The 49ers are heading for a titanic showdown with the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. While the Ravens have a good defense (#5 in points allowed and #11 in total yards), their offense is a terrifying juggernaut that only appears to be gaining momentum. Baltimore's success on offense centers around the transcendent talent of its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, and the offense drawn up by OC Greg Roman (remember him?) that uses Jackson's dynamic ability to stretch opposing defenses to the breaking point.

Fortunately for the 49ers, they have a wealth of talent on defense, and a remarkably talented defensive line that may contain enough pieces to contain Jackson (at least some of the time). The uncommon talent the 49ers deploy on defense generally allows them to play aggressively, at times looking as though they are flying around with reckless abandon, especially along the defensive line, where pass rushers will often leave their rushing lanes to win more quickly against their opposing linemen. While the 49ers have obviously played within defined roles and with specific responsibilities, they will have to be even more disciplined and just as aggressive to contain Jackson and the league's most dynamic offense.

Before we discuss the strategies that the 49ers might deploy to contain the Ravens offense, we need to look at the different ways Lamar Jackson can stress and break a defense.

HOW JACKSON WINS

When Jackson first burst onto the scene at Louisville, he was more of an athlete than a quarterback. He was an electrifying runner with phenomenal arm talent who was capable of making highlight reel off-schedule plays with ease, but he was not as much of a threat to quickly assess a defense and complete an on-schedule throw to the open receiver from the pocket. To his credit, Jackson has shown marked growth as a quarterback in each season since his breakout campaign. He is a fully developed quarterback now, who reads defenses swiftly and correctly, who has improved his accuracy on routine throws, and who still possesses the running ability and arm talent to make impossible plays look common. He is now equally capable of making sensational throws on-schedule and off-schedule, and he has the confidence in his arm to challenge defenders who are in good position.



DESIGNED QB RUNS

Greg Roman knows how to design running plays that take advantage of a mobile quarterback, and Lamar Jackson is as mobile as quarterbacks come. In a standard offense that does not present a running threat at quarterback, defenses automatically have a free tackler who is not accounted for by a blocker or the running back. Jackson's ability as a runner forces defenses to account for him in the running game, taking away a free tackler who could track the running back. Even when he does not keep the ball, the additional space his presence creates for running backs improves the Ravens rushing attack.


FORCE DEFENSES TO DECLARE PREDICTABLE COVERAGES

Offenses have so many ways to stretch a defense, that defenses need to limit how an offense can attack them. Traditionally, defenses must stop the run, in order to make offenses predictable and give themselves a chance to stop the pass. The methodical dominance of the Ravens running game forces opposing defenses to commit a safety into the box. By forcing defenses to roll a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, Jackson makes coverages more predictable. With two high safeties, defenses can play 7 basic coverages, with several variations. With one safety committed to run defense and aligned at linebacker depth, defenses are limited to 3 basic coverages, with a handful of variations. Two of those basic coverages are man coverage, which can generally be identified pre-snap with simple motions. The remaining zone coverage would be some variation of cover 3, which places three defensive backs in deep zones, each responsible for a third of the field, width-wise. By allowing Jackson to identify cover 3 before the snap, defenses expose the holes in their coverage before the snap. Cover 3 is vulnerable to seam passes, and Jackson throws deep seams very well.


EVADING THE PASS RUSH TO GET RECEIVERS OPEN

Jackson's rushing ability and arm strength are so breathtaking that it is easy to forget that he has the lateral agility, short-range quickness, and pocket awareness to deftly avoid oncoming pass rushers with small movements in the pocket and exciting escapes from the pocket. His evasion of pass rushers grants his receivers more time to get open, giving Jackson greater opportunity to make a big play down the field. His ability to make any throw on the field from the pocket or on the move allows him to capitalize on those opportunities frequently.



RUN-PASS OPTIONS

RPOs are essentially run plays where one or more of the slot receivers runs a hot route instead of attempting to block a linebacker or defensive back. By running their route directly at a linebacker's zone drop responsibility, the receiver forces the defender to choose between defending the pass and defending the run. If the defender flows quickly to his run read, the quarterback has an easy pass to complete where the defender should have been. If the linebacker holds for the pass, the quarterback hands the ball to the running back, who runs where the defender should be fitting against the run.


