Jadeveon Clowney loves straight lines.
Specifically, the Pro Bowl pass rusher loves running in straight lines from his position on the edge of the defensive line directly to the opposing quarterback. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200. Just straight to the QB.
It’s a big reason he loved his trade last month from Houston to the Seahawks. Seattle has him rushing straight to the quarterback. He spent five years with the Texans as a hybrid outside linebacker sometimes dropping into pass coverage, often having to read and react rather than just rush.
“I get back in there being more vertical, not dropping,” Clowney said last month upon his arrival to the Seahawks. “Just really putting my head down and grinding. When you are going forward, you don’t think about a lot. So that’s the best thing about this defense.”
But Sunday at CenturyLink Field, straight lines will doom Clowney and the Seahawks pass rushers.
Lamar Jackson will run right past them.
The Baltimore Ravens’ second-year quarterback has blazing, 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He leads his team in rushing yards this season. He romped over Cincinnati for 154 yards on the ground last weekend in Baltimore’s 26-23 win. He’s why the Ravens (4-2) have a two-game lead of the AFC North entering Sunday’s game at Seattle (5-1).
If Clowney, Jarran Reed returning off his six-game NFL suspension and the rest of the Seahawks’ pass rushers run straight at Jackson, Seattle is not going to be 6-1 for only the second time in franchise history Sunday evening.
Clowney and friends haven’t had a sack nor a quarterback hit the last two games, wins over the Rams and Browns. The Seahawks have just 10 sacks through six games, 26th-best in the 32-team league. They have been talking for weeks about the need to get to QBs.
But Sunday is a challenge unlike any they’ve faced in years. The Seahawks need to be mindful pass rushers. They don’t need straight lines at the quarterbacks. They need parabolas. Looping, outside-in runs to better keep Jackson inside, closer to more defenders, is likely to be more effective than running straight in trying to sack him.
“Lamar is a different animal,” Seahawks All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “So we’ve got to make sure we do our best to contain him.”
Jackson told reporters in Baltimore 90 percent of his runs against the Bengals were called, not scrambles off pass plays.
“I just do me,” Jackson said Wednesday in Maryland. “On one-on-one, I’m either trying to get the first down or trying to score. Nine times out of 10, I’m trying to score if I do decide to run.
“So, I don’t know. Whatever they decide to give me, I’m going to take advantage of it.”
With 460 yards on the ground through six games, Jackson is on pace to break Michael Vick’s NFL single-season record for yards rushing by a quarterback. Vick ran for 1,039 yards in 2006. Jackson’s pace so far: 1,227.
This is Jackson’s first time playing the Seahawks. Heck, it’s only the third meeting between Seattle and Baltimore in the last dozen years.
“I haven’t played him yet, so I only know from film,” Wagner said. “He just knows how to get out of the pocket. He just knows how to make people miss. There are plays where you think somebody’s got him, he stops on a dime, does a spin move or something, and it’s just amazing to watch. There’s been a lot of spectacular runners and I think you just have to find a way to hit them and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Wagner is Seattle’s key to slowing Jackson. The veteran middle linebacker has Super Bowl-qualifying experience tracking an elusive, quarterback who changes games with his running.
From 2012-16 inside the NFC West, Colin Kaepernick posed a similar, though not as explosive, threat as Jackson in 49ers-Seahawks games. Seattle coach Pete Carroll often used Wagner as a spy on Kaepernick in those division games. Wagner didn’t rush into the backfield and he didn’t drop into his usual pass coverage. When he saw San Francisco’s quarterback drop back to pass he stayed were he was, in the middle a couple yards behind the defensive line. He then mirrored Kaepernick laterally. When Kaepernick moved left, so did Wagner. When the QB ran right, so did Wagner. When Kaepernick ran forward, so did Wagner.
Often the sight of the best middle linebacker in football about to meet him head on at the line forced Kaepernick to throw a pass he didn’t want to, under duress, instead of his usual gains by taking off running.
Seattle often had Wagner spy Kaepernick while playing man-to-man coverage with a single-high free safety and just a four-man rush.
Kaepernick, now blackballed out of the league after his social activism and protesting, won just two of seven starts in his career (that includes the one meeting in the postseason, the Seahawks’ win in NFC championship game in January 2015). He averaged 28 yards rushing and 143 yards passing per game against Seattle in eight regular-season games, below his career averages against all teams. His seven career interceptions against the Seahawks were his most against any NFL team.
Expect the Seahawks to employ Wagner as a spy in a similar way against Jackson Sunday. A lot of Ravens opponents think they can use a spy against Jackson. But no others have the fast, ferocious, and sure-tackling Wagner to employ against him.
If Wagner is dedicated to mirroring the quarterback’s every move, it will be more difficult schematically for Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to give up another defender from coverage by blitzing another linebacker or a back.
That means a four-man rush, like they did against Kaepernick. And that means Clowney and bookend edge rusher Ziggy Ansah, if he plays (he is questionable with an ankle injury) or ends Quinton Jefferson or L.J. Collier have an extra responsibility to contain Jackson inside the pocket.
Sacks may not be the most important statistic in this game for Clowney and Seattle’s pass rushers on Sunday, for a change.
Yards rushing for Jackson likely will be.
“He’s as good as we’ve ever seen,” Carroll said.
“He’s as fast and as allusive as we’ve seen. Cam Newton has always been really difficult to play against. They have so much offense and all that. These guys, likewise. They seem even more apt than with Cam to just let him go and run and play football, just like you see the guys playing in college.
“He’s tough, physical, explosive, and creative. He’s throwing the ball well, too.
“It’s a real nightmare. Very difficult.”