MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The beginning of the end of the Baltimore Ravens’ 2021 season came on a humid November evening here in Week 10. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens had won six of their first eight games to position themselves for another playoff run. And then they ran into the blitz-happy Miami Dolphins, who not only pulled off one of the year’s biggest upsets but sent the Ravens on a tailspin from which they never recovered.
Ten months later, they meet again, this time in Baltimore. While many of the specifics have changed, one aspect will almost certainly remain the same: Josh Boyer will dial up a ton of blitzes, and ascending Dolphins strong safety Brandon Jones will be asked to execute many of them.
Brandon Jones is Miami Dolphins’ key to stopping Lamar Jackson
Jones and fellow safety Jevon Holland blitzed Jackson 15 and 17 times, respectively, in that last meeting — and often did so on the same play. The Dolphins’ use of the Cover Zero blitz — when every receiver is single-covered, and every other available player gets after the QB — completely broke the up-until-then effective Ravens offense.
Jackson was sacked four times and rushed for 39 yards on nine carries. He also completed 26 of 43 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown, and an interception.
And while Boyer’s scheme will surely have some new wrinkles this time around, the Ravens fully expect the Dolphins to go back to what worked — until Baltimore proves it can be stopped.
“They just caught us off guard really,” Jackson said this week. “We haven’t really went over defenses doing all-up Zero against us, like just all-up, flat-out Zero. I feel we have an answer for it this year. We watch film, watched a lot of film on those guys, because we don’t want it to happen again.”
Added Ravens coach John Harbaugh: “We’d have been negligent if we hadn’t worked on it. It’s something we need to get a lot better at, and we studied it the whole offseason. We’ll have a plan for it. Hope it works, because these guys are probably the best in the league at doing it.”
Brandon Jones is a star on the rise
Having a plan and actually executing it are two totally different things. You can have all the hot routes in the book, but if the pass rush gets home too fast — or the coverage is too tight to complete — the point is moot.
Just ask Mac Jones. The New England Patriots quarterback didn’t even see Jones blitz from the blindside deep in his own end in Week 1. Jones had a free run at the quarterback and forced a fumble that Melvin Ingram recovered for a touchdown.
It was just the latest big play from a third-year defensive back who consistently punches above his weight (191 pounds).
“I think it was just timing,” Jones said of his strip-sack. “Just tried to time it up the best I can. Anytime I get in a situation like that, it always looks like it was too good to be true. ‘No way someone’s not blocking me.’ I was able to make the play, Melvin scooped it up with one hand and got the touchdown. It was a great play.”
Jones and Holland can both cover and mix it up in the trenches. But Holland is certainly a more effective centerfield defender, while Jones — who has seven sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and three forced fumbles in 32 NFL games — is more effective near the line of scrimmage.
“I like it a lot, especially being undersized,” said Jones, the former Texas Longhorn taken by the Dolphins with the 70th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. “I feel like a lot of people see me and are like, ‘Oh, he’s probably not a hard-hitter, we can take advantage of this guy.’
“I take it as a, put a chip on my shoulder, knowing that I’m not the biggest guy out there but definitely going to be felt when I’m taking on blocks, getting tackles for loss, sacks, stuff like that. I’ve always taken a lot of pride playing in the box, being physical.”
What will Dolphins do on Sunday?
Jones, of course, wouldn’t divulge the game plan for Sunday. But the Dolphins are by their very nature a blitzing defense. And they’ve seen the ugly outcome when teams don’t get to Jackson early in the play.
“If you give him too much time, ain’t no telling,” Jones said. “He’s like a magician. He can do a lot of things with his feet, he can throw the ball 60, 65 yards downfield. I think just being able to bring more than they can block at points, and overall just rushing a lot and keep contain. With a guy like that, you never know. You can think you have it wrapped up and next thing you know he’s 15 yards down the field. Just being able to keep him in the pocket and play our game.”