Mr. Fix-It  

 

How 49ers can limit Lamar Jackson; what's slowing Aaron Jones

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Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.

Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!

Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! This week, I reached out to YOU the fans to see what issues your team has that you'd like me to fix. Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 13. Now, let's get to the first response:

Thanks for submitting, Boo-Hoo Ron. This will be an epic matchup Sunday afternoon, when the 10-1 49ers invade the inner harbor of Baltimore to face MVP candidate Lamar Jackson and the red-hot 9-2 Ravens. It is the marquee matchup of the season and a possible prelude to Super Bowl LIV.

The 49ers' second-ranked scoring defense is up against the Ravens' No. 1 scoring offense. It's a tall order, but allow me a novice attempt to pitch a game plan that might slow down the offense that put on a firework show for all of America during a Monday night game in which the Ravens scored six touchdowns on its first six possessions. After the Ravens disposed of the Patriots a month ago by scoring 37 points against Bill Belichick's No. 1 defense, I was on record saying that there is no defense that can contain the talents of Lamar Jackson. I still believe that, but the 49ers have some "street cred" that might make me eat my words.

Having played Kyler Murray twice this season and Russell Wilson once, the 49ers have seen a combination of mobile quarterbacks who do some of the things that Jackson has done over his seven-game win streak. The No. 1 (and most important) rule for the 49ers is this: They cannot -- I repeat, CANNOT -- allow themselves to get demoralized by Jackson or any heroics from the Ravens' offense. That's what the Los Angeles Rams did against the Ravens on Monday night. Look, Baltimore is going to score and will create highlights, but the 49ers have already shown me they're not likely to fold. In their Week 11 matchup vs. the Cardinals, Murray ran the ball on an option read for a 22-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to put the Cards up 26-23. It would've been easy for the 49ers to hang their heads at that point, but they forced the Cards' offense into a three-and-out on the very next series, and Jimmy Garoppolo led the offense on a game-winning drive.

It will help that the 49ers will dress and play at least eight defensive linemen -- possibly nine -- this week. They did just that in their drubbing of the Green Bay Packers last week, with Nick Bosa leading the way, playing 53 of 79 defensive snaps. Jackson and the most powerful run game the league has seen in a long time can wear linemen out quickly, but substituting and staying fresh will give them a chance. The 49ers boast the deepest and most talented D-line in the NFL, so they must take advantage of that and create chaos for 60 minutes. They are more than capable of doing that.

It also helps that the 49ers are a zone team, so on most plays, the secondary can have one eye on the pass catcher in their zones and one eye on Jackson. When the dynamic quarterback breaks free on a scramble, directing him to the sideline as much as possible is key. Once he squares up and takes off north and south, he becomes very dangerous as a runner. He rarely slides or protects himself, so the defense must be prepared to hit him and gang tackle him like a running back.

Perhaps the most amazing stat surrounding Jackson is that he hasn't lost a fumble in 684 offensive snaps, even without great ball security. The 49ers MUST change that. They have forced 21 fumbles and recovered 12 this season (third-best in the league). They need at least one Sunday.

There's a chance defensive coordinator Robert Saleh might try some simple games between the D-tackles and D-ends to contain some of the option plays the Ravens prefer. Against the Cardinals, they ran DeForest Buckner outside and Bosa crashed inside to force Murray to hand the ball off to the running back, who was quickly met by Bosa for a negligible gain. When it comes to the pass rush, the 49ers can't worry about Jackson and his running prowess. My mantra is "go get Lamar," and it starts with the defensive line winning one-on-ones.

Overall, I believe a four-man front with constant subs, a zone scheme and three total games against Murray and Wilson has prepared the 49ers' defense as well as anyone to contain the dynamic Ravens. This feels like an instant classic already.

For starters, Jim, I'm going to take you back to the Jets' third preseason game. I recall watching the Jets execute a near flawless opening drive of eight plays for 66 yards and a touchdown. Le'Veon Bell didn't see a single snap in that game, but what got my attention was the starting offensive linemen. From left to right that night were Kelvin Beachum, Alex Lewis, Jonotthan Harrison, Tom Compton and rookie Chuma Edoga. It looked like a good group that played well together.

This group didn't start together again until the Jets took an Amtrak train to D.C. two weeks ago and beat up on the Washington Redskins. That offensive line is gelling and playing like it did on that August night in Atlanta, and that play has helped the Jets quietly win three straight games, scoring 34 points in each contest.

This brings me to Bell, who was signed this offseason to be a true difference-maker in an offense that sputtered for much of the first two months. In fact, the offense was dreadful in some games. Perhaps surprising to some, Bell rarely got visibly frustrated. Never complained. Never voiced a single sentence of displeasure in his decision to sign with the Jets after sitting out the entire 2018 campaign in Pittsburgh. Bell was, in fact, a great teammate. He's playing as hard as he ever has, just not with the same results that made him one of the most productive backs in the NFL over a five-year period.

