Still No Closer to Solving Lamar

The words had barely escaped Brian Griese’s lips.

In the Monday night booth this year, the former quarterback was suggesting possible adjustments that Cleveland might make in the second half of their contest against Baltimore.  As the third quarter began, the Browns were facing a 21-14 deficit after having been shredded for 134 rushing yards in the first half.  The bulk of those yards (78 of them) belonged to Raven quarterback Lamar Jackson.

And so now, as the Ravens faced a third-and-three from their own 37 on their first possession of the second half, Griese offered his final piece of advice to the Browns.  Find a way to “contain” Lamar Jackson.

And right on cue, they didn’t contain him.

Running their signature read-option play, with running back J.K. Dobbins aligned to his right, Jackson placed the ball in Dobbins hands while reading the unblocked defensive end to his left – on this play, Browns’ All-Pro Myles Garrett.

Garrett was caught in no-man’s land.  In fact, the entire Cleveland team was caught in no man’s land.  As Jackson lifted his eyes, he noted that only three Cleveland defenders remained on the left side of the hash marks.  There were two defensive backs (M.J. Stewart and Terrance Mitchell) both lined up wide to the left and out of the play, and Garrett who was all alone to defend both options of the read-option, as well as the left sideline.

Jackson kept the ball.  As Dobbins went racing past, Garrett took one false step in his direction, and Lamar darted inside of him, streaking, uncontained, through the gaping void off of left tackle.  Linebacker Malcolm Smith did eventually get an angle on Jackson and brought him to the ground but after a 44 yard gain.  Gus Edwards scored a touchdown on the next play.

Coming out of their bye at 5-3, the Cleveland Browns strung together a four-game winning streak that thrust them into the middle of the playoff conversation, and even – after the Steelers finally lost a couple of games – had them thinking about a possible division title.  The first three of those victories came against lightly regarded foes (Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville), but the last of them was the signature victory they had been waiting for – a 41-35 conquest of the Tennessee Titans.

And so – as they took the field last Monday evening – the Cleveland Browns were feeling really good about themselves.  Until the Ravens took the field and number 8 came out of the tunnel.  He (Jackson) continues to be Cleveland’s kryptonite.

No team has played Baltimore’s third year quarterback more than the Browns, and no team has less success against him.  Of the eight teams that have faced Jackson more than once, no team allows him more rushing yards per game (73) or a higher rushing average (6.74) than the Browns.  And when Lamar throws the ball, only Houston has spotted him a higher passer rating than the 112.0 he carries against Cleveland.  (In two games against the Texans, Jackson holds a 134.5 passer rating.)

The league in general has concluded that there is a certain discipline needed on defense if you are going to successfully “contain” the dynamic Mr. Jackson.  Your pass rushes can’t leave any open gaps for him to exploit.  Some teams have started to blitz Jackson a little more, not only to shorten his processing time, but also to keep all of the pass-rush lanes occupied.

Cleveland blitzed just 4 times and frequently opened a running lane for Lamar.  Of his game-high 124 rushing yards, 49 came on 5 scrambles when the pass rush provided him an escape.

The Browns are also still inclined to drop their pass coverages every time Jackson threatens to pull the ball down and run with it.  This happened on both of Lamar’s big throws – the 39-yarder to Mark Andrews that led to the go-ahead touchdown before the end of the first half, and the 44-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown that fueled the fourth-quarter comeback.

And when they weren’t doing all of that, Brown defenders were abandoning their containment assignments.  That’s what happened on the 44-yard run at the beginning of the third quarter.

Lined up in the gap that Jackson would eventually exploit was linebacker B.J. Goodson.  But as the play began, both offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and guard Bradley Bozeman pulled to the right – an influential enough occurrence to convince Goodson that he wasn’t needed on the left side and draw him across the formation.

In fairness, the pulling linemen are a concern.

You may not have noticed, but Baltimore does almost no “zone-blocking.” Their running attack is a precision instrument – almost like the attack that the Don Shula Dolphins might have executed back in the 70’s.  It’s a targeted affair, replete with double-teams, pulling lineman and multiple blockers at the point of attack.  I would estimate that Bozeman spent nearly half of his evening pulling to open up that right sideline for Jackson and the running backs.  Of the 231 rushing yards they eventually laid on the Browns, 112 of them came up that inviting right sideline.  So, the pulling Raven linemen wasn’t something to be taken lightly.

Nonetheless, defenders with contain responsibility need to keep contain.

“Do Your Job” is, of course, the famed Bill Belichick mantra that serves to simplify the complexity of winning football.  If your job is to contain or rush or cover, do that and don’t try to do someone else’s job as well.  This is the recurring difficulty that Cleveland has whenever they play Lamar and the Ravens.

As it turns out, “doing your job” requires trust.  Right now, when playing against Jackson, the Cleveland defenders do not trust each other.  Until they do, expect their struggles against the Ravens to continue.

Cleveland as a Playoff Contender?

Jackson has now made five starts against Cleveland.  Their best efforts against him were their first two (Baltimore winning the first 26-24 in December of 2018, and Cleveland answering with a 40-25 win the next year).  Jackson eclipsed neither the 100 yards rushing nor the 100 passer rating plateaus in either game.  But the more they play him, the worse Cleveland gets.

In their Week 15 matchup last year, Lamar torched them for 103 yards rushing and a 120.1 passer rating.  In the opening game this year, Jackson ran only 7 times for 45 yards (remember, there were no exhibition games for him to warm up in), but he made up for that with a 152.1 passer rating.  Last Monday, his 124 rushing yards were complimented by his 115.6 passer rating.  The Brown offense battled back gamely, but in the end, it was another loss to their bitter division rival, 47-42 (gamebook) (summary).

Cleveland’s regular season will close with a showdown against the other principle team in the division – the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also thrashed the Browns in an earlier contest (38-7 in Week Six).

Until they can show that they can beat (not just play with) the division heavyweights, Cleveland’s playoff hopes will be nebulous at best.  With the Dolphins hanging just one game behind the Browns and with a somewhat easier closing schedule, this week’s contest against the Giants (a team significantly tougher than its 5-8 record indicates) becomes a must win for Cleveland.

If they lose that game, it will almost certainly force them to beat Pittsburgh on the last day of the season to get in.  It’s a situation, I’m sure, they would rather not be forced into.

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