Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the NFL’s two transcendent quarterbacks, meet tonight in the game of the season so far. The compelling match will see the two unbeaten favourites in the AFC, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens, battle it out for a precious head-to-head advantage, given the change in rules this season will mean only one team per conference will be given a first-round bye for the play-offs.
The lure of both passers is clear: they extend plays. By doing so, they have the ability to break the spirit of opponents, leaving days of work plotting their demise on the scrapheap moments after glimpsing a famous scalp.
Jackson is now playing with a certain swagger, defying any critics left off the back of his MVP season. And while Mahomes might be the greatest of all when it’s all said and done, Jackson could well be the most electrifying athlete in sport today.
“It’s the worst thing you can have for a defensive coordinator, you can have all the greatest schemes and plans you want, but guys like them extend plays, and that’s what absolutely kills you,” veteran NFL defensive coordinator and two-time Super Bowl champion Rob Ryan explains to The Independent.
“They extend plays by moving around in the pocket; Mahomes kills you way more by throwing the football. The guy closest to him is Aaron Rodgers in his prime, but Mahomes is even faster, so he has way more weapons than Rodgers had. That task is almost impossible.”
Jackson, 23, has teased us through two near-flawless games, exposing what opponents give him with his passing, rather than leaping off our screens with the trademark marauding runs that have taken the league by storm. Instead, Jackson has displayed his finesse with a flick of the wrist to send the ball spiralling to all parts of the field in a versatile offense.
His yards per attempt this season is up at 9.8, compared to 7.8 last season, while predictably his rushing yards per attempt is down from a ludicrous 6.9 to 4.3.
“Lamar Jackson extends plays, but what’s worse for you there is that he runs with the play action,” Ryan adds. “You can’t really compare Lamar Jackson to anybody who has ever played the game.
“People will say Michael Vick, but that’s a terrible comparison. Michael Vick played in a drop-back passing offense, he’d drop back and run. But this kid is in a running offense where he’s also a 1,000-yard rusher [1,206 yards in 15 regular season games last season, sixth among all players in the league].
“Not only does he run play action, but he runs the football, now you have to commit everybody down to stop the run. That’s why he’s the No1 passer from the pocket, because with play action, there’s so many open receivers to throw to, to stop the No 1 rushing offense in football.”
So how do defenders adjust? Ryan admits there is “trepidation” in the days leading up to the game and then of course the threat of becoming “disheartened” should your offense fail to keep pace and profit from any success in slowing these offensive juggernauts.
It means the NFL can be a lonely place for defenders when Mahomes or Jackson have time and space to dissect opponents.
“The problem as a defender is you are accustomed to doing your job, but you have to keep an eye out for anything else that might happen, a QB that can put the ball anywhere on the field running to his left or right, or somebody who can outrun anybody, you’re in a stressful position,” admits Super Bowl 20 champion and former Chicago Bears safety Shaun Gayle.
“When you face Mahomes, the clock in your head usually goes off after four seconds, the pass rush is there, the QB can get the ball downfield. But against him you have to extend that, try to adjust for this one game and player – that’s the biggest challenge.”
Part of the fascination surrounding tonight’s game at M&T Bank Stadium then will be the adjustments made by defensive coordinators Don Martindale and Steve Spagnuolo.
Ryan insists both will need to lean on their creativity to discombobulate Mahomes and Jackson, though he concedes there is a very real prospect their efforts could be futile.
“My best chance against Mahomes would be to jam Tyreek Hill at the line of scrimmage and play somebody on top of him,” Ryan begins. “Then you have to double [Travis] Kelce, then just stay on top of [Sammy] Watkins and [Mecole] Hardman and hope Mahomes doesn’t kill you by extending plays.
“You have to have a great rush plan, then have a spy on him [Jackson]. Nobody has been able to stop these guys, so good luck.
“He’s such a good athlete, he’s always done this, he’s a special guy, he doesn’t take big hits because he’s so much faster than everybody on the field. You have to keep coverage tight somehow, it’s simply on paper but it’s hard to execute because of the running defense, everybody wants to play zone against him to keep eyes on Lamar, in case he takes off and runs.
“But what that does, when you run a hard sell play action when they do, it sucks everybody up, and all those intermediate passers are wide open, so if you play more man coverage, you worry about losing him in the pocket: he won’t run for 10 yards, he can even run for 80!
“Nobody stopped them last year, so you have to come up with a plan better than everybody else has, but that’s where I’d start, you have to have a multiple attack or it’s going to be a long day for you.”
You can watch Baltimore Ravens vs Kansas City Chiefs on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports NFL with coverage starting at 1am on Tuesday