: Even on those read plays, even if he’s wrong and the Bears have Robert Quinn or another defender sitting there waiting for him, Jackson can still beat him and make the play look right.”
And on a play like that, Jackson will be even faster than he appears on film.
Source: Berkshire mont