Detroit Lions gearing up to do the impossible — stop Lamar Jackson: ‘He’s incredible’

Detroit Free Press

The football fan in Dan Campbell can’t help but be amazed by some of Lamar Jackson’s highlights. Watching film of the Baltimore Ravens quarterback this week, the opposing coach in Campbell had an entirely different response.

“You get a little sick to your stomach,” Campbell said. “God, he’s a dynamic player. And let’s face it, he’s a dynamic player who has rare ability, rare talent.”

Jackson will bring his jaw-dropping exploits to Detroit for the first time in his NFL career Sunday, when the Detroit Lions host the Ravens in a must-see game at Ford Field.

[ Lions vs. Ravens: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction ]

Under the NFL’s current scheduling format, Jackson and the Ravens are not due to play in Detroit again until 2029, though they could return sooner in the new 17-game season.

The rare quarterback who is more deadly with his legs than his arm, Jackson is the most unique weapon in football.

He combines amazing acceleration with an uncanny ability to find creases in traffic and has a knack for getting down at just the right moment to avoid big hits.

He is pliable in the pocket, a Houdini of sorts when it comes to escaping incoming pass rushers.

And he is sleight of hand on play-action fakes, capable of turning any snap into a big rushing play. Through two games this season, Jackson leads the NFL with three 20-plus-yard rushes, ranks third in rushing overall (96.5 ypg) and is a big reason why the Ravens are far and away the best rushing team in football.

Baltimore has topped 100 yards on the ground in 41 straight games, two shy of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ NFL record. Jackson has started 39 of those contests.

“He’s incredible,” Lions quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell said. “Very talented and, listen, he’s one of the best in the game. He’s got a skill set unlike any other quarterback in the league, and he’s only gotten better. He’s fun to watch.”

But not fun to play against.

The 2019 NFL MVP, Jackson has posterized enough defensive players in his three-plus NFL seasons to fill an hourlong SportsCenter special.

Two years ago, Jackson scored on a ridiculous 47-yard touchdown run against the Cincinnati Bengals, when he split two defenders at the line of scrimmage, cut back on another in the open field then pulled off a full-speed spin move that left mouths agape everywhere.

Last week, Jackson capped a short touchdown run against the Kansas City Chiefs with a flip into the end zone, the highlight of a 107-yard, two-touchdown rushing day.

“He’s a tremendous talent,” said Lions defensive lineman Michael Brockers, who saw firsthand how slippery Jackson was when the Los Angeles Rams played the Ravens in 2019. Jackson ran for 95 yards on eight carries in that game, a 45-6 Ravens victory.

“He can get it done on either with the arm or his legs, so the biggest thing about him is you’ve got to get population to the ball. Everybody has to be able to tackle, everybody has to wrap up. He did have some turnovers (last week; two interceptions), so we have to look at that as well. We get everybody to the ball, people ripping, stripping at the ball. It’s all about population, everybody getting to the ball on defense.”

The Lions’ game plan to stop Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack sounds simple but is hard to execute: Make Jackson win with his arm, send waves of defenders at him when he runs, wrap up when you have the chance and don’t fall for the okey-doke.

“I think you’ve got to play a lot of down-safety defense and you’ve got to be gapped out,” Campbell said. “I mean, truly gapped out. We know exactly where our fits are at and there’ll be times where we’ll play some split safety, but, man, that’s what we have to hone in on is, ‘Here’s your gap. Here’s your responsibility.’”

Baltimore’s complex rushing scheme can make identifying those responsibilities difficult for a defense.

MORE BIRKETT: Why Jackson’s missed practice (illness) isn’t good news for Lions

MONARREZ: Why Dan Campbell is living up to his own words with Jamie Collins deal

The Ravens run often out of the pistol formation, where their running back lines up directly behind Jackson in the shotgun. That allows them to run a play in any direction, and — combined with the motions and misdirections and extra blockers they use — has made the running back playing alongside Jackson a dangerous and almost interchangeable part.

“All three of (their running backs) have done a good job,” Campbell said. “But it does start with that quarterback. He’s dynamic and I think keeping him away from the open field is (key). Let’s find a way to force him to hand this ball off, really is what you’re looking for.”

While Jackson’s skill set makes him a bit of a unicorn, he is part of a wave of modern quarterbacks who are changing the way NFL teams view the position.

Kyler Murray and Josh Allen are other true dual-threat weapons at a position and potential MVP candidates, and top passing quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert have a distinct mobile element to their games.

Campbell told the Free Press in January he favors having a mobile quarterback “because in today’s game, it’s hard when you’re a guy who can’t move around in the pocket.” And Brunell, who played 17 NFL seasons at quarterback for five different teams, said he expects to see “more and more” players like Jackson to enter the league in coming years.

“I think there will always be a pocket passer, a Jared Goff, and then all the quarterbacks that are kind of in between, that can do a little bit of both,” Brunell said. “Certainly, you’re seeing guys that are explosive, guys that can move around, create outside the pocket. Those guys, they’re tough to defend so you’ll see more and more of that I imagine.”

For the Lions, the less they see of Jackson on Sunday, the better.

That’s why Campbell said maximizing offensive possessions will be key to the Lions’ upset bid, and why defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said staying disciplined is the only chance the Lions have to stop Jackson.

“It’s hard not to give him his props now,” Glenn said. “It’s hard to find them like that.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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