On Wednesday, Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh announced that rookie Lamar Jackson would start a fifth consecutive game at quarterback, even with veteran starter Joe Flacco recovered from his hip injury. In Tampa, Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul wasn't exactly hanging on Twitter to find out who he would be chasing this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I already knew he was going to play," said Pierre-Paul. "It is what it is."
Baltimore's offense has transformed radically since Jackson took over four games ago following the injury to Flacco. With Flacco at the helm, the Ravens were throwing the ball on 63.8% of their plays, giving Baltimore the eighth-lowest percentage of run plays in the NFL. In the four games since, Baltimore has run on 63.7% of its plays, the highest percentage in the league. That complete flip is obviously because Jackson is a big part of the rushing attack, much more than Flacco has ever been and more than virtually any quarterback in the league. In fact, Jackson is now the Ravens' leading rusher.
And as sure as Pierre-Paul was that the Ravens would stick with the rookie – their 3-1 record in Jackson's starts and sudden relevance in the playoff hunt were admittedly good clues – he is also certain that it will be quite a task to contain the rookie on the ground. The Buccaneers' sack leader, who is also a very good edge defender against the run, doesn't try to deny that zone-reads and other designed runs for the quarterback are difficult to defend, though he's up for the challenge.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center.
"Any time when you have a running quarterback, you’re looking at a more physical game," said Pierre-Paul. "Just to play that is difficult. I’m not going to lie, their option stuff is difficult and anybody in the NFL, D-end-wise, if they say it’s not that’s a lie. That stuff play[s] with your eyes but you’ve got to be disciplined with it and I think I do a pretty good job and our coaches do a pretty good job game-planning against it. I think we’re going to go out and do it."
Pierre-Paul said the Bucs' preparation on defense this week is different because of Jackson's presence, but that doesn't mean it's new. The former Giants end noted that he has plenty of experience working against running quarterbacks, and Jackson's current teammate, Robert Griffin comes to mind. Pierre-Paul shared the NFC East with Griffin when the latter was rushing for 815 yards as a rookie for Washington in 2012. The Buccaneers have also faced some good running quarterbacks this season, most notably Carolina's Cam Newton, who ran for 33 yards in each of his two games against Tampa Bay.
"[The Ravens] have taken it a little bit more to an extreme, but over the last few years off and on in this division, Cam Newton’s done all this," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. Baltimore’s taking advantage of what this guy brings to the table. Since he’s been in there, he’s done a nice job."
The Bucs fared reasonably well against Newton's running, though they did give up 53 yards to Chicago's Mitch Trubisky and 43 to Cleveland's Baker Mayfield. Most of Mayfield's yards came on one long scramble, and that's a concern with Jackson, too. The difference is that the Ravens, like the Panthers, are likely to draw up specific running plays for their quarterback, as well as pass plays that purposely take advantage of his mobility.
"[It's] a big challenge," said Mark Duffner, the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator. "This quarterback has excellent 'escapability.' Disciplined rush lanes are going to be paramount. He’s an excellent scrambler. They’ve got quite a bit of perimeter movement for him in the passing game, whether it be bootlegs or sprints, so they get him on the edge. He’s covering a lot of ground. He’s not just in one spot as a quarterback, so that’s a huge challenge for not only our front, but our whole defense."
Duffner described the approach to stopping a quarterback whose as dynamic with his legs as Jackson as "11-man football," meaning the Bucs' defenders will have to swarm to the football whenever he takes off. The Buccaneers will undoubtedly spend a good portion of this week's practice time drilling on responsibilities against zone-reads, QB sweeps and other ways Jackson may stress their defense with his running ability.
The complicating factor in that preparation, however, is the fact that Flacco is expected to be active for the first time since Jackson took over as the starter. During Flacco's nine starts, his rookie teammate was a part of the offense, too, running the ball roughly three times per game and throwing 11 passes overall. Their roles are flipped now, but there's no reason the Ravens couldn't still use both players, just with Jackson now getting the much bigger piece of the pie. Thus, Tampa Bay has to prepare for the Ravens' more traditional offense, as well.
"Oh, sure," said Duffner. "That's what they were doing before. We've got a two-headed dragon here we're trying to slay. Without a doubt we're very much concerned with what he can bring to their offense also."
Added Koetter: "You’ve got to prepare for both. Our plan will be based primarily on their personnel and then their tendencies out of those personnel just like it always is. Every team based on the personnel they’ve got in there they’ve got tendencies and that’s how you set up your game plan. A mixture of playing what you do best and also playing to their tendencies."
Pierre-Paul was expecting to get his first shot at Jackson this Sunday, and he knows that the Ravens scheme for the athletic rookie passer will be difficult to defense. But he also happens to relish the challenge.
"Obviously, he’s a rookie and he's just come in and he’s doing great things by being a starter now," said Pierre-Paul. "He’s a running quarterback and I know a lot about running quarterbacks because I’ve faced them a lot. I’m going to be looking forward to playing him. Looking forward to running out there and playing their option stuff."