SCRAMBLING FOR BIG GAINS

Defenses need to change up their coverages in the NFL. Allowing a quarterback to accurately predict and attack one's coverages in the NFL is tacitly agreeing to surrender yards and points in bunches. This is especially true when calling a defense against the Ravens, who have downfield weapons like Marquise "Hollywood" Brown and Mark Andrews, along with a quarterback who can get the ball to them wherever they can create space. As such, it is necessary for defenses to use some man coverage each game, either as a primary coverage or as a changeup to break tendencies and slow the quarterback's reads. Jackson's counter to man coverage is a killer: he finds a seam between pass rushers and bursts instantly into the defensive backfield once the linebackers turn their backs to him while tracking their assigned receiving threats. Once he's in the open field, Jackson is as dangerous as any player in the league.


HOW TO CONTAIN HIM

PASS PLAYS

As I mentioned before, the 49ers will need to vary the coverages they call against the Ravens. By giving Jackson different reads, they can either trick him to throwing into coverage or cause him to hold the ball while diagnosing coverage, possibly giving the pass rush time to get home (more on that later). The 49ers might choose to start the game with two high safeties, presenting themselves with more coverage options, but I would imagine they will need the extra defender in the box to account for Jackson as a runner on read plays.

If the 49ers are predominately deployed in a single high safety look, they will need to vary between zone (cover 3) and man (cover 1) coverages. In zone, the deep defenders would be more capable of reacting to throws in front of them or any scramble attempts, as it would be easier for them to maintain eyes on the quarterback. In man coverage, the seam routes that are frequently open vs cover 3 would be carried down the field by a defender. Additionally, the 49ers could double either Brown or Andrews, potentially forcing Jackson away from his preferred target.

The 49ers could further complicate Jackson's reads by disguising their coverages before the snap. Offenses often put a receiver in pre-snap motion to identify coverage. In man coverage, the defender who originally lined up over the motion receiver follows him in motion across the formation, while in man coverage, each defender bumps over slightly in the direction of the motion, and each defender drops to the same zone to which he was assigned prior to the motion, though he might expect a different receiver to threaten his zone after the motion. In order to counter this attempt by offenses to diagnose coverage before the ball is snapped, some defenses are reacting non-traditionally to motion. Rather than follow the motion receiver across the formation, the assigned defender could bump himself and the other underneath defenders over one man, like in a zone look, and everyone in man coverage would simply switch their assignments one man over. In effect, Jackson would assume the 49ers were in zone coverage, and it would take him time to change that expectation after the ball was snapped. Conversely, with zone coverage called up, the 49ers could run a defender across the formation in man, and simply bump their underneath zone drop responsibilities one man over to simulate a man coverage look.


In order to limit Jackson's ability to change the game with off-schedule runs versus man coverage, the 49ers would need to deploy a "spy" to mirror the talented quarterback when they are in man coverage. The 49ers have frequently used a defensive lineman as a spy against mobile quarterbacks in the past, essentially having him remain on the line of scrimmage after reading pass, looking to pursue the quarterback only after he attempts to break contain.

It's unlikely that any of the 49ers defensive linemen can keep up with Jackson once he's running, especially with Ford either out or limited heading into the game. The 49ers have a pair of fast linebackers (Warner and Greenlaw), as well as three very fast safeties (Ward and Tartt, with Moore coming in for dime packages). Warner and Greenlaw are easy to deploy as spies, as they simply would hold position in the shallow defensive backfield and rally to any rushing attempt by Jackson or any short throw in their vicinity. As a tendency-breaker, Robert Saleh could deploy one of the safeties as a spy by rolling them down to linebacker depth, while having the other safety drop to the deep middle. The spying safety would look like he was deployed to "rob" shallow and intermediate in-breaking routes, but he would be primarily tasked with tackling Jackson as soon as he makes a move out of the pocket. This is a situation where the athletic interchangeability of the 49ers safeties allows them an advantage over opposing offenses.

If the 49ers are playing zone, they can easily keep tabs on Jackson by having the hole defender (usually a linebacker dropping to ten to fifteen yards in the middle of the defense) gain less depth in his drop (five to ten yards), disrupting shallow crossing routes, but primarily keeping an eye on Jackson.