When I ran into him in the Jets locker room prior to their impressive win over the Raiders, he was pleasant and affable. He was upbeat and positive -- almost like he knew better days were ahead for both the Jets and himself.

Much has been made about his patient and hesitant running style. I was a believer that what worked in Pittsburgh behind one of the league's best O-lines coupled with a Hall of Fame quarterback wouldn't be the case in New York. This season, he hasn't seen the same type of holes open up; thus, 3.2 yards per carry. It's pedestrian for any back, but eye-opening and sore for a back with his talents.

I think we will start to see what we've been waiting for from Bell starting this weekend. The Jets go to the jungle to face the winless Cincinnati Bengals, who have surrendered the most rush yards in the league (166 yards per game). More importantly, Bell knows Paul Brown Stadium and most of the players he will face from his days in the Steel City. And now that he's playing behind the Jets' best offensive line combination for the third-straight week, the defensive penetration that has stalled so many of Bell's runs should be less of a problem. The Jets also have three very good and healthy tight ends to help seal the edge. Ryan Griffin, Chris Herndon and Trevon Wesco are a formidable tight end trio that will open holes and help Bell get back to rushing for 100 yards in a game -- something he hasn't done since Week 15 of 2017.

Last week's win was an indicator of how much head coach Adam Gase wanted to get Bell involved. On the first play, Darnold threw a pass to Bell in the slot for 23 yards. Overall, Bell touched the ball on 11 of the Jets' first 20 plays -- a big reason the Jets jumped out to a 10-3 lead. I don't think Bell will be the Bengals' first priority with the way Darnold has played the last three games. Bell, who averaged 4.1 yards per carry last week, should see some holes and alleys to run through.

I was asked about Bell's ineffectiveness when the Jets were 1-7, when he was averaging 3.1 yards per tote, and at the time, I was unsure if the Jets could ever put a healthy offensive line together that was also effective. But, as a believer in Bell's ability behind this O-line, I still think Bell will finish the season at or near 4.0 yards per carry. To do that, he'd better start getting some explosive runs (20 yards or more).

Connor, while it may seem like Aaron Jones' production has dwindled due to Davante Adams' return -- the Packers are 1-2 in those games -- it simply isn't true. Game flow and circumstances dictate most players' effectiveness and usage.

Let's look back to look ahead. Prior to Adams' return, we saw a huge splash play from Jones on a 67-yard touchdown reception at Arrowhead Stadium to break a 24-24 deadlock in the fourth quarter, win the game and finish the first half of the season 7-1. When Adams came back from a toe injury the following week against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Cheeseheads automatically assumed the offense would be unstoppable. Or so they thought. The Packers were unable to convert a single third down in the first half, and the offensive line couldn't stop the ferocious pass rush tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. All the while, the Chargers' lead grew larger. Jones was limited to eight measly carries for 30 yards, and the game dictated that Rodgers needed to create magic to jump-start the Packers into contention, so the running back was passed over.

The following week against the Carolina Panthers, it quickly became a showcase game between talented running backs Christian McCaffrey and Jones -- two all-purpose backs who can hurt defenses in a multitude of ways. Jones was fed well that day and responded with 93 rushing yards and all three Green Bay touchdowns. Adams, despite the Wisconsin weather that produced nor'easter-like conditions, had a great game with seven receptions for 118 yards, including a pivotal catch on third-and-1 late that allowed the Packers to run more time off the clock.

The Packers thawed out for a week before heading to Levi's Stadium. The San Francisco 49ers were ready and thumped the Packers behind a fierce charge from a superior defensive line. I recall showing in a "Baldy's Breakdowns" segment a run from Jones off the right guard in the first quarter. But as quickly as the hole opened for Jones, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner closed it like a Venus flytrap seducing its next meal. Jones was reduced to 13 carries for a pedestrian 38 yards, but let's be honest, no one played well for Green Bay that night.

The reality is that Jones has scored 14 of the Packers' 31 touchdowns this season, a very high percentage. The NFC North will likely be settled on Dec. 23, when the Packers travel to U.S. Bank Stadium to face the rival Vikings. The Packers stand a much better chance of winning that game if BOTH Adams and Jones are at their best. Jones almost doubles the number of carries of the next running back, Jamaal Williams, and that should continue. But game conditions and the score often dictate if the Packers can stick with the run game long enough for Jones to receive the carries that will allow him to make an impact.

Ideally, if Adams is at his best, safeties will play deeper to prevent big plays, which in some cases will open up more running lanes for Jones. As the schedule plays out, the Packers need both of these players to complement each other. My initial feeling about this week's matchup against the Giants is that you'll be very happy with the production of both players at the conclusion of the game.

Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.

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