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Kevin Gorman: Steelers preparing for Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, trick plays

November 23, 2018

The rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens is built on the same foundation as the AFC North foes themselves, predicated on the predictability of playing against a tough defense.

Where Baltimore boasts the NFL’s top-ranked defense, the Steelers are wary of the plot twists the Ravens present with their unpredictable play-calling with an offense that has two dangerous threats at quarterbacks: Joe Flacco’s arm and Lamar Jackson’s legs.

Jon Bostic brought that up Wednesday between gulps of Gatorade while sitting at his locker at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. The Steelers inside linebacker recalled watching tape of the Ravens’ 26-14 victory at Heinz Field, as the wee hours of September became October.

That’s when Bostic saw a formation he hadn’t recognized in game-planning: Ravens tight end Maxx Williams lined up next to center Matt Skura on a third-and-1, only to run free and catch a slant pass for a 22-yard gain. On the NBC telecast, former referee Terry McAulay said the Ravens got away with the deception play, as Williams should have lined up further back from the line of scrimmage to be an eligible receiver.

“The over-route came out of nowhwere. He was at guard!” Bostic said. “We found out it was illegal after, so it was a good play call by them. The refs didn’t catch it, either. So you’ve got to be ready for stuff like that. They’re going to throw everything. It’s a rivalry game.”

The only thing the Steelers expect from the Ravens is the unexpected, especially as it pertains to their use of Jackson, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Louisville and No. 32 overall pick.

That the Steelers are preparing for Jackson doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready for how the Ravens will utilize him. And they don’t want to spend too much time on the rookie, given that Flacco completed 28 of 42 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting.

The Steelers prepared for Jackson in the first meeting, too, only to see him run 8 yards to set up a first-quarter touchdown for a 14-0 lead and convert a crucial third-and-3 from the Baltimore 40 in the second half. Jackson finished with four carries for 17 yards, but two proved critical.

The Steelers don’t know what the Ravens will have up their sleeve, so they are trying to be ready for anything. That includes keeping an eye on Flacco when he is split wide on plays when Jackson is taking snaps.

“I haven’t seen that on a game film, but I wouldn’t put it past them to try it against us,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said, “You never know what’s going to happen, so you’ve got to be prepared for every situation.”

Jackson has completed 6 of 11 passes for 75 yards with a touchdown, and has 23 carries for 129 yards and a touchdown in eight games this season. He was used mostly in short-yardage and red-zone situations early in the season, but the Ravens are incorporating Jackson into their offense more each week.

“He’s a quarterback first, and I think people kind of forget that,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “I know he prides himself in being a quarterback first. He can sling the ball. I think when he gets the chance to and goes in a game like that, he’s only going to shine. I think people are surprised by seeing that, but he’s been doing that all along since rookie camp. No one here is really surprised by anything.”

In the 36-21 loss at the Carolina Panthers last week, Jackson took three snaps on Baltimore’s opening drive. He had a 17-yard run on an option keeper and made a run-pass option read that allowed Alex Collins to score on a 14-yard run. Jackson also made mistakes, most prominent was short-hopping a throw to a wide-open Willie Snead on a third-and-1 at the Ravens’ 10.

But the blowout allowed Baltimore to hand the reins to Jackson in the second half, and he completed 4 of 5 passes for 46 yards and rushed three times for 26 yards. Jackson led a seven-play, 64-yard drive that concluded with a 26-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hayden Hurst.

“Lamar Jackson’s certainly a great athlete and playmaker and a quarterback -- that’s the thing about him, he’s a quarterback - and that gives you chance to create some problems for the defense,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what you’re trying to do: trying to gain some yards, trying to get some first downs and score some points.”

What the Steelers are attempting to prevent is the unpredictable play-calling that could put Jackson in position to gain yards, get first downs and some points.

“We definitely want to make sure we pay attention to that because if you don’t pay attention, that’s when they get you,” Tuitt said. “You shouldn’t have to wait for a moment. You should just know in general that when that guy’s on the field, he’s got a tremendous skill, so they want the ball in his hands.”

The Steelers will have to keep one eye on stopping Flacco and another on tracking Jackson every time he takes the field. That’s what the Ravens want, for the Steelers to see double and miss the sleight of hand.

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