Trying to contain Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' unique offense has proven to be difficult. But is it easier to stop the second time around?
That is a raging debate heading into Sunday's Ravens-Los Angeles Chargers playoff game. The Chargers will become the first team to face Jackson twice since he became the starting quarterback in Week 10.
Baltimore's 6-1 record with Jackson starting has been fueled offensively by the read-option running attack, with Jackson providing the electricity and Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon providing the power.
The first Ravens-Chargers matchup in Week 16 didn't go well for the Chargers. They lost to the Ravens, 22-10, even though Jackson was held to 39 yards on 13 carries, his lowest rushing total as a starter. But Edwards bulldozed for 92 yards on just 14 carries, and the Ravens compiled 159 yards rushing while averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
Now Dixon has caught fire, coming of his 117-yard performance in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns. Nobody in the NFL is running an offense like Baltimore's, so seeing it recently at game speed could help the Chargers. However, Jackson's speed is not normal.
"Well, we know his speed," Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn said during a conference call. "I watched him in college as well. His speed is really good. We know that you have to protect the perimeter with this guy, on the edge, one-on-one – he can win. He's like a running back with the ball in his hands. He also can throw it. I watched him throw for a lot of yards in college. He's a dual-threat right now."
Jackson's biggest play of the Dec. 22 Chargers-Ravens game was a pass – a 68-yard touchdown completion to Mark Andrews that put Baltimore ahead for good in the third quarter. The Chargers left themselves vulnerable to giving up the big pass play, loading up the box to contain Jackson and Baltimore's rushing attack. Jackson threw right over the head of a linebacker who was a step too slow in his coverage retreat because he had his eyes on Jackson.
Both the Chargers and Ravens will adjust their Week 16 game plans. Jackson will undoubtedly see some defensive formations from the Chargers he didn't see last month. However, the Ravens will counter with blocking schemes and play calls Sunday that they didn't use in December. Both teams hope they make the right moves at the right time.
"Are they going to gameplan us the same way that they did the first game, or are they going to completely change the gameplan?" said Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda. "Are we going to change the gameplan? So you really don't know exactly if they're going to stick to the script or if they're going to install a new gameplan. You just have to look at their entire body of work, their entire 16-game season, be ready for all of it and just be ready to execute on Sunday."
If the Chargers are determined to keep Jackson from getting outside, Baltimore may counter with a steady diet of Edwards and Dixon. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh called the Chargers one of the NFL's fastest teams. They ranked in the top 10 (No. 9) in the NFL defending the run, and their ball pursuit is excellent.
"They play fast, they run to the ball, play hard, gang tackling, all the things that you respect." Harbaugh said.
"I think their defense as a whole is a quick group of guys," Yanda added. "Their D-line up front and their linebackers – they run well."
However, the Ravens have a physical offense, capable of wearing down a defense as the game progresses. The Chargers, like many teams, have prioritized speed over size in building their defense, preparing themselves for a pass-happy league.
In Week 16, the Ravens barely won the time-of-possession battle against the Chargers, holding the ball 31:25 compared to 28:35 for Los Angeles. The Ravens would love to possess the ball at least 35 minutes on Sunday, something they have done routinely since Jackson became the starter. Keeping their offense on the field, and keeping Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers off the field, would be a good formula for success.
Lynn said the Chargers are not surprised to get a second crack at the Ravens. If Baltimore wins the rematch and runs the football effectively, it will be more evidence that this offense is dynamic enough to take the Ravens a long way.
"The way they were playing, I knew they'd probably win out and be in the playoffs," Lynn said. "There was a strong feeling that we might see them again, to be honest with you. They're playing pretty good football."