Next for an Eagles defense that was unable to get off the field on third down, including a critical third-and-8 touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Chase Claypool on Sunday in the loss at Pittsburgh, is a Lincoln Financial Field date this week – with fans in the stands! – against, well, a player who gives defenses all kinds of poisons to pick.
"Lamar Jackson is probably the most dangerous player in the league," Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday in his weekly teleconference with reporters, referring to Baltimore's multitalented quarterback, "because there are times you can do everything right on defense and can't catch him, or he can throw a ball sidearm underneath of a free rusher and complete a pass.
"I think that you've got to have a resilient attitude when you play him, and you know that a playmaker like him is going to make some plays. You just have to limit his big plays, and you have to stay resilient. You can't hang your hat if he ends up making a play. They are a strong running team, not just with Lamar Jackson but with (running back) Mark Ingram, with the rookie that's back (running back J.K. Dobbins).
"All their running backs are good, powerful running backs. They are a power running team. Strong offensive line, and it's not just the tight ends. They have got wide receivers that make big plays for them. Again, it's another offense, (if) you try too hard to take one thing away, you devote too many resources to stopping Lamar Jackson's feet, there's plenty of opportunities in the pass game, or there's plenty of opportunities to hand the ball to someone else. You see teams overplay option and get gashed up the middle, or you see teams play too tough up the middle and they are vulnerable to option."
In other words, the Eagles have a tremendous challenge on Sunday. The 4-1 Ravens are still trying to figure things out offensively, especially when defenses – in rare instances – are able to contain Jackson's legs and force him to throw from the pocket, or when the opposition takes a lead and Baltimore has to win with the passing game. In Baltimore's lone loss this season, the Ravens fell behind 27-10 to Kansas City by halftime and Jackson was forced to play throwball. It didn't work well for Baltimore – Jackson threw for all of 97 yards and even with the 161 yards the Ravens rolled up on the ground, it wasn't enough in a 34-20 loss. Jackson's record as a starting NFL quarterback is 23-4 in the regular season, but he's 0-2 in the postseason as defenses have squeezed his rushing attempts and he's been unable to win from the pocket as a passer.
Maybe that's the formula for the Eagles – jump out early and force Baltimore to throw the ball. But that's hard to count on with an Eagles offense that has had its own struggles putting points on the board. Schwartz, at the end of the day, knows his defense needs to perform at its highest level for 60 minutes.
A letdown against Jackson – who has run for 238 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and who has 949 passing yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions – means six points for Baltimore. Teams have gone to great lengths against him, including using a spy to try to contain his tearing apart a defense with his legs.
"That's something a lot of people do. We've done it in the past against different quarterbacks," Schwartz said. "We'll see what we get to with Sunday with different schemes. There's a lot of ways to try to battle scrambling quarterbacks or guys with legs. You can blitz. You can play visual zone where you have a lot of eyes on him. You can play man with spies. There's a lot of different ways to be able to handle that. I don't want to give too much of what we would do personnel-wise when it comes to Sunday, but that's certainly a thing is his run keepers on first and second down and then scrambling to keep plays alive.
"I think that's a little bit underestimated with Lamar Jackson. Everybody talks about him scrambling. A lot of times on third down, he's more just buying time. He's using his arm. He's finding guys that are wide open because of the stress it puts on the defense with him buying time back there. He certainly can run and gain yards and gain first downs, but I think you're seeing a little bit more of him sort of buying time in the pocket, buying some time and it puts – it really says, look, you've got to get those guys covered; before anything else, you've got to get guys covered, and then you can take care of the quarterback."
Which do you choose if you're Schwartz – mush-rushing Jackson and maybe using a spy to take away his running – or focusing on not allowing Baltimore to win with big plays in the passing game? Or maybe it's a hybrid approach? The Eagles are going to see many instances of Jackson on the edge in a read-option play and they're going to have to have an answer. For the most part, the Eagles have done a good job against the run in Schwartz's time here. But they don't see quarterbacks like Jackson, with the damage his legs can do to a defense.
Sunday is a new day, a new opportunity for the defense to assert itself and set its course for the remainder of the season. The thing is, all 11 players have to be just about perfect on every play to make it work against a quarterback who is a 60-yard touchdown run away from happening on every snap of the football.