BEREA — Lamar Jackson is the ultimate stress test for a defense.
Just call him an equal opportunity annoyer.
The Ravens rookie quarterback has the speed to turn the corner and the toughness to run up the middle. Don’t forget about the strong right arm that can push the ball to every corner of the field.
“It is everywhere,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said when asked where Jackson stresses the defense. “The way they have run their offense the last couple of games, it could be up the A gaps, it could be up a nose tackle, it could be up the linebackers and it could be the D-ends, corners or safeties. It stresses everybody on any given play so everybody really has to come in locked in and laser-like-focused.”
Jackson, the No. 32 pick out of Louisville, has rejuvenated the Ravens (9-6) since stepping in for longtime starter Joe Flacco. The Ravens are 5-1 with Jackson as the starter, going from playoff afterthought to controlling their own destiny with one game to play. If they beat the Browns on Sunday in Baltimore, they win the AFC North title.
Jackson (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) is the key to the run game and the pass game, showing off the rare talents that won him the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and made him the only person in FBS history to rush for 1,500 yards and pass for 3,500, doing it in 2016 and ’17.
“The kind of read-option stuff they do to get him in situations, everybody has to do their one-eleventh, do their job,” defensive lineman Chris Smith said. “They do a lot of tricky stuff in the backfield to trick you with your eyes when it’s really going to the A or B gap. Everybody just do their one-eleventh. You’ve got dive, play dive. You’ve got Lamar, play Lamar. You’ve got pitch or option, play that. And I think we’ll be all right just making them one-dimensional.”
The Browns’ first priority is stopping the running of Jackson and undrafted rookie Gus Edwards. Since Jackson became the starter, the Ravens are averaging an NFL-best 218.5 rushing yards.
Jackson has 466 over that span, most for a quarterback and eighth in the NFL. He rushed 26 times for 119 in his first start, the most in NFL history for a quarterback in his starting debut. The attempts were the most by a quarterback in the modern era.
The Browns have faced running threats in Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Carolina’s Cam Newton, but Jackson is in a league of his own.
“All the quarterbacks who are mobile are running and are getting around, but then they are sliding and he is trying to dive for first downs,” Schobert said. “He is not just running around and bouncing to get to the sidelines. I do not think there is anybody quite like him right now.”
Defensive ends Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah and linebackers Jamie Collins and Genard Avery will be charged with setting the edges and keeping Jackson from escaping the pocket and getting around the corner. In addition to the designed runs — options, dives and draws — he’s dangerous on off-schedule scrambles because of his speed. He’s totaled 605 rushing yards, a 4.8 average and three touchdowns, including when he got occasional snaps while Flacco started.
“Corral him and do not let him outside of the pocket,” Garrett said. “We know he is special when he can make things happen with his feet and get outside, and he can throw on the run and he can make people miss. Do not let him get that opportunity.”
Garrett said Jackson will look to run whenever the chance presents itself, but his ability to throw shouldn’t be ignored. He’s completed 58.2 percent for 1,022 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions and an 84.9 rating.
He misfires plenty and gives the defense the chance for interceptions but has made several pinpoint throws in clutch situations.
“I just don’t think he really gets a lot of respect for his arm ability but he can make every throw you need to make in this NFL,” cornerback TJ Carrie said.
The Browns have to defend the middle of the field through the air. Play-action can draw the linebackers to the line, creating space for the Ravens’ pile of tight ends.
“I feel like he can do enough to keep you honest,” free safety Damarious Randall said. “With that scheme that they have, their offense is very, very tough to defend.”
Despite the incredible skill set, some in the NFL questioned whether Jackson could play quarterback at this level and suggested he make the switch to receiver. Jackson felt disrespected and was adamant he would only play quarterback, and after six starts the talk looks ludicrous.
“He’s proven a lot of people wrong who thought he’d be a wide receiver,” Schobert said. “Obviously he can play quarterback and has his role. So more power to him.”