Brian Griese knows how far Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has come since he threw his first pass at Louisville. After all, he was there for it.
The first-year “Monday Night Football” analyst has covered Jackson just once in his broadcasting career; it happened to be Jackson’s first college game. In 2015, Griese was handling color commentary for the Cardinals' season opener against No. 6 Auburn on ESPN. Before the game, he asked then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about the team’s quarterback situation.
“And he’s like, ‘Well, I’ve got this young kid. You’re really going to like him. He’s been amazing,’” Griese recalled. Reggie Bonnafon was going to start, but Jackson, a true freshman, was an option, too. “And sure enough, Lamar came in and played.”
“But you could see,” said Griese, a former Pro Bowl quarterback with the Denver Broncos. “You could tell that there was a next-level athleticism."
The version of Jackson that Griese will see inside M&T Bank Stadium is a little bit different: Jackson is the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player and one of the league’s most accurate quarterbacks. The Baltimore Sun spoke Saturday with Griese about the battle for AFC supremacy, how the Ravens might try to stop quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Monday’s intriguing matchups and more.
The hype around this game is extraordinary. Have you gotten a sense for whether these teams see this game as a measuring-stick-type game?
I think you ask professionals that question, and they’re going to give you the answer that, “No, it’s not the game of the century.” They’re going to say all the right things. But I played for quite some time, and they are different. These games are different. You want to see where you measure up.
Obviously, it’s different for the Ravens, having lost the last two times they’ve played the Chiefs. And so I think that there’s a prove-it mentality — I talked to Coach [John] Harbaugh about that today. They want to prove that they belong. They want to prove that it’s not just about the regular season. And I think they understand and realize that this is a team that, if they make it to the postseason, they’ll probably see again.
So there’s a lot to be gained from playing well and winning in this type of game for your confidence and also, ultimately, for that No. 1 seed and potential bye.
How would a win change your thoughts on the AFC’s pecking order?
Well, I don’t have any doubt in my mind that these are the two best teams in the AFC. And so whoever wins this game, in my mind, will be the favorite in the AFC.
We haven’t seen Lamar Jackson really take off with his legs yet. We’ve also seen his improvement as a passer. If you’re Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, are you more worried about what he can do through the air or on the ground?
I think that Steve Spagnuolo is a smart coach. I think that he has been around long enough to know that you’re going to take away the thing that the offense does best, and I would anticipate that he’s going to want to keep Lamar Jackson in the pocket and continue to make him prove that he can operate from the pocket. I think we’ve seen what he can do and how he breaks down defenses when he uses his legs.
I think every defensive coordinator across the NFL would tell you the same thing, that they would prefer to keep Lamar Jackson in the pocket and force him to make those throws in tight windows down the field. And by the way, that’s pretty much every quarterback. So it’s not an easy thing to do.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens led the NFL last year in blitz rate. Do you expect defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale to be more aggressive than usual against Kansas City, or do you think it’ll be more reactive?
I think Coach Martindale’s going to change it up. Obviously, you can’t feature one thing over another. I think he’s going to continue to try to confuse Patrick Mahomes. They’ve had some success in that in the past.
I don’t think that they are going to need to pressure as much this season as they did a year ago. They have improved on the inside of this defense with [defensive ends] Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe. I mean, the amount of pressure that they can get on quarterbacks without having to bring five, six defenders, I think, has improved this year because Derek Wolfe’s a great pass rusher, as is Campbell. So I think they’re going to use more of their four-man rush.
And at times, certainly, “Wink” Martindale likes to bring pressure, and I think the key to his defense is, you don’t know who’s coming. They can bring pressure and still drop out defenders in zones. So I think that you couple that with the fact that they didn’t have [cornerback] Marcus Peters a year ago when they played this game, and he’s a game-changer.
And when you have Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith — three corners that are big, physical and can get up in your face and can guard guys like [tight end] Travis Kelce, won’t blink an eye at [wide receivers] Mecole Hardman and Tyreek Hill’s speed — I think that you operate defensively from a point of confidence. And I think that’s what we’re going to see on Monday night.
Neither team’s offensive line has gotten off to the level of pass blocking that it had last year, and yet they’ve still been two of the NFL’s most prolific offenses. What does tell you about where they are right now and where they could go?
Baltimore has come out and they have played excellent, I think. Yeah, Lamar took a couple of sacks last week. A couple of those were him holding the ball. I wouldn’t put that on the offensive line.
But I think they’ve found what what they want to do, how they want to play: physical, downhill run game. They’re trying to build on that downfield passing game. There’s been some signs, some good signs, positive signs, for Lamar with respect to that.
And we know what the Chiefs can do. They may sputter from time to time, but you’re not going to hold that offense down long.
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Well, they’re putting a lot on [inside linebacker] Patrick Queen. That’s a sacred ground in the middle of the Baltimore defense for the past 20 years or so. But thankfully, they don’t have to put too much on his plate, the way that Don plays defense. But certainly, adding him and his speed to run sideline to sideline behind this defensive front, he’s the one that has really jumped out at me on the defensive side.
And then offensively, [running back] J.K. Dobbins is the one everybody wants to talk about, but probably the most important insertion is [right guard] Tyre Phillips. A big, big guy who played in the [Southeastern Conference], played against a lot of good defensive linemen — but still, he’s a rookie. And he’s going to have his hands full with [defensive tackle] Chris Jones, for sure. I anticipate [center Matt] Skura and [right tackle] Orlando Brown [Jr.] in some double-team situations there with Chris Jones.
This is a game that’s being framed as Lamar Jackson versus Patrick Mahomes, but is there an offense-defense matchup that you think’s particularly interesting?
Yeah, there’s a lot of matchups that are interesting. This offensive line for the Chiefs, they struggled last week against the Chargers' defensive front. Now, that front with [linemen Melvin] Ingram and [Joey] Bosa and [Jerry] Tillery is an excellent defensive front. But [offensive tackles] Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, they had a long day.
So I think there’s opportunities for [outside linebacker Matthew] Judon and Wolfe and [inside linebacker L.J.] Fort and some others rushing off the edge. ... I think there’s opportunities, and I think for Kansas City to continue to grow offensively, this offensive line has to play better. So that’s a matchup I’m watching.