How do Dolphins stop Ravens' QB Lamar Jackson?
Heading into Sunday’s Week 1 matchup vs Baltimore, a lot of Dolphin fans appear to be more optimistic than they should. After all, the team just jettisoned their elite left tackle Laremy Tunsil to Houston and churned the roster of talent, faster than the Amish churning butter on a cool Pennsylvania night. But unlike the Baltimore teams of the past, the 2019 Ravens have one of the more unique signal-callers in all of football.
His name is Lamar Jackson.
The Pompano Beach prospect was highly-regarded as one of the top-5 QBs of the 2018 class. And whether you believed in Jackson’s potential, or you were ignorant enough to believe a switch to WR was imminent. One thing is for certain, QBs like Jackson are the future of the NFL.
Which begs the age old question, how do you stop someone with his unique skill-set?
Maybe you use a spy, which frees up another play-maker to run rampant. Maybe, you blitz the heck out of him, in hopes that the rush gets there before he’s able to throw a 30-yard dot to his tight end. Truth is, when trying to figure out the best way to stop Jackson, you would have to look back through history. For this study, I ventured back to the 2018 season to focus on the Baltimore Ravens' wildcard matchup vs the Los Angeles Chargers.
Here's what I learned
For most of the game, the Chargers countered Lamar Jackson's speed by utilizing six defensive backs. This allowed Los Angeles to bring Derwin James down to the line of scrimmage, to help spy the speedy Jackson. This wasn't exactly a groundbreaking idea by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. But up until this point, no one was able to counter his elite speed with a quick, sure-tackling defensive back. The Chargers used James as a hybrid linebacker. And at times he would post up on the edge, drop back in coverage, or play man-to-man vs an opposing tight end. Lucky for the Dolphins, they have a player with similar skills in Minkah Fitzpatrick. (Don't @ me)
Here's a look at some of the Chargers' defensive sets, and take notice as to where the NFL's DPOY of the year lined up.
Now, yes, this might be more difficult for the Dolphins, who only have six cornerbacks on the roster. And with a guy like Minkah Fitzpatrick potentially taking on the "Derwin James" type role, someone will need to step up in the secondary. The one name that surfaced a few days ago was Jomal Wiltz, the former New England Patriots defensive back. Wiltz, possesses elite measurables and could have a significant role in week 1.
Obviously, mimicking what the Chargers did is in Miami's best interest. Furthermore, using Fitzpatrick in a variety of different ways is inevitable. Flores should allow him to line up on the edge, which should help contain Jackson inside the pocket. And when he does eventually decide to take off, Miami will have a plethora of players waiting to make the tackle-- or so we think. This game plan might make the most sense. But what if Miami feels it will be unable to contain the rest of Baltimore's offense.
After all, we know the Ravens have a triplet of tight ends in Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, and Hayden Hurst. And although it seems like a no brainer for the Dolphins to try to replicate what LA did, that's easier said than done. And like we saw with James during the wildcard matchup, when a TE motioned to his side of the field, he would drop back into coverage. So what if Fitzpatrick was tasked with keeping Andrews in check? Who might Patrick Graham and Coach Flores call upon? My guess, stud LB Jerome Baker.
When asked which player should have the biggest impact for the Dolphins in 2019, many people would agree it's the standout LB from Ohio State. Baker has consistently improved since being drafted in third-round (73rd-overall), and could be the team's best defensive player by season's end. With the emergence of Sam Eguavoen this offseason, Miami has more versatility than ever at linebacker. Truth is, no one knows the extent of McMillan's injury or why he was a ghost for much of the offseason. But what we do know, is that he's better suited as a thumper and should fill the void left behind by tackling-machine Kiko Alonso.
There's also the potential that Reshad Jones could play in the box as a third linebacker, and help alleviate some of the responsibilities. What will be most interesting, is how many exotic looks Flores and his staff throw at the second year QB. After all, he may have had a great offseason as he continued to progress as a passer. But coupled with one of Miami's defensive playmakers shadowing the duel-threat QB, throwing 'everything but the kitchen sink' Jackson's way, should be the 'Willie Wonka' golden ticket.
In the end, no one can sit here and tell you definitively what the plan is to counter Lamar Jackson’s unique skill-set. But based off of LA's success in the Wildcard Game, the conclusion is quite simple. Shadow him with one of your best defensive backs and bring pressure, early and often. So whether it be Jerome Baker as a spy, Reshad Jones in the box as a third LB, or Minkah Fitzpatrick in a Derwin James-type role, the Dolphins will have their hands full in stopping the Ravens franchise QB.
But let's not pretend that it hasn't been done before.
Spy the raven, never more.
Josh Houtz (@houtz) is a die-hard fan of the Miami Dolphins. Tank or no tank.