On the first play from scrimmage Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore Ravensquarterback Lamar Jackson pulled back a handoff on a read option and took off himself. Defensive end Joey Bosa nearly ran down the rookie, but when Jackson avoided him, safety Derwin Jameswas there to finish the job for a 1-yard loss.
It proved to be a precursor for most of the game. The Ravens struggled to find chunk plays against a defense that tried something unique: getting rid of linebackers altogether.
The Chargers relied on four defensive linemen and seven defensive backs for all but one defensive play in the game. The result was a secondary that didn’t give Jackson many options to throw to, and that did a good job of chasing down the elusive quarterback when he tried to run.
It was a perfect plan for stopping a unique Baltimore offense, but it was more than that. It may have also been a peek into the future of football.
Why ditching linebackers worked against the Ravens
The simplest advantage that defensive backs have over linebackers is speed. The advantage for linebackers is size and strength.
Typically, having more cornerbacks on the field is a strategy for defending the pass. But the Chargers did it against the Ravens’ run-heavy attack due to the rare speed of Jackson.
“Lamar’s fast, he’s real fast,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said after the game. “We thought getting more speed guys in there — we didn’t know if that was going to work — but we wanted to take a look at it. We felt like today, it worked fine. They could run him down a little bit, or at least catch him. With the linebackers in there, the bigger guys, that didn’t work out so well the first time.”
That first time was the Chargers’ 22-10 loss to the Ravens in Week 16. Jackson only ran for 39 yards in that game, but the danger he presented with the read option allowed running back Gus Edwards to get 92 rushing yards on 14 attempts.
In the postseason rematch, Edwards was held to 23 yards on eight attempts.
A player often responsible for reading Jackson’s option plays was Derwin James. The rookie safety played near the line of scrimmage throughout the game, and — thanks to his 4.4 speed — wasn’t intimidated by the athleticism of the Ravens’ quarterback.