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Four days earlier, Lamar Jackson had worked miracles.

He had rallied the Ravens after a two-touchdown deficit against the Minnesota Vikings, throwing for 266 yards, running for another 120 and leading a 10-play streak to win the game in overtime. Eight weeks into the 2021 season, the Ravens were 6-2, and it wasn’t hard to find analysts who thought their quarterback was the league’s most valuable player.

Jackson was back at his old South Florida stomping grounds on a Thursday night, ready to add some sparkle to his campaign as a national public witness.

The Miami Dolphins, 2-7 ahead and barely a defensive terror, had radically different notions of how the night would play out. From the first series, they crowded the line of scrimmage with eight defenders. Whether they actually rushed six or seven or were just teasing the possibility, they dared Jackson to react quickly and with enough precision to punish them.

He could not. He took four sacks, threw an interception, converted two of 14 third downs and only led the Ravens to a touchdown deep in the fourth quarter. Cover 0, the man-to-man and blitz lineup that pulls a zone cover safety to overload the line of scrimmage, has become the new buzz term in Jackson’s stoppage business.

On paper, the Ravens’ season didn’t end with their disheartening 22-10 loss at Miami. They would come in at 8-3 and hold the No.1 seed in the AFC after 12 weeks. But their offense has never been the same, scoring more than 22 points just once in the past nine weeks after averaging 28 in the first eight games. Jackson became a more nervous quarterback, rushing throws and taking sacks as his protection failed.

As the Ravens prepare for a rematch with the Dolphins in their home opener on Sunday, they hope to have left the 2021 demons behind. But until Jackson thrives against Jackson’s defensive style of play Miami, doubts will persist.

“They just caught us off guard, really,” Jackson said, thinking back to last year’s game. “We hadn’t really gotten past the defenses making a total zero against us – like, just an absolute zero. But I feel that we will have an answer this year. We watched movies – lots of movies about these guys – because we don’t want that to happen again.

The Dolphins then replaced their defense-focused head coach Brian Flores with lead offensive Mike McDaniel, but they retained coordinator Josh Boyer (McDaniel calls him the defense head coach) and all of their main defenders, so there is little reason to believe that their approach will change. If the Ravens are struggling this time around, it won’t be for lack of concocting and practicing counter-attacks.

“We would have been negligent if we hadn’t worked on it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said with a self-deprecating laugh. “It was something that we needed to improve a lot, and we’ve been looking at it all offseason. We’ll have a plan for it and hope it works out, because these guys are probably the best in the league to do it in They’re doing it more than anyone, they’re doing it better than anyone and it’s just something they’re committed to.

The Ravens had their chances last November to make Miami pay for their approach. In the first practice of the match, they faced third-and-long with eight dolphins lining the line of scrimmage. The offensive line did its job. Jackson pulled away from Miami’s lone free runner and threw a pass to Sammy Watkins, who had passed his lone defender. Whether Watkins lost the ball in the lights or thought he couldn’t reach it, he stopped when Jackson’s pass landed just yards from him in the back end zone.

It was a missed opportunity, not only for the points remaining on the table, but for the chill it could have created in Miami’s ultra-aggressive defenders. Instead of hesitating a step following a 28-yard touchdown from Jackson to Watkins, they got bolder as the game progressed.

“It slows down the blitz defense, and it causes the safeties to stay back, the corners to stay back, and it just lets us do our thing,” Jackson said of the connection on a first pitch to down, like he almost did in the loss to the Dolphins. “Underneath we could have runs here, get passes under here. And if they come up, we throw the ball over again.

Instead of continuing that positive chain reaction, the Ravens resorted to a series of ineffective control throws and transfers on first and second downs. Miami’s blitzes choked out Jackson the jammer in addition to Jackson the setter. When the Ravens called plays that could have worked, their execution often fell short. Jackson threw low or behind receivers. He rushed plays that required him to set up a defender. Saves missed blocking assignments. The pass catchers dropped balls and did not adjust their routes to provide better targets. Jackson found some momentum in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too late.

“It was definitely an area where there were a lot of things we could have done better – coaching, playing, whatever,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “But it’s something you have to look at with a cold-blooded mentality. You can’t be emotional about it. You have to look at it strategically and fundamentally and figure out how you can fix some things, better explain some things, how to practice things a little better.

The Ravens know they need to hit some big shots in the rematch, just like they did in Week 1 when their offense gained a foothold in the third quarter against the New York Jets. A 17-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Devin Duvernay gave them the decisive lead, and a 55-yard connection with Rashod Bateman put the game aside.

Those exact plays might not work against Miami, Harbaugh said, but the Ravens will have to find other ways to achieve similar results.

“It definitely builds confidence,” he said. “You would like to hurt them in this way. That’s the idea, hurt them any way you can, and we’ll have different ideas of how to do that, and I’m sure they’ll prepare for those things as well.

Slow-developing routes might not be the ticket. Receivers will need to separate quickly, a challenge that Bateman, who is known for his sharp exits from the line of scrimmage, relishes. “It’s just having a plan and knowing what you’re doing,” he said. “Just play fast.”

He was the team’s most productive receiver in Miami last season, catching six passes on eight targets for 80 yards.

Roman noted that the Dolphins are just as capable of patient play as they are attacking. Numerous times in last year’s game they showed Cover 0, only to drop two defenders in cover to scramble midfield.

“But if they want to roll the dice to get everybody on their feet,” he said, “you have to hit them.”


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In rematch with Dolphins, Ravens and Lamar Jackson seek new blitz answers – The Denver Post

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