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How can the Browns’ defense corral Lamar Jackson? These experts debate: Part 1

If Cleveland could contain the Ravens’ sensational QB, they just might win one against Baltimore for a change

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns finally made the playoffs last year. Which leads into the goals of this year’s club.

The Number 1 goal should be to win the division. Then subsequent goals can be met such as win a playoff game, participate in the AFC Championship Game, win the AFC Championship Game, go to their first-ever Super Bowl, and finally, take home the Lombardi Trophy and become known as Super Bowl champions.

Win the division. That’s a pretty tall order considering the AFC North Division. Along with the AFC West, the AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in the league.

Annually, the Baltimore Ravens are somewhere near the top and seem to always be in the post-season tournament. You certainly can’t count out the Pittsburgh Steelers to either capture the division crown or go deep into the playoffs. And the Cincinnati Bengals this year are pretty darn good.

To be the best, you have to beat the best. That line came from some movie, but it certainly fits here.

And think about how important these division games are. A total of six dates on the schedule are division games. In recent years, both the Ravens and Steelers have feasted on both the Browns and Bengals for four wins each year. One-fourth of their allotted games were viewed as gimme victories without much struggle. No wonder both of these clubs were seen in the playoffs every year.

And in 2020, three teams from this division made the playoffs. Although Cincinnati finished 4-11-1, five games were decided by five points or less. Talk about a competitive division.

This season early on, the Browns have been in the discussion about winning the division. But, not so fast. There is a roadblock.

Lamar Jackson.

Snakebit

The quarterback of the Ravens knows how to beat the Browns. He has their number and no matter what the Cleveland defense throws at him, he finds a way to capture the “W” every time he lines up against the orange and brown.

Let’s examine the history between Lamar and the Browns.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Mitchell Layton-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson was a first-round pick in the same draft Cleveland selected Baker Mayfield first overall in the 2018 NFL draft. Jackson was the fifth of five QB’s taken in Round 1 behind Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. Darnold and Rosen are with other clubs presently. Jackson, Mayfield and Allen have gone to the playoffs. Allen and Jackson have been named to a Pro Bowl. Jackson was the 2019 NFL MVP.

As a rookie, Jackson played in each game in 2018, but got his first start against the Bengals in Week 11 after starting QB Joe Flacco went down with a hip injury. Jackson never relinquished the position.

In Week 17 that year, the Browns were 7-7-1 and looking to finally have a winning season. Mayfield passed for 376 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions while Jackson only tossed for 179 yards. But his 90-yards rushing along with two rushing TD’s killed Cleveland en route to a 26-24 defeat.

The following season, Jackson and the Ravens lost to the Browns 40-25 and then won the rebound game 31-15. Last year, in the season opener Baltimore killed the Browns 38-6 and later won a game they should have lost 47-42.

So Cleveland is 1-4 against Lamar. In those five contests, Jackson’s stats are: 89 completions on 131 attempts for 1,102 passing yards, 10 TD passes with just two INTs, 62 rushes for 428 yards, four rushing touchdowns with an 85.6 rushing average, complete with an overall average 113.14 QB rating. The only good news is that Browns defenders have sacked him 12 times.

To win the division, you have to at least split with Baltimore. And beat Lamar. That is easier said than done as the Browns have discovered countless times.

But how? How do you neutralize Lamar? What will be DC Joe Woods’ strategy?

DBN’s writers along with some trusted Browns sources have come together to give their take on what it will take to neutralize Lamar.

For this first of two parts, four Browns’ analysts take on the question: How can the Browns’ defense corral Lamar Jackson? DBN will present the next four writer’s thoughts on the same question December 8 prior to the second Ravens contest.

Let’s debate!


