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Pittsburgh dispatch: How the Steelers slowed Lamar Jackson at Heinz Field

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scrambles between Pittsburgh Steelers defensive linemen Javon Hargrave (79) and Cameron Heywardin the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The Ravens won 26-23. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scrambles between Pittsburgh Steelers defensive linemen Javon Hargrave (79) and Cameron Heywardin the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The Ravens won 26-23. (AP Photo/Don Wright) (Don Wright/AP)

PITTSBURGH — Editor’s note: With Ravens-Steelers Week upon us, The Baltimore Sun offers a little insight from enemy territory with some bonus coverage from our colleagues at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson terrorized the NFL last season, winning league Most Valuable Player honors after throwing for 3,127 yards and 36 touchdowns while rushing for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns. Most teams had no answer for his dual-threat skill set, but two teams had more success than the rest: the Steelers and the Titans.

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The Steelers intercepted Jackson three times, sacked him five times and limited him to 161 passing yards and a 54.9 quarterback rating in a 26-23 overtime loss at Heinz Field.

In an AFC divisional round playoff game, the Titans forced three turnovers, including two interceptions, and held the Ravens to 12 points, though Jackson threw for 365 yards and ran for 143. And, most importantly, the Titans upset the top-seeded Ravens to end their season.

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There is much to glean from the way the Steelers played against the Ravens last season in their only meeting against Jackson. (Jackson and other Ravens starters rested in the regular-season finale in Baltimore.)

The Steelers struggled in the early stages of the loss and allowed Jackson to escape pressure and get scramble yards, and he found some open receivers in the passing game, too. The Ravens, as a result, took an early 17-7 lead.

“We did some stunts early that kind of put us at a disadvantage,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We gave them some yards through penalties that really settled him in. We understand he’s an outstanding talent, but we can’t have self-inflicted wounds.”

Once the Steelers settled, it was a completely different story. Over the span of four possessions late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter, the Steelers finally got Jackson out of his comfort zone. In those four possessions, over 22 snaps, the Steelers snagged all three of their interceptions and registered three of their five sacks.

The dominant stretch allowed the Steelers to take a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter.

“Sure, there’s some lessons to be learned,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “There are some things to look back at, but we better be prepared for what he is doing in the present.”

The Steelers mixed their coverage schemes well against Jackson. On the first interception, they were playing with three safeties on the field. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds were giving Jackson a two-deep look presnap, but the Steelers shifted into a one-high safety look with Kam Kelly as the deep man just before the snap. Fitzpatrick jumped a short route to tight end Mark Andrews and deflected the pass into the air. Kelly swooped in and picked it off.

That’s one way to defend Jackson: by creating presnap confusion and uncertainty.

On the next series, after a short Mark Ingram II run on first down, the Steelers played man coverage on second and third down. Both plays resulted in sacks and forced a Ravens punt.

On the next series, just before halftime with the Ravens backed up deep in their own end, the Steelers played zone against Jackson on the only two times he dropped back to pass. The first resulted in a sack, and the second resulted in a Mike Hilton interception.

The Steelers can and will implement similar schemes against the Ravens on Sunday when they travel to M&T Bank Stadium in a game that will decide which team is atop the AFC North.

What they won’t have is Devin Bush’s cover ability against the Ravens tight ends. The tight ends, especially Andrews, are Jackson’s favorite targets. They had nine of Jackson’s 19 completed passes in the game last season.

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On one target that was not completed, Bush came up with the third and final interception. On the first Ravens drive of the third quarter, they ran 11 plays before Jackson dropped back and targeted tight end Nick Boyle deep down the seam with linebacker Bush in tight coverage. The ball tipped off Boyle’s hands and into Bush’s arms as he tumbled to the ground.

The Steelers will miss Bush’s speed and playmaking ability in coverage Sunday. Robert Spillane and Ulysees Gilbert III will play in his place. They fared well against the Titans, but their abilities as coverage linebackers and to play in space defending against the read option and scrambles will be put to the test against Jackson.

Jackson’s longest run against the Steelers was 9 yards. He averaged 5 yards per rush, 2 yards fewer than his season average. The 54.9 quarterback rating was by far his lowest of the season.

The Steelers might not have depth at linebacker, but they do have safety depth if they want to employ that three-safety look again Sunday. Sean Davis hasn’t played a defensive snap this season, but he could help run down Jackson and cover tight ends if called upon.

The Ravens aren’t quite as prolific offensively this season. They remain among the top scoring teams (29.8 ppg), but they’re just 27th in total offense, averaging 342 yards, 66 yards fewer than their average last season.

Jackson has been a bit more vulnerable in the pocket, too. Opponents have sacked him 15 times in the first six games. He was sacked just 23 times all last season.

However, he remains dangerous. Jackson has touchdown runs of 50 and 37 yards this season.

“It’s misdirection. It’s also his talent. He’s very explosive,” Heyward said. “But I think the thing that helps a lot is they have an extra blocker now. Most of these teams when they hand off to the running back the quarterback isn’t a blocker. In this scheme they have they have their big fullback and receivers are willing to block. Guys have to get off blocks. Guys have to make tackles because if you don’t he’s going to hit you for a big one.”

rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1

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