The Chargers defense proved to be too much for Jackson and the Ravens this time around, but the rookie quarterback got his team this far, and he’ll be their leader under center for the foreseeable future.
BALTIMORE — Less than an hour before kickoff, the Jack Boyz emerged from the visitors’ locker room, in uniform. Casey Hayward Jr., the veteran cornerback, huddled up the Chargers secondary for a brief speech.
“It’s gonna go as we go,” Hayward said, of the game they were about to play. “DBs on 2. One, two…”
At the time, it sounded like an ordinary pre-game hype speech—but as soon as the Chargers lined up for their first defensive snap, it was clear that the defensive backs were indeed at the center of the team’s game plan. Los Angeles’ base defense for their 23–17 wild-card playoff win against Baltimore included seven defensive backs, what they call their “quarter” package, a strategy specifically designed to stop Ravens QB Lamar Jackson better than they had two weeks ago.
The Chargers were the first NFL defense to play the rookie quarterback twice, something they were determined to use to their advantage. The Ravens amassed 361 yards of total offense in that first game, a 22–10 Baltimore win in California in Week 16, including 243 yards from Jackson in the air and on the ground combined. Los Angeles felt like Baltimore didn’t respect them after the Ravens dominated that matchup. In the pre-game locker room, those feelings were further stoked when Chargers players saw on social media three Baltimore players arriving at the stadium wearing masks, and one also carrying a baseball bat.
“They were trying to come in here like they’re bullies. Sometimes bullies get hit in the mouth,” Hayward said after the game. “They can put that mask on and go back out so nobody recognizes them.”
Beyond the feisty attitude they carried into the game, the Chargers showed their creativity and versatility on defense by implementing an entirely different game plan from the one they’d used in December. Sunday’s game was not a memorable one for the offense, but the teams that succeed this time of year are ones that can find different ways to win.
“Our defensive coaches felt like against this quarterback, it would be good to go small, because [the DBs] can help in coverage and they can help track Lamar,” head coach Anthony Lynn said. “And it worked. Now, we were prepared to go a different direction if it didn’t work. But for the most part, it worked today.”
That last point is an important one—if the Ravens were able to take advantage of the Chargers’ smaller personnel, they were ready and willing to switch back to a more traditional lineup. That’s in contrast to the Seahawks’ offense on Saturday night, for example, which remained committed to the ground game even when it was clear it was going nowhere.
But the Chargers didn’t need to go to Plan B. On the first series, and then for three full quarters, they stifled a run-heavy Ravens offense that has confounded opponents by being different from anything else they’ve seen this season. Headed into the fourth quarter, Baltimore had netted just three first downs and 83 yards of offense, trailing Los Angeles, 12–3.
The Chargers’ defensive backfield for this game included one deep safety, Rayshawn Jenkins; Hayward tracking Baltimore’s top receiver, Michael Crabtree; and safeties playing the roles of linebackers. “We did have two linebackers out there,” Hayward said. “We called them Adrian Phillips and Jahleel Addae.” Both are actually safeties, and Phillips was one of the stars of the game, intercepting a pass tipped by Hayward and recovering a fumble forced by Melvin Ingram.
The quarters package wasn’t entirely new; Lynn said they used it at times late in the 2017 season—he thought in a game against Kansas City. But they hadn't committed to it like they did for this game, in which they used it for all but one snap. It made sense from a personnel perspective, because the team is thin at linebacker. Last week, Jatavis Brown injured his ankle; earlier in the season, they put both Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White on injured reserve. But most importantly, the DBs were better suited to match Jackson’s speed, which offset the gamble of using a smaller lineup to stop an offense that had been averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game in Jackson's seven starts since he took over for Flacco. The Ravens finished with just 90 rushing yards on Sunday. “Lamar Jackson ran a 4.3,” Jenkins said. “We needed some fast guys, right? We needed guys who could run sideline to sideline and still help in the passing game if they got fooled. Not saying our linebackers couldn’t do it, but let’s be honest, DBs are faster than linebackers.”
When defensive coordinator Gus Bradley presented the game plan early in the week, safety Derwin James was thrilled. It was the first time he’d ever been able to play on the field with his entire position room, a group so tight it coined its own “Jack Boyz” nickname and has regular bowling outings. James, a first-team All-Pro as a rookie, is a big reason the Chargers had the ability to thrive in the quarters package. He played almost all his snaps in the box, often hovering over the line along with three down linemen and a rusher off the edge, making use of his ideal combo of 4.4-speed and an ability to stuff ballcarriers.
