There's this idea that the Cleveland Browns drafted Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at least in part to be a Lamar Jackson stopper, which is a really unrealistic label to put on someone who's been in the NFL for 15 minutes. It's also a gross oversimplification.
When the notion of a 'stopper' comes up, the name Gerald Wilkins immediately comes to my mind. The Cleveland Cavaliers signed Wilkins ahead of the 1993 season, joining a team that already had Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance among others. One of the better wing defenders in the NBA while a member of the New York Knicks, the Cavs dubbed him the Jordan Stopper.
In the 1993 playoffs, the Bulls swept the Cavs in the second round capped off by Jordan hitting the series clinching shot against Wilkins. Jordan would win six championship. The Cavs of my youth? Well. Zero.
Just as Cavs head coach Lenny Wilkins should have given Craig Ehlo help in the first round of the 1989 playoffs when Jordan took 'the shot', the key to defending a quarterback like Jackson is numbers.
Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods recognized this shift within the AFC and Owusu-Koramoah was drafted as part of an overall strategy to attack the number of quarterbacks who can win with their arm or create with their legs. Three teams that could stand in the way of the Browns getting out of the AFC are led by Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.
Some of the teams in that second tier like the Los Angeles Chargers and Indianapolis Colts also have quarterbacks that can create with their legs in Justin Herbert and Carson Wentz. The specter of Deshaun Watson is also still out there. Just within the AFC North, the Browns have to face Joe Burrow twice each year.
It's an issue that goes well beyond Jackson, but given the fact he rushed for 124 yards in the most recent game against the Browns, where at times the defense looked truly helpless in stopping him, it's understandable why that would draw much of the focus.
The players that were added this offseason that should help the Browns combat mobile quarterbacks include Owusu-Koramoah, Takkarist McKinley, Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, Tommy Togiai and Marvin Wilson. Even Tony Fields has the capacity to contribute in that element of the game.
In the case of Clowney and Jackson, they are replacing two players that were beneficial in this pursuit. Olivier Vernon was fantastic against mobile quarterbacks, but the Achilles' injury has made that impossible for the time being. The Browns opted to release Sheldon Richardson to cut costs.
Togiai and Wilson will have to prove they are able to contribute.
Stopping Jackson starts with containing him in the pocket. Easier said than done, when the Browns annihilated the Ravens in Baltimore in 2019, Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon were dominant in being able to limit Jackson's ability to get outside. They had a similar impact against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks two weeks later.
The other element that has to be effective is interior pressure. If the edges do their job, but the interior isn't able to impact the line of scrimmage, it leaves massive running lanes. Players like Clowney and Jackson are able to disrupt the interior. The Browns hope their nose tackle position, which will include the return of Andrew Billings can drive the offensive line back and squeeze Jackson, giving him nowhere to run.
Even in the game where Jackson ran for 124 yards, there are several examples where the Browns defense does it exactly right and the defensive line sacks Jackson as he has nowhere to go. The problem is that it doesn't take much for him to exploit a seam in the defense. One of those plays where Jackson found a gap went for 44 yards and a touchdown.
Enter Takk McKinley and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. McKinley is going to be coming off the edge as a sprinter, getting up the field quickly with the goal of keeping mobile quarterbacks in the pocket. If he's on the side of the quarterback's throwing hand, it helps to prevent rolling out to the preferred side of the field. If it's on the back side, McKinley has enough speed to chase and provide a meaningful rush even if the quarterback rolls away from him.
Owusu-Koramoah's versatility gives the Browns options. If he's playing on the edge or the slot, he can attack upfield in an effort to keep the quarterback in the pocket. He's got the speed to chase the quarterback as well. In tandem with McKinley, they can effectively be a speed pincer coming off the edges with players like Garrett and Clowney pinching inside.
The additional option Owusu-Koramoah offers is the ability to drop and go play in the flat to the quarterback's throwing hand. He can cover the flat well, but if the quarterback breaks the pocket, he can quickly close ground in an attempt to limit the amount of yardage they can gain.
Meanwhile, if he's lined up in the box as a true linebacker, he offers the potential to keep his eye on the quarterback as well as hawk blitz if the quarterback rolls out. He can also blitz from the second level in a manner similar to the way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers utilize Devin White. White is obviously bigger, but the idea is the same. Use their overwhelming speed to surprise or fluster the quarterback, disrupt their timing while being fast enough to chase them down for the sack. The Bucs used this to great effect against the Chiefs and Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
Realistically, the best way to defend Lamar Jackson in particular is to take away his receivers with single coverage and have as many players able to have their eyes forward as possible, so they can react when Jackson looks to press the line of scrimmage and corral him.
The Browns added John Johnson, Troy Hill and Greg Newsome in the offseason to upgrade the
The Buffalo Bills did a fantastic job of this in the playoffs. They were able to have a number of defenders, including their safeties, with eyes on Jackson as their corners limited the receivers.
Owusu-Koramoah may be an incredibly explosive defender with excellent speed, but the goal is to avoid trying to tackle Jackson with one defender as often as possible. Even against college competition, Owusu-Koramoah missed 15.2 percent of his tackles. Now he'll be tasked with tackling one of the best athletes in the NFL. The odds are heavily in Jackson's favor. And in the event Owusu-Koramoah doesn't secure the tackle, Jackson is running free.
In a potential matchup against the Bills, the Browns are going to try to take away Josh Allen's ability to roll to his throwing hand. McKinley and Owusu-Koramoah, in addition to Myles Garrett, will likely play a major role in that gameplan.
In the AFC Championship, both Allen and Mahomes stopped bothering to pretend they were handing the ball off, because they were free to run around in the backfield and survey their options. If nothing was there, they simply picked up a first down with their legs and reset the process. The focus on adding speed was as much about these passers as it was Jackson.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could play a huge role in defending against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, a team they could face three times in 2021. The Browns approach defensively was heading in this direction whether or not they added Owusu-Koramoah to their team. Trying to make him into a Jackson stopper isn't fair to a rookie and would fare about as well as Gerald Wilkins trying to stop Michael Jordan.