Has anyone ever, in the span of a few minutes, been called “a unicorn’’ and “Gumby’’ and the descriptions were meant not only as colorful compliments, but also as a warning?
The Giants get their first on-field look at Lamar Jackson on Sunday in Baltimore. “Look’’ is an apt harbinger. The Giants will surely see Jackson. Whether or not they can lay a glove on him remains to be seen.
As they try to stay alive in the NFC East playoff race, the assignment for the Giants (5-9) is to catch what cannot be caught.
“Playing against him last year in the playoffs, yes, he’s different,’’ said safety Logan Ryan, whose Titans upset the Ravens last year in an AFC divisional game. “He’s a world-class athlete. He’s a generational talent. Not many ball-carriers run like him with the ball in his hand, his speed, his change of direction. You have to play really fundamentally sound. I don’t think it’s a one-on-one tackling game with him. He makes a living on that.’’
It has been quite a living for Jackson.
The first order of business for the Giants: Finding, for practice purposes, a reasonable facsimile of Jackson, one of the NFL’s very best athletes.
“We’ve got a number of guys we’ve talked about actually and we’ll do our best in practice to try and simulate him,’’ head coach Joe Judge said, “but there’s a difference between someone imitating him and the real thing.’’
Teams usually use wide receivers to mimic Jackson, sometimes speedy defensive backs.
“Do we have anybody? No, we don’t,’’ Ryan said. “If we had a Lamar Jackson to simulate him, we should probably play him on offense. Because that guy would be really good. I just don’t think we got him, and I don’t think many people do.’’
In Week 12, the Giants faced Russell Wilson, as crafty as a magician. In Week 13, they faced Kyler Murray, a diminutive darter. Wilson ran seven times for 45 yards in a Giants victory in Seattle. Murray ran 13 times for 47 yards in a Giants loss to the Cardinals.
Jackson is different, and not only because he is bigger (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) than Wilson and Murray. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for at least 800 yards in back-to-back seasons. Jackson ran for a stunning 1,206 yards in 2019 and is up to 828 yards this season. Jackson and Michael Vick (2004 and 2006) are the only quarterbacks to reach 800 rushing yards in two separate seasons.
Two weeks ago, Jackson battled through cramps and still shredded the Browns, running nine times for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, he threw three touchdown passes in a rout of the Jaguars. The 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player is not the most accomplished passer the league has ever seen and he went through a rough patch this season as he battled through a case of the coronavirus.
Defenders must have a plan of attack for Jackson.
“Really just taking the air out of it, getting as close to him as fast as you can but also trying to get under control to where you’re able to cut left or right when he makes his cut,’’ cornerback James Bradberry said.
Jackson looks as if he is in high gear for the stretch run. The Ravens (9-5) need him to be, as, despite their fine record, they require help to qualify for an AFC wild-card playoff spot.
“I think this guy is a unicorn in terms of how he can play and how he really makes explosive plays with his legs, along with the arm strength and the plays down the field he’s capable of making right there,’’ Judge said.
Each week Judge offers a rundown of the upcoming opponent and is always complimentary, but he has not spoken of a player this season with the awe he reserved for Jackson.
“When you watch this guy run, he’s not looking to slide, he’s not looking to get out of bounds, this guy’s looking to extend plays,’’ Judge said. “When he gets going, you can tell ‘score’ is the only thing on his mind. He’s got a wiggle to him at full speed that’s very rare. It’s kind of like trying to tackle Gumby. This guy can just change direction. It’s almost like his body moves in ways that you can’t simulate in practice. This guy is extremely fast, he hits that top gear in just a couple steps and at the same time he can stop on a dime and change directions.’’
The Giants have been warned.