INDIANAPOLIS – Preparations for Monday night’s meeting with one of the NFL’s most unique offensive threats ratcheted up this week, but their roots stretch back to the offseason and to training camp in Westfield.
Lamar Jackson demands that type of attention.
“That boy special,’’ Darius Leonard said Friday.
“Obviously we all know he’s an elite quarterback, but he’s an elite runner,’’ offered DeForest Buckner. “We’ve got to treat him like a running back.’’
And this from defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus: “The ability for the quarterback to run the ball as part of their running game, that’s unique. You don’t see that all the time. Everyone runs the RPOs (run-pass options) but there’s no threat of the quarterback actually pulling it and keeping it typically until the fourth quarter, red zone, third down . . . when it counts.
“This is every down with him. That’s definitely unique.’’
A unique challenge requires special attention. Not just during the week of preparation, but well before game week.
Well before the Indianapolis Colts hit the practice field this week and sharpened their focus on Monday night’s meeting with Jackson and the Ravens in Baltimore.
Every offseason, Frank Reich and his staff consider the upcoming schedule and the various and variety of teams/players that’ll be faced. It’s during those quieter, formative months when the threat of a Lamar Jackson – or Deshaun Watson before him – is broached.
“Before the players were here,’’ Reich said, “just kind of developing a plan and talking about that plan, but then actually practicing it up in Westfield.’’
Not entire practices, of course, but a session here and there to expose the defense to the nuances of the Jackson-led offense. The motion aimed at distracting a d-lineman or linebacker. Jackson’s deftness at running the RPO; does he leave the football in the belly of the running back or pull it back and head upfield? Or does he use the play-action and deception at the mesh point to find Hollywood Brown, Sammy Watkins or Mark Andrews downfield in the passing game?
It takes more than a few days to adequately prepare for what’s to come.
Buckner insisted there was value in “just going through some option rules and things like that with the d-ends and the linebackers. Yeah, we did a little prep work during training camp.’’
Any other approach might border on dereliction of duty.
“You prepare for all the hard plays you’re going to get,’’ Leonard said, adding it’s a misperception a team solely focuses on the opening opponent. “During training camp you’ve got to make sure you get all the hard plays that you possibly can.’’
He compared Jackson to Deshaun Watson, whose threat as a passer/runner made the Houston Texans so difficult to prepare for, and was one of the reasons general manager Chris Ballard invested a 2018 second-round pick on the quick, agile Leonard.
“I feel like (Jackson is) very similar,’’ he said. “With Lamar, he pulls the ball down, he’s looking to run. He’s looking to probably get 10 or 15 yards.’’
That’s been the case since the Ravens invested the 32nd overall pick in the 2018 draft in Jackson. He bided his time as a rookie as Baltimore stuck with veteran Joe Flacco, then made his first career start in week 11 against Cincinnati.
It was an eye-opening debut. The Ravens won 24-21 and Jackson was so-so in the passing game – 13-of-19, 150 yards, one interception. He was electric with his legs, rushing 26 times for 119 yards.
That put opposing defensive coordinators on notice and, as an interesting sidenote, launched a streak of 100-yard rushing games by the Ravens that has reached 43 straight, which ties the Pittsburgh Steelers’ league record.
The Ravens have flashed the NFL’s most robust run game since Jackson stepped under center – a league-record 3,296 in 2019, 3,071 last season – and rank 3rd after four weeks (164.5) despite losing Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins to knee injuries prior to the opener.
Everything the Ravens do offensively runs through Jackson. Literally.
“They built their entire running game around him,’’ Buckner said.
In three-plus seasons, Jackson has compiled nine 100-yard rushing games, one shy of Michael Vick’s NFL mark. He’s had two more in the playoffs.
His 3,185 yards already rank 11th in NFL history among QBs. For perspective, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ranks 10th, and he’s needed 201 games to pile up 3,279 yards. Jackson has appeared in 50 games with 41 starts.
Through four games, Jackson has rushed 42 times for a team-best 279 yards, or 135 yards more than top running back Ty’Son Williams. Those 279 yards, by the way, rank 10th in the league, just ahead of Colts’ feature back Jonathan Taylor (274).
Jackson is a dangerous blend of size (6-2, 212), elusiveness and breakaway speed. He leads the league with four rushes of at least 20 yards.
Perhaps more than anyone the Colts face this season, Jackson forces defenders to play disciplined, or else. He puts extreme pressure on the defensive end and linebackers to be on top of their assignment, play after play.
“You have to be on it,’’ Eberflus said, “and we have to make sure we’re detailed on it.’’
“It’s all about assignments,’’ Buckner said. “You never know when he’s going to pull it, so if you’ve got the quarterback, get the quarterback. If you’ve got the dive, get the dive.’’
Leonard broke it down to the basics. How should a defender deal with the motion, the sleight of hand and the confusion Jackson creates?
“Follow the pigskin. There’s only one ball out there,’’ he said. “You see all the misdirection they’re doing, pulling it one way, run it back the other way.
“There’s only one ball. The quarterback has the ball in his hands all the time.’’
The Colts’ preparation for Monday night included reviewing their week 9 meeting last season with Jackson and the Ravens in Lucas Oil Stadium. The defense locked down the Ravens in the first half – 55 net yards, including 18 on 10 rushes – before Jackson led a diverse second-half blitz that turned a 10-7 deficit in to a 24-10 victory.
In the second half, the Ravens generated two touchdowns and one field goal on their final four possessions. They had 211 yards and 15 first downs on 38 plays after regrouping at the half.
A major reason: Jackson proved he’s so much more than a running quarterback. On Baltimore’s two game-swinging third-quarter possessions, he was 7-for-7 for 94 yards. In the blink of an eye, the Ravens once again were a two-dimension terror.
On the season, Jackson is averaging 8.7 yards per attempt, 5th-best in the league, and 14.4 yards per completion.
“I do think Lamar Jackson’s passing skills are underrated,’’ Reich said. “I love the way he throws the ball. From a quarterback standpoint fundamentally, his upper-body mechanics are really clean and crisp. He’s got a very strong arm. He’s got a quick, compact release.
“This year it just feels like to me they’re throwing it down the field a little bit more and he’s doing an excellent job.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.