Matt Wood

DBN Staff Writer



Here is the thing, I don’t think you can stop him. He is going to make amazing plays. But you can still do some things to limit him.

a) Take away the others: Think of it like when a team allows a big scorer in hoops to score 40, but doesn’t allow him to make the other players around him better. So don’t blitz him. Keep seven defenders back and take away deep shots and momentum plays.

b) Punish him: When he runs, make sure he doesn’t get outside. Make sure he doesn’t slide. Make sure he feels it every time he keeps the ball. Even on read options, if he acts like he is going to keep it, hit him.

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c) Controlled rush: This is what the Browns did so poorly last year. You see a DE get close and then loses all contain as Lamar does some Lamar stuff and turns a sack into a gain of seven. Instead collapse the pocket, keep him in front of you and force him to throw from a small pocket.

You will never totally stop him. But if you get him into good downs and distances you increase your odds.


Angeline Adams

Co-creator: Cleveland Browns We Bark Together Facebook fanpage

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Undoubtedly, the Cleveland Browns are huddled up in an attempt to answer the riddle on the minds of every franchise in the NFL. How do you stop Lamar Jackson? The short answer to this puzzle is: you can’t.

Maybe some thought he could be stopped if you took his legs away, being the most prolific rushing QB in the history of the NFL. Then, Jackson stunned the world with a record shattering overtime win against the Colts where he became the first QB in the NFL to complete 85% of his passes in a 400-yard game, as well as the highest completion rate in a 40 pass game of 86% from 37-43 attempts. Oh yeah, and he still rushed for 50 yards.

Just when it appeared Jackson could be stopped by eliminating his ability to run, he beat the Colts with his arm and in an elite performance of 400-yards passing without an interception and four touchdowns that will go down as one of the greatest of all time. The answer to this riddle is to pick another riddle, specifically how to contain Jackson because he cannot be stopped as a seemingly improving, evolving dual threat QB.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The good news is that within the Browns roster is arguably the best defensive lineman in the person of Myles Garrett, which is key to containing him. Jackson must be pressured continuously at the line of scrimmage via mesh charging, tackled hard every time he touches the ball and held in the pocket if there is any hope of success for the Browns. Solid tackling must be a priority to limit YAC (yards after catch or contact). Also, the defense has to work overtime to fill in the gaps because the middle of the field is Jackson’s wheelhouse.

Force him to have to go third-and-long all night throwing to the sides. The Raiders were able to contain him to a degree by committing to charging the mesh area, which was effective in forcing Jackson into a dilemma of whether to shoot into his dangerous scramble runs or progress through the play. He definitely had moments where clearly he was unsure of what to do, which is an advantage for the defense. Also, the defense must exploit two Ravens vulnerabilities which are the loss of RBs Hobbins and Edwards as well as the injured OL.

Myles and company must play very aggressive, physical ball. Although the Browns secondary is suspect, Marquise Brown cannot be allowed to roam free because Jackson will hit him down the side if the middle is locked. The Browns should run a nickel 5-3-3 zone Cover 2 “QB contain.” This defense is for Myles and Clowney to sprint to the ball, linebackers drop to the midzone (to shut down the middle), preventing quick pick-ups for slant routes from Brown, jam the WRs at the line of scrimmage, force Jackson to get rid of the ball faster (i.e. Mahomes against Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl).

You can’t stop Jackson - but you’d better contain him.


The Dawgs Podcast

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Lamar Jackson is unlike any quarterback we’ve seen before. Michael Vick is the closest comparison to Lamar’s archetype, but Lamar is still on another level with the way he can make defenders miss over-and-over and over again.

From our perspective, the Browns’ defense cannot run a lot of man coverage against the Ravens. When we do run man coverage, we must have a spy on Lamar at all times. Heck, it might even take two spies—one for each half of the field due to Lamar’s insane speed and ability to accelerate on a dime. When he changes directions, he seemingly can teleport from one spot on the field to the complete opposite.

