(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson is the reigning MVP and won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 as a redshirt freshman, the youngest player ever to win the award at 19 years, 338 days old. He won league MVP in just his second year in the NFL and his first as the Ravens' starting quarterback for the entire season.
At just 23 years old, Jackson is the face of the Ravens' franchise and is one of the premier faces of the National Football League, right there along with Patrick Mahomes. He's the complete package -- fast, strong, agile, elusive, can throw on the run and has a strong-arm. For the Steelers to win on Sunday, they'll have to have a good scheme for Jackson.
"He is one of those players you have to game plan around," Tyson Alualu said today in his Zoom interview with the media. "He can do it with passing and his feet. It's just trusting the game plan the coaches put in front of us and it's our job to go out and execute.
"His overall talent. His play speaks for itself. You have to worry so much about him escaping or extending plays, at the same time being able to throw those on rhythm passes, especially to his tight end. We have to do a great job of eliminating the amount of explosive plays he gets."
While Jackson is not playing at an MVP-level like he did last year, he's still one of the most dangerous players in the league when he has the ball in his hands. Jackson has averaged 6.9 yards per carry this year, which leads the league, rushing for 346 yards on 50 carries and two touchdowns. In the passing game, he hasn't been as efficient as last year but he still has a 10-2 touchdown/interception ratio and a quarterback rating of (99.2). Jackson's two rushing touchdowns this year have both been explosive plays, one being a 50-yard touchdown against Washington in Week 5 and the other one was a 37-yard touchdown against the Eagles in Week 6.
"He is a very elusive guy," Minkah Fitzpatrick said today in a Zoom interview with the media. "He is bigger than what people expect. He is a strong guy, a competitor, he runs tough, he will lower his shoulder on DBs and linebackers."
Jackson plays a huge part in the Ravens' rushing attack, but he's not just a one-man show. Baltimore leads the league in rushing, averaging 164.3 yards per game and has three quality running backs in Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins. In the passing game, Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews lead the Ravens in receptions and receiving yards. Brown has 26 receptions for 376 yards (14.5 average) and a touchdown, while Andrews has 20 receptions for 243 yards (12.2 average) and five touchdowns.
"The Baltimore Ravens offense. It's more than Lamar Jackson," Fitzpatrick said. "He is a great player. He touches the ball every single play. But they have offensive playmakers on that squad, No. 21 (Mark Ingram), No. 15 (Marquise Brown), they just acquired Dez Bryant. They got a whole bunch of talented guys. You can't just focus on one guy because that is what they want you to do, focus on Lamar and throw No. 15 a deep ball over the top. It's more than Lamar, but you have to pay your respect to him."
The Steelers defended Jackson well in their only meeting against him last year. The Ravens ended up winning, 26-23, in overtime, but Jackson didn't have his best outing. Jackson was held to 161 yards passing and was intercepted a season-high three times and was sacked five times, which was also a season-high. Jackson did manage to rush for 70 yards on 14 carries though, an average of 5.0 yards per carry. Jackson presents a unique challenge for the Steelers' defense, as he's a dual-threat quarterback who can beat defenses with his passing and running capabilities.
"It's misdirection, it's also his talent," Cam Heyward said of Jackson. He's very explosive, but I think the thing that really helps out a lot is they have an extra blocker now. Most of these teams, when they handoff to the running back the quarterback's not a blocker so you already eliminate him from the play. In this scheme they have, they have their big fullback, they have some other wide receivers willing to block and so it becomes an 11-man rush. Guys have got to get off blocks, guys have got to make tackles because if you don't that dude's going to hit you for a big one."
Heyward knows that it will take all three phases to beat Jackson and the Ravens.
"We've got to make sure we have a good punting game to put him back," he said. "We've got to make sure our offense doesn't turn over the ball and as a defense, we've got to make them settle for three. We understand he's an outstanding talent, but we can't have self-inflicted wounds."
Along with shutting down Jackson and the Ravens' offense, Fitzpatrick is hoping they outperform the Ravens' defense, who has one of the top defenses in the league this year along with the Steelers' defense. The Ravens rank first in the league in points allowed per game, surrendering just 17.3 points. The Steelers are not far behind at No. 6, allowing 19.7 points per game. The Steelers rank first in the league in yards allowed per game, giving up just 286.3 yards and the Ravens are at No. 9, allowing 339.8 yards per game.
"We try to be the best defense on the field, week in and week out," Fitzpatrick said. "Especially AFC North football. You know they are going to come out there with a chip. We have to find any reason or any excuse to go out there and play with a chip as well. At the end of the day, you have to be the better defense out there."