“We wanted to do a great job of making sure [Jackson] is contained and get after him,” James said. “Because he is an electric player. You see if he gets the ball, he can be gone in a second. So you’ve gotta be able to have someone there that can get him on the ground if he makes a break.” James was one of those players.
The quarters package was paired with a front that was at times clogging the middle, with three guys standing over the center and both guards on plays when the Chargers expected something like a draw play, and at other times aggressive, stunting players into the gaps into which Jackson might try to escape. “In obvious passing situations, we were trying to create some pressure,” Lynn said. “He may think a running lane is open, but here comes a [defensive line] game. These guys did a heck of a job of maintaining their gaps so he couldn’t escape.”
Damion Square, an end who started at nose tackle, said part of the Chargers’ success was homing in on tendencies they had learned since the teams’ last meeting. He said Los Angeles knew what was coming “60 to 70 percent of the time.” He gave an example of a play that ended the Ravens’ opening drive: The team was facing a third-and-five near midfield, and Square said they knew Jackson likes to escape to his left. After Jackson had scanned the field trying to find somewhere to throw, he did indeed drift left, and Square began to move with him. Defensive end Isaac Rochell was in Jackson’s face as he dropped the ball, but Jackson then recovered it himself and again tried to scamper left. Square was closing in on him as Jackson threw an incomplete pass, forcing a punt.
“You see tendencies,” Square said. “Guys react the same way all the time to pressure. We saw that on tape. We knew where he wanted to escape, and we showed up in those gaps.”
Each defensive player seemed to have an example of making a play through anticipation. Nickel corner Desmond King said he recognized a formation with a receiver off the ball and a tight end lined up tight on the backside that helped him know where the ball was going and be in the right position for an incompletion. Jenkins said he got a tip from Phillips, who had noticed while studying the sideline tablet between series that Jenkins had incorrectly played one of the Ravens’ route concepts, a sluggo seam. Jackson missed the open throw that time, but when the Ravens tried it again, Jenkins had made the correct adjustment to prevent giving up a big play.
“[Phillips] came to the sideline and said, ‘Look at your alignment. They are really trying to manipulate you because of how you are jumping the quick game,’” Jenkins recounted. “He was right. When they came back to it again, I was there and I took his read away, and [Jackson] had to look off again. That was a big thing right there. If we can get him off his first read, it is hard, because QBs want their first read most of the time.”
Jackson and the Ravens rallied in the game’s final nine minutes, turning a 23–3 Chargers lead into a bit of a nailbiter with two late touchdown passes to Crabtree. Hayward was beating himself up over those at his locker after the game. “I dominated him the whole game, and I gave him two cheap ones,” Hayward groused. But the defense delivered again to close out the game, when outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, lined up from an edge rush position, swatted the ball out of Jackson’s hand to allow Los Angeles to kneel out the clock. It was part of a final stat line for the Chargers defense that included two forced fumbles, an interception and seven sacks.
Los Angeles knows who is up next—Tom Brady—and is looking forward to a very different kind of challenge in Foxborough.
“I was four or five years old, watching Brady and Belichick in the playoffs and winning Super Bowls,” said James, who will be playing the Patriots for the first time in his career. “Now to be able to go in their place and play them, it is pretty cool. You know you need to come with it with Brady, because he's an experienced guy.”
The best game plan for the Chargers next week might not involve the quarters package. Though, the last time the Patriots were upset at home in the divisional round was in Jan. 2011 by the Jets. They had 11 defensive backs active that day and confounded Brady in part with a package that packed the middle of the field with defensive backs to limit Brady’s throwing options—and Lynn was the running backs coach on that Jets staff. Another time, when Lynn was part of Rex Ryan’s Bills staff, a different defensive game plan against Brady involved five defenders standing over the offensive line, which the Chargers at times did on Sunday.
“That was for completely different reasons,” Lynn said, a nod to the vastly different task of defending the Ravens’ run-first offense led by a rookie QB vs. the Brady-led Patriots. But in this era of creative offenses, what the Chargers demonstrated on Sunday was an ability and flexibility to match that creativity on defense, which could serve them well no matter the opponent.
Square agreed—but he corrected the use of could in that sentence. Will serve them well, he said.
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