The defensive line should focus on containment rather than getting sacks. Lamar Jackson is easily the most difficult quarterback to sack because he can slip away from any situation. So why bother? The Browns need to keep Lamar in the pocket and make him throw. If the edge rushers get blocked into the backfield behind Lamar, and the interior pressure gets sealed off for even a split second, he’s gone.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

In the defensive backfield, the corners and safeties cannot have any letdowns or lapses in coverage. Lamar is not going to consistently thread the needle and put the ball in tight windows. But he will hit wide open receivers all day long, and through the first part of the 2021 season, blown assignments leading to wide open receivers have been the dagger for the Browns defense.

Containing Lamar Jackson is one of the most daunting tasks for any defense in the NFL. The league just isn’t built to handle a player of his skill set at the quarterback position. But like any player, he does have weaknesses. He’s prone to mistakes when repeatedly forced into suboptimal situations. Mistakes on the field tend to weigh on him as shown by his temperamental outbursts. But on the flip side, big plays—and especially big runs—ignite him to even higher levels of play.

So, in a nutshell, the Browns need to: 1) keep contain, 2) avoid undisciplined pressure, 3) designate a spy/spies, 4) mitigate large receiving windows, and 5) limit the big plays.


Barry Shuck

DBN Staff Writer



The best way to neutralize Lamar (6’-2”, 212 pounds) is to make him beat you with his arm. To do this, you have to keep him securely in the pocket. Planned runs such as bootlegs or QB draws will always gain yardage, but where Lamar beats you is when the pocket collapses and then he somehow wiggles out of trouble and then takes off. This not only kills a great pass rush but suddenly he is downfield for a huge gain - every time.

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In college, Lamar ran a 4.34 in the 40. On a passing play where he comes out scrambling, the front defensive wall is now behind him. Most linebackers are covering a tight end or a running back in the flats, and the safeties and corners are covering their man and watching what they are doing. With that much speed, Lamar is downfield for double-digit numbers before anyone realizes where the mobile QB is.

So a great pass rush is not the answer. Sending five and six defenders is not the answer. In both of these scenarios, he somehow escapes and then those 5-6 bodies are fewer guys of the defense that he has to be concerned about because they are in his rear view mirror.

The only way to contain Lamar is with a spy.

One guy for this one game. His only responsibility is to contain Lamar in the pocket and then tackle him for minimal gain once he leaves.

It sounds easy, but it is anything but.

The spy has to begin each play somewhere centered where a middle linebacker lines up. Then, he is basically on a parallel string with Lamar. Jackson drops back to pass, the spy stays put. If Jackson rolls to his right, the spy must roll to his left on a parallel plain. If Lamar takes off, the spy must tackle him without hesitation.

The qualifications for the spy are as follows: great tackler, won’t take juke fakes, very quick and fearless. The problem with most defenders is that they buy into the head, hip, and shoulder fakes that Lamar needs to avoid tackles. A defender must watch the stomach area only – that never moves. Wherever Lamar’s stomach is, he is. Maybe they no longer teach this in football.

But who would play the spy? Top tackling candidates include Ronnie Harrison (4.34 speed), Anthony Walker (4.65), John Johnson (4.61), Troy Hill (4.55), Richard LeCounte (4.79), Myles Garrett (4.48), Joe Jackson (4.86), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (4.56), Sione Takitaki (4.63) and Greg Newsome (4.38). If you take away all of the lesser 40 times to match speed-for-speed, that only leaves Harrison, Garrett and Newsome. With Garrett, you lose out on the pass rush whereas with Newsome you no longer have a cover corner.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
Ronnie Harrison
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

That leaves Ronnie Harrison. He has the body size (6’-3”, 214 pounds) to match-up with Lamar, is an excellent tackler and has the same speed.

Now, there is a flaw with using a spy. You are basically playing 10 defenders against 11 offensive personnel. The spy does not chase the running back. He does not cover the tight end coming out into the center. His focus is squarely on keeping Lamar centrally-located and then is a sure tackler to prevent the long runs. Once the ball is thrown, the spy may leave his duties and participate in the play, but not until.

But if Harrison is up to the task, this eliminates Lamar scrambling at all. And to me, that is where he always beats the Browns.