Bills defense held Lamar Jackson in check last year. Here's what has changed
There are no moral victories in the NFL, so in early December 2019 when they lost 24-17 to the Baltimore Ravens, no one in the Buffalo Bills locker room was all that jazzed about having done such a fine job defending Lamar Jackson.
Sure, no team in the league had a better day against the soon-to-be-named NFL MVP than the Bills as they held him to 145 yards passing and, even more impressive, just 40 yards rushing. But that didn’t matter; they lost the game.
Maybe it will matter Saturday night, though, when the Ravens return to Bills Stadium for an AFC divisional round playoff game because while the teams aren’t identical to how they were 13 months ago, they are fairly similar in terms of personnel.
“As soon as we got the word we were playing Baltimore, I got the tape from last year,” said safety Jordan Poyer.
Obviously, watching Ravens games from the past month or so will be more useful in the Bills’ preparation, but looking back at what they did last season to limit Jackson’s effectiveness cannot be ignored, and won’t be.
“We did a lot of good things in that ball game,” said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “That was a different team and a different year; they’ve grown since then and they’ve added some wrinkles to their offense that we’re gonna have to adjust to. We realize we can’t just look at what we did last year and say that was good enough.”
Three offensive linemen (Bradley Bozeman, Patrick Mekari and Orlando Brown), wide receiver Miles Boykin, tight end Mark Andrews, fullback Patrick Ricard, and Jackson started last year’s game in Buffalo as well as Baltimore’s 20-13 wildcard victory last week over Tennessee.
Among the other key offensive players who played in both games are running back Gus Edwards and wide receivers Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead.
On the Buffalo side, the five defenders who played the most snaps in the 2019 game (defensive backs Poyer, Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde and linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds) will be on the field Saturday, as will defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Levi Wallace, defensive tackle Ed Oliver and nickel corner Taron Johnson.
The only meaningful addition Baltimore has made to its offense is rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, while the Bills have added defenders such as defensive linemen Mario Addison, Vernon Butler, Quinton Jefferson, and cornerback Josh Norman.
And not to be overlooked, Frazier is still calling the shots for the Buffalo defense and Baltimore’s offense is still being coordinated by Greg Roman.
That’s a lot of overlap, something the Bills hope will work in their favor.
“I’m sure they’ll be looking at that tape,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said, meaning the coordinators. “They’ve got a lot of new stuff this year that we’ve been looking at that they’ve added to their offense. So, I think it’s a frame of reference, or a reference point, but not a be all end all.”
Last year the Ravens were the hottest team in the NFL when they arrived in Buffalo, riding an eight-game winning streak that eventually became a season-closing 12-game streak. They would become the first team since 1978 to average 200 yards per game rushing, thanks in large part to Jackson’s 1,206, the most ever by a quarterback in one season.
But the Bills’ defense wasn’t lacking confidence in its ability to slow down Jackson as it entered that game ranked third in fewest total yards, passing yards and points allowed. Now departed defensive tackle Jordan Phillips crowed beforehand, “We’re built for an offense like this. Now, we just have to go out there and execute. Simple as that.”
Big words, and then he and the Bills backed it up as Jackson could not have looked more ordinary. He had one 16-yard run but managed only 24 yards on his other 10 rushes. And of his 16 pass completions (in 25 attempts), 15 of them netted 84 yards.
Unfortunately for the Bills, his other completion was a 61-yard TD pass to since traded tight end Hayden Hurst when Jackson completely fooled everyone with a play-fake and Hurst slipped down the sideline all alone for the longest pass the Bills allowed all season.
Because the Bills offense, so much different then than it is now, could not get anything going, that Hurst touchdown was essentially the dagger through the heart.
“We had an idea going into it, we saw his stats going into that game a year ago, he was having an MVP season,” said Frazier. “We had an idea how talented he was, but once our players got on the field and the rest of the coaches got a chance to see him up close, we were like, ‘Wow. This guy is really special.’”
Saturday, the Bills enter as arguably the hottest team in the NFL as they’re on a seven-game win streak, but the Ravens are right on their tail having won their last six while averaging 34.3 points and 425.5 yards per game in that span.
“It’s a totally different style offense than any team that we ever face,” Poyer said of the run-first, run-second, and sometimes run-third Ravens. “They have every single QB run you can think of, so it comes down to guys being disciplined with their eyes and being able to tackle out in space and having 11 guys running to the football.”
Jackson’s run-pass option ballhandling is sublime, and when he decides to keep it, well, that’s when things really get scary. Ask the Titans who gave up 137 rushing yards to Jackson including an electrifying 48-yard TD run that flipped the game.
The Bills did a great job recognizing where the ball was last season and were sound in setting the edge and keeping Jackson contained. That has to be their main focus again in this game. Dobbins has really come on in the second half of the year, Edwards can be a tough runner to bring down, but Jackson is the X-factor.
“He’s such a special talent that very few, if any (defensive players) can mirror the speed that he plays at and what he’s able to do,” said McDermott. “He’s a big part of their run game, the loose plays that he creates. So it’s got to be good team defense. We’ll do the best that we can during the week to prepare ourselves, that’s really all we can do at this point.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.