The Colts' defense began practicing to face the Baltimore Ravens' offense way back in training camp, when the days were hot and long and the season felt a ways away.
It was a period here, a period there at Grand Park in Westfield spent working on option rules for when Week 5 rolled around against a Ravens' offense built around the unique talents of quarterback Lamar Jackson. That work was done with the intent of making sure players didn't practice those option rules for the first time this week.
Unique, by the way, is a word often mis-used – for something to be truly unique, it cannot be or is not replicated. Well, the Ravens' offense is legitimately unique to the NFL.
"The ability for the quarterback to run the ball as part of their running game, and that's unique," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. "You don't see that all the time. Everyone runs the RPOs, but there's no threat of the quarterback actually pulling it and keeping it typically until the fourth quarter, red zone, third down – when it counts. This is every down with him. That's definitely unique and you have to have your responsibilities down as a defensive end, outside backer, safety, whoever is involved in that perimeter type of play. You have to be on it, and we have to make sure we're detailed on it."
The Ravens enter Week 5 averaging 5.2 yards per rush, third in the NFL; Jackson topped the NFL in average yards per carry in 2019 (6.9) and 2020 (6.3) and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry this season. And the majority of Jackson's runs are designed – only 15 of his 42 rushing attempts have been on scrambles through four games.
Those designed option runs with Jackson stress a defense mentally. If one player is off his assignment, it's liable to be a big play.
"They built the entire running game around (Jackson)," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Whether he keeps it or gives it off or whatever it is – the majority of the runs are pretty much an option. That makes a lot of defenses be a little hesitant in their run fits and little things like that. You never know when he's going to pull it.
"So, if you've got the quarterback, get the quarterback. If you've got the dive, get the dive."
It's one thing to shut down Baltimore's rushing offense. It's another to shut down the entire offense, as the Denver Broncos found out last week.
The Broncos held the Ravens to just 3.4 yards per carry on 30 rushing attempts in Week 4, but Jackson 22 of 37 passes for 316 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He hit deep shots of 49 and 30 yards as the Ravens were able to attack downfield even with their running game running below its usual efficiency.
"Lamar Jackson's passing skills are underrated," head coach Frank Reich said. "I love the way he throws the ball. From a quarterback standpoint fundamentally, his upper-body mechanics are really clean and crisp. He's got a very strong arm. He's got a quick, compact release. This year, it just feels like to me they're throwing it down the field a little bit more and he's doing an excellent job."
A year ago, the Colts did a good job shutting down Jackson and the Ravens' offense for the first two quarters of their Week 9 meeting. Baltimore averaged 1.8 yards per carry in the first half; in the second half, the Ravens rushed 20 times for 92 yards and Jackson was efficient through the air, paving the way for a 24-10 win at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"They made some good halftime adjustments, and we just didn't do that," Reich said. "On either side of the ball, we didn't adjust to what they did so ultimately that is why they won the game."
Friday's Practice Report