The Cleveland Browns are stuck with playing the Baltimore Ravens twice a year with both members of the AFC North. So far since they drafted QB Lamar Jackson, the wins over their divisional foe haven’t been pleasant.
Jackson is the reason. He is a menace. He is elusive. He is a former league MVP.
The Number 1 goal should be to win the division. Then subsequent goals can be met such as winning a playoff game, participating in the AFC Championship Game, capturing the AFC Championship Game crown, going to their first-ever Super Bowl, and finally, taking home the Lombardi Trophy and becoming known as Super Bowl champions which would become their ninth pro football title.
To win the division, you have to at least split with Baltimore. And beat Jackson. That is easier said than done as the Browns have discovered countless times. If the Browns can corral Jackson, their chances of winning increase dramatically.
So far this season, Jackson is 63-86 for 608 yards with two touchdowns and a single interception, sacked eight times with a 73.3% completion percentage. His rushing numbers are 32 attempts for 193 yards with two touchdowns and a 6.0 average yards per carry. In the last game against the Indianapolis Colts, Jackson had 101 rushing yards on 14 carries.
To add to Jackson’s running opportunities, Baltimore has lost starting RB J.K. Dobbins for the season because of a torn Achilles tendon.
But how does Cleveland corral him? How do you neutralize Jackson? What will be DC Jim Schwartz’s game plan?
Here are five strategies.
Admit he is better than your defense
The Browns to date have not been able to stop Jackson. However, perhaps this Browns’ defense can place some constraints on his effectiveness.
One way is to contain him strictly to the outside and not allow him to run in the middle of the field as he leaves the pocket. This would limit his large gains and allow the defense to use the sideline as another defender.
This means never blitz Jackson. When you do, that is just one more defensive player he will leave in his rearview mirror and not have to worry about. This means the Browns will need to keep seven defenders back and take away his momentum plays.
Keep contain which will limit big plays.
Constant pressure at the line of scrimmage
Jackson must feel pressure inside the pocket continuously via mesh charging. His wheelhouse is in the middle of the field so those gaps must be filled all game. The defensive line must play aggressively with a physical style. It is important for the interior defensive lineman to plug up gaps that eliminate his potential run lanes.
Instead of attempting to sack Jackson, the defensive line should focus on containment instead. He is slippery in the pocket and the Browns need him to throw the ball and abandon his running style which is where he kills a defense.
Jackson’s weakness is he is prone to mistakes when forced into suboptimal situations. But once he has several consecutive big plays, that ignites his inner super-athlete which enables him to have a higher level of play.
If the Browns can continue to pressure Jackson, he will likely make mistakes.
The Browns must avoid undisciplined pressure. The defensive line’s aggressiveness can lead to them over-pursuing the quarterback, creating running and throwing lanes.
If Jackson runs, the strategy is to hit him hard. This will eventually lead to minimal yards-after-contact (YAC) which is how he kills a defense. Cleveland’s defenders must make Jackson feel the contact every time he keeps the ball.
The Browns’ defense can totally shut him down, but they need to go for his waist - not his legs. He’s hurdling and high-stepping his way out of just about every situation.
Slowing down Jackson is definitely in the defense’s plans. But if the result becomes missed tackles and blown coverages, it probably won’t be conducive to achieving that particular goal.
Different formation to dilute the passing game
The Browns should run a nickel 5-3-3 zone Cover 2 “QB contain.” This defense will allow Garrett, Za’Darius Smith, Alex Wright, and Ogbo to sprint to the ball while the linebackers can drop to the midzone in order to shut down the middle of the field. This will prevent quick pick-ups for slant routes.
The best way to neutralize Jackson 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.
Every receiver should be jammed at the line of scrimmage. This will take away the timing aspect of each passing play and force Jackson to get rid of the ball faster. This also means the defensive backfield cannot have any letdowns or lapses in coverage. Jackson is not going to beat anyone with his arm, but open receivers are a death wish.
While the perception is that Jackson does not have a good throwing arm, the reality is that he does not need one. His running ability makes him throw to open receivers and his tight end as the secondary has to cover their man a few seconds longer than normal or break off in case of a Jackson scramble.
Collectively, the defense needs to win the early downs. Keeping Jackson in a third-and-long is imperative to make him have to throw in tight coverage.
Deploy a spy
Jackson has incredible speed. In college, he ran a 4.34 in the 40. He has the ability to accelerate at will and when he changes directions, he seemingly can teleport from one spot on the field to the complete opposite.
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 on the defense that he has to be concerned about because they are all behind him.
The only way to contain Jackson is with a spy. His only responsibility is to contain the talented QB in the pocket and then tackle him for minimal gain once he leaves. The spy has to begin each play somewhere centered where a middle linebacker lines up. Then, he is basically on a parallel string with him. As 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 Jackson takes off, the spy must tackle him without hesitation.
The qualifications for the spy are as follows: great tackler, won’t be fooled with juke fakes, very quick, and fearless. The problem with most defenders is that they buy into the head, hip, and shoulder fakes that Jackson needs to get free and avoid tackles. And the spy must match speed for speed or this strategy is pointless.
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.