To protect against the danger that Jackson presents as both a runner and a passer once he breaks contain, the 49ers should employ some discipline in their pass rush, containing and squeezing the pocket from the edges while collapsing the pocket from the interior. Delayed blitzes could also keep Jackson contained. Like a spy, a delayed blitzer is a secondary defender (usually a linebacker) who is assigned to hold position for a moment before he moves to tackle the quarterback. Unlike a spy, the delayed blitzer does not wait for the quarterback to make a move to break contain. Rather, a delayed blitzer waits until a seam begins to open between pass rushers and attacks that gap in anticipation of the quarterback making the same read. It is a more aggressive call, but it decreases the time and space that Jackson would have to create an explosive play, as a well-timed delayed blitz would meet him at or just behind the line of scrimmage.


If the 49ers want to stress containing the pocket without sacrificing any aggression, they could utilize a rush/replace strategy. Nick Bosa is one of the best edge rushers in the league at countering back inside of his offensive tackle, but he does it so frequently that quarterbacks expect to be able to break contain to his side. In a rush/replace scheme, a defensive lineman is allowed to rush in whichever direction he can, as long as he is winning faster than his linemates. The rule is, "don't follow color," which essentially means that if you see a teammate cross in front of you in his rush, you must alter your course to occupy his passing lane. In practice, it looks like an unscheduled two man stunt. This would allow Bosa to win inside, with Buckner, Armstead, or another interior rusher picking up contain (and likely a sack if Jackson flees the pocket in the direction that Bosa came from).

DESIGNED RUNS

Zone read is the most commonly understood QB read run play (a read call can technically be tagged onto any run, and power read and counter read plays are particularly difficult to defend). On zone reads, the offensive line and running back execute an outside zone running play and the quarterback reads a predetermined defender (usually the edge defender on the backside of the run) to determine whether to give the ball to the running back or keep it and run counter to the flow of the zone play. A standard defensive call against zone read is scrape exchange. In this call, the backside edge defender crashes inside to tackle the running back from behind, while giving an obvious run read to the quarterback. When the quarterback keeps the ball, the backside inside linebacker fills the C gap immediately, replacing the backside edge defender's responsibility and tackling the quarterback at or behind the line of scrimmage.


While the 49ers have two linebackers who are athletic enough to track and tackle mobile quarterbacks (as well as FS Tarvarius Moore, who often aligns at linebacker depth in dime personnel), Lamar Jackson is a dangerous enough runner that they should only call scrape exchange sparingly, as it is tempting fate to intentionally give Jackson a keep read throughout the game. A more successful strategy might be the one that the Ravens employed against the 49ers to slow down Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl 47. To keep Kaepernick from hurting them on the ground, the Ravens assigned their edge defender to attack the mesh point (the handoff exchange between the quarterback and running back), while aiming at Kaepernick's backside shoulder in order to elicit a "give" read and get the ball out of the quarterback's hands. Additionally, the Ravens took advantage of NFL rules that remove the protections a quarterback usually enjoys in the pocket, as he is still a running threat while carrying out his read run fake after handing off the ball. They forced a "give" read, and still hit Kaepernick as hard as they legally could after each hand off, giving the offensive coordinator incentive to stop calling the play. The aggressive physicality throughout the game can limit the effectiveness of zone runs, cause the quarterback to rush the mesh (possibly leading to fumbles), and alter the offensive game plan.

WRAP UP

There is no one play call that Robert Saleh can make to disarm the Raven's potent offensive attack. By strategically varying and disguising coverages and using varying strategies and personnel to contain and attack Lamar Jackson, the 49ers defense should be able to get enough stops to give their offense a chance to win the game.

Poll

  • How do you think the 49ers defense will perform against the Ravens offense?
  • Shut them down. It will be a dominant defensive display.
  • Slow them down. The Ravens will get some scoring drives and explosive plays, but they won't keep up with the 49ers offense.
  • Slow them down, but not enough. The Ravens don't meet their season average in points/yards, but they outpace the 49ers offense for the win.
  • Get beat down. It'll be a track meet, and the 49ers will be running behind all day.