Colts hold Ravens QB Jackson in high regard

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  • Baltimore Ravens
    Baltimore Ravens
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  • Indianapolis Colts
    Indianapolis Colts
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  • Lamar Jackson
    Lamar Jackson
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  • Darius Leonard
    Darius Leonard
    American football linebacker

Oct. 9—INDIANAPOLIS — This is the type of respect Lamar Jackson commands across the NFL.

The Indianapolis Colts began preparing for Monday's matchup against the Baltimore Ravens more than two months ago, during training camp in Westfield. That speaks to how unique Jackson and this offensive attack have become.

"That boy (is) special," Colts linebacker Darius Leonard said. "You see it. I don't feel like he gets the respect that he deserves from this league. Playing against him last year seeing how explosive he is, seeing how fast he is, seeing how much of a playmaker he is — he throws the ball well, and he runs the ball well. He can be a leading passer in the league and rusher. Just have to make sure you minimize that as well as you can and try and make sure you keep him in the well."

It's a challenge more akin to what elite college defenses face on Saturdays than the usual pro style attack.

Even with top running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards sidelined by injuries, Baltimore's rushing game has rolled on. Jackson leads the way with 279 yards and two touchdowns on 42 carries, but Latavius Murray has added a team-high 44 attempts for 151 yards and three scores. Ty'Son Williams has added 164 yards and one score on just 27 carries, and the Ravens are just beginning to work veteran Le'Veon Bell into the scheme.

It's not a traditional option attack, but many of the same principles apply. The goal is to create hesitation in the defense with motions and misdirection.

The result is a shell game of sorts with defenders tasked with finding the football in a sea of rotating bodies.

"It's tough with all that misdirection," Indianapolis linebacker Bobby Okereke said. "It takes a certain type of player to anticipate what they're going to do and anticipate correctly because they're trying to get you off your keys, get you looking at the wrong thing, the wrong half step. They're all fast players, so it's really just about being on your keys and trusting your athletic ability."

The Colts (1-3) guessed right more often than not during the first half last season at Lucas Oil Stadium, holding Baltimore to just 18 yards on 10 carries and sacking Jackson twice. But the Ravens got things going with a short, quick passing game in the second half.

Jackson finished 19-of-23 for 170 yards, and Baltimore escaped with a 24-10 victory despite averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Jackson was the leading rusher with 58 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts, and the Ravens finished with 110 yards on 38 carries overall.

The numbers actually underscore the difficulty defenses face against this team. When colleges face a run-oriented offense like Army or Navy, the threat of the pass is almost non-existent.

Treating Baltimore (3-1) the same way is a recipe for disaster. Jackson has completed 60.5% of his passes for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns this season, and he's pushing the ball down field with a career-high 8.7 yards per attempt.

He has been somewhat susceptible to the turnover with three interceptions, but it's clear he'll make opponents pay for focusing too much attention on the ground game.

"I do think Lamar Jackson's passing skills are underrated," Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. "I love the way he throws the ball. From a quarterback standpoint fundamentally, his upper-body mechanics are really clean and crisp. He's got a very strong arm. He's got a quick, compact release. This year, it just feels like to me they're throwing it down the field a little bit more, and he's doing an excellent job."

So what are defenses supposed to do in an attempt to slow this offense down?

Trust their eyes, read their keys and remember their film study.

Discipline is paramount. The Colts must get pressure on Jackson without allowing him to escape the pocket and make big plays with his legs — something they've struggled with through the season's first four games.

Every move must have a purpose, and every defender must stay in his gap. One man out of position is enough to bust open a big play and turn the tide of the game.

In the simplest terms, the game plan this week boils down to one basic mantra: see the ball, hit the ball.

"Follow the pigskin," Leonard said. "There's only one ball out there. You see all the misdirection they're doing, pulling it one way, run it back the other way. There's only one ball. The quarterback has the ball in his hands all the time. The defense is all about rules, so you have to understand where's your help, what you have to do and it's all about how many hits can you get on the ball as a linebacker? Every game, every play, you try to hit the ball. That's just the mindset."