NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At this point last year, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was terrorizing defenses en route to being named the 2019 NFL MVP. He became the first player in NFL history to pass for 3,000 or more yards and rush for 1,000 or more yards in a single season while Baltimore's offense averaged an NFL-leading 33.5 points per game.
But in the divisional round of the playoffs last season, the Tennessee Titans managed to mostly keep the Ravens' high-powered offense out of the end zone, beating them 28-12 -- although Jackson passed for 365 yards and ran for 143 more in the loss.
Tennessee will try to repeat that feat Sunday against the Ravens (6-3) in Baltimore (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Through nine games, Jackson has thrown for 1,762 yards along with 524 yards on the ground. Not surprisingly, Jackson hasn't found the same degree of success this year. But that doesn't mean he is not still causing opposing defensive coaches to spend extra time preparing.
"It's still scary. He goes for 60 yards against the Eagles. Then watching him in the red zone, he scrambled 20 yards in two seconds against the Steelers for a touchdown up the middle," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of Jackson. "I don't see any difference [from last season]. He's still explosive and still very talented. We'll have to get a lot people around him and stay on our feet, make sure we get him down."
Added safety Kevin Byard: "He's an explosive player, one of the most dynamic players in the league right now. You can't stop him altogether."
The Titans condensed the field against the Ravens last season, giving Jackson less space to operate and break free for signature explosive plays. It's a lot easier to catch such an elusive target when you cut down how much room he has to run.
That was the key to keeping Jackson under wraps. You have to shrink the field and commit an extra defender to spy on him. It truly becomes 11-on-11 football.
"The more space that you give good players and athletes in this league, the tougher it is to tackle them," Vrabel said. "You’re either going to have to be really good tacklers or try to find a way to use the sideline to your advantage knowing that he hasn't missed a tackle. It's easier said than done. There's times where they get north and south and gain a bunch of yards."
Part of keeping Jackson out of space involves maintaining rushing lanes so he can't find an opportunity to step up in the pocket and take off.
#Titans Harold Landry stressed the importance of being disciplined with the pass rush and not allowing Lamar Jackson to find a seam because he'll take off for a big gain. Here's an example. Jackson picked up a quick 30 yds on this scramble in the Div playoff game last year. pic.twitter.com/PvIpeGtpqj— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) November 19, 2020
The Titans are well aware of how quickly Jackson can eat up chunks of yards. Not all of his carries in the divisional game against the Titans came on called running plays. There were times when Jackson felt pressure and ran away for big gains. It's one of the added layers of pressure that Jackson puts on defenses.
"You have to contain him, push him more towards the sideline, and don't let him get a seam. If he gets a seam, it's bad news for the defense," Byard said.
Added outside linebacker Harold Landry, "We all gotta be disciplined and coordinated in the rush. We gotta have good rush lanes because you can't give him an opening. He'll take off."
The Ravens use running backs Mark Ingram , Gus Edwards and rookie J.K. Dobbins in addition to Jackson to attack defenses on the ground. Baltimore employs a lot of misdirection to get defenders going the wrong way or cause confusion.
Jackson is a wizard at reading the defense, especially with the read-option. While Jackson draws plenty of praise as a runner, it should also be noted he is a skilled passer that led the NFL with 37 touchdown passes last season. He is especially dangerous with RPOs where he finds tight end Mark Andrews on seam routes or slants for big plays.
All of the commotion and trickery in the backfield can cause trouble for defenses who are trying to diagnose plays. Vrabel mentioned jet motion and motion with various backfield sets as some of the ways Baltimore tries to confuse defenders. He pointed to alignment and assignment as a way to not get caught out of position.
The coaching staff gives the players a certain responsibility on each play and asks them to carry it out according to how they read their keys.
"The most important thing is getting lined up in the right spot and getting your eyes where they need to be to adjust accordingly," outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen said. "If you're not lined up from the start you don't stand a chance. It's assignment-based football. You have to make sure you're where you're supposed to be."
The Ravens like to get out to a fast start and slowly choke the life out of teams with a high-percentage, ball-control style of offense. Baltimore is outscoring teams 143-83 in the first half of games this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
They couldn't do that last year against the Titans because Tennessee jumped out to an early lead. That's what Tennessee needs to do again this Sunday.
"It's a different game in terms of when they're playing ahead versus when they're playing from behind," Bowen said.