OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Not only will Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert find himself in the national spotlight of Monday night for the first time, but the vaunted Ravens defense will be staring at him across the line of scrimmage.
It’s the scariest of propositions for a rookie quarterback, comparable to being thrown into the lion’s den in ancient times.
And while Ravens defensive players weren’t exactly giving away bulletin board material on Wednesday, they have to be licking their chops going against Gabbert and the 32nd-ranked passing offense in the NFL. The Jaguars have scored just 72 points in six games this season, losing five straight after a season-opening win over Tennessee in which current backup Luke McCown received the start.
Gabbert has started the Jaguars’ last four games, throwing four touchdowns and two interceptions while completing only 48.8 percent of his passes after Jacksonville selected the former Missouri quarterback with the 10th overall pick in April’s draft. However, the Ravens say they won’t deviate from their usual game plan just because a rookie is under center.
“It’s not going to be any different for us [in terms of] preparation week-to-week,” safety Ed Reed said. “Yes, there can be some things that you cause some difficulties for any quarterback. You have to see how mature he is and how the guys around him are working also. It all plays a part.”
With the Jaguars struggling to move the ball through the air, they’ve relied even more on star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who ranks third in the NFL in rushing (572 yards) and second in rushing attempts (118) this season.
The Ravens’ third-ranked rush defense knows the priority will be to stop the 5-foot-7 running back, who has rushed for 84 or more yards in each of the Jaguars’ six games this season. In fact, he is the only player in the league to accomplish that feat and ran for a season-high 122 yards at Carolina in Week 3.
“[He's] as good a back as there is in the league,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “As good a back as I’ve ever played against, so he can make you look bad in a hurry. They’ve got a lot of weapons. They’ve got some young talent, so you can’t let them get started.”
However, the Ravens defense has faced the likes of Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson, and, most recently, Arian Foster, who was held to just 49 yards on 15 carries in the 29-14 win over the Texans last Sunday. Baltimore’s third-ranked rush defense has turned away each one, with tackles Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody forming a brick wall up front and Ray Lewis and the linebackers finishing plays for minimal gains.
If the Ravens continue the trend against the Jacksonville running game, Gabbert may find himself in even more trouble than he was last weekend in Pittsburgh when the Steelers sacked him five times. The Baltimore defense has held opposing quarterbacks to the league’s second-worst rating at 65.9 while Gabbert’s 71.1 is 31st among the NFL’s 33 qualified quarterbacks.
Stopping the run is the clear objective before the Ravens can start having fun at the rookie’s expense.
“Once you do that, then you can kind of pin your ears back and kind of mess with him a little bit,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “Disguise, give a little bit, take a little bit there, have him think we’re coming one way and go the other. Just do what we do — play football.”
It’s something the Ravens have been doing plenty of this season after collecting 15 sacks through their first five games, a sizable jump from the franchise-low 27 they amassed in 2010. A season after the defense came under fire for blowing nine fourth-quarter leads, including their heartbreaking divisional round loss in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore defense is stepping on the accelerator instead of pumping the brakes.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has received plenty of credit for the improved pass rush, calling for a more aggressive game plan than his predecessor Greg Mattison, but Johnson has an additional theory to help explain the vastly-improved pass rush.
“We’ve had leads,” Johnson said. “They’re throwing the ball, so you get more opportunity to rush the passer. When you’ve got big leads and start putting teams away and not letting them back in, you’re getting more opportunities to get more sacks.”
Given the Jaguars’ struggles offensively and their 19th-ranked run defense, it’s difficult to envision any scenario in which the Ravens aren’t playing with a lead in the second half.
And that will likely spell doom for the talented rookie Gabbert as he tries to crack the third-ranked defense and No. 1 scoring unit in the NFL.
He wouldn’t be the first rookie to wilt under the pressure of the Ravens defense — and he certainly wouldn’t be the last, either.
“He’s going to be a great player down the road,” Redding said, “but, right now, he’s got to deal with us.”
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