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Bills about to get taste of Lamar Jackson's 'special' skills

Vic Carucci

Pete Nochta could barely contain his excitement as he spoke with his former University of Louisville football teammate and close friend, Eric Wood, one day in 2015.

"We've got this guy coming in," said Nochta, Louisville's recruiting coordinator for football. "He is special."

The "guy" was a quarterback from Boynton Beach (Fla.) Community High School. His name: Lamar Jackson.

"Special" didn't do him justice.

Since winning the 2016 Heisman Trophy and joining the Baltimore Ravens as a first-round draft pick in 2018, Jackson has established himself as a front-runner for NFL MVP. Next Sunday, he'll lead the Ravens, who at 10-2 are viewed as a viable Super Bowl contender, against another of Wood's former teams, the 9-3 Buffalo Bills, at New Era Field.

"He's likely the most athletic player on the entire field anytime he steps on it," Wood, an analyst for Bills radio game broadcasts, said by phone Sunday. "And that's not even being offensive to anybody in what he's doing this year, because I don't think many people disagree with that."

The story behind Jackson's success through college and the NFL is as much about patience as it is immense talent. Then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino could have started Jackson as a true freshman, but chose to spend the next offseason devising a scheme that was best suited to his skills as a runner and thrower.

The Ravens took a similar approach after sitting Jackson behind veteran Joe Flacco for most of last season. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who previously held that job with the Bills, spent the offseason building an offense that would get the best out of Jackson.

"The Ravens have been patient with him," said Wood, who played center for the Bills from 2009 to 2017. "They didn't try and fit a square peg into a round hole. They said, 'OK, if Lamar can't do full-field progressions, if Lamar isn't going to sit back there and check protections and do some of the stuff that we want a traditional quarterback to do, let's tailor an offense to him.' I knew his skill set could translate to success in the NFL. I just believed he needed to be in the right system. And I will go on record to say that Greg Roman may go down as one of the best, if not the best, mobile-quarterback offensive coordinators of all time."

Roman had plenty to do with Colin Kaepernick's Pro Bowl-caliber performance with the 49ers. He also was a key factor in the emergence of Tyrod Taylor with the Bills.

"When Greg Roman came to the Buffalo Bills, and we had a quarterback competition between Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor, that kind of hamstrung Greg for a while, because he needed an offense that they could all run," Wood said. "You're installing an offense for three different skill sets at the quarterback position. But whenever Tyrod took over as the starter, we got into more read-option elements, a little more play action, read matchups.

"A lot of times you can dictate coverage with a mobile quarterback. A lot of times, it's tough to run man-to-man coverage on third down without pressuring because if you have all your DBs chasing wide receivers down the field and the mobile quarterback escapes pocket, that's 40-50 yards and so you dictate coverage and you're teaching those guys that. And Greg just does a phenomenal job."

Jackson's dynamic running would, by itself, be enough to make life miserable for opposing defenses. On Sunday, he ran 16 times for 101 yards and a touchdown to help the Ravens to a 20-17 victory against the San Francisco 49ers, who have one of the league's top defenses.

But Jackson's athleticism is only part of the story. He has added the dimension of being an effective passer, as evidenced by his 20-yard touchdown throw and other clutch plays through the air against the Niners. That allows for Roman to be highly creative with actual plays and strategy designed to deceive.

"It looks like a lot of smoke and mirrors, and it is in the backfield," Wood said. "There are motions that mean nothing. They may be to identify coverage and they just may be to get the linebackers' eyes looking somewhere else. And then there's read fakes by the quarterback that the quarterback will never keep the ball. It's not truly a read.

"It just is another element of window dressing, but then you're getting hit in the mouth."

That's an understatement. The Ravens' offensive line might very well be the most physical in the NFL.

They have a big, powerful group of blockers, including 6-foot-4, 305-pound guard Marshal Yanda. They also have O-line coach Joe D'Alessandris, who constantly preaches that his group be as physical as possible. Wood knows all about D'Alessandris, who coached him with the Bills from 2010 to 2012.

"Joe teaches physicality," Wood said. "Joe's an old steel-mill worker who started on the ground floor and worked his way up to an NFL offensive line coach. And what he does is he comes in with a chip on his shoulder and he gets guys to play hard and tough. He tracks how many times you put guys on the ground, which a lot of coaches don't do. And those guys get after it up front."

Stopping the run has proven to be a weakness of an otherwise solid Bills defense.

Against the Ravens, it's a challenge that likely will reach a level unlike any the unit has seen or will see – unless it gets a second crack at Jackson in the postseason. Wood suspects it could take "a series or two" just for Buffalo's defenders to get used to Jackson's incredible speed.

"You can see it on film all you want and the show he can give you as good a look as they want," Wood said. "They can put Robert Foster at quarterback (for the scout team), wherever they want. It is not going to be the same speed. It may take a series or two, but I don't think the Bills' defense is going to look like the Rams the other night where it's the floodgates open and it never stops, because that's not the Bills' defensive MO. (The Bills have) just so much experience on defense, so much continuity where you know they'll come in with a sound game plan. And you know what? If that sound game plan isn't cutting it, they'll adjust on the fly. Some of the stuff I've seen from Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier, they're the least arrogant about their game plans of any team that I've followed this closely as far as being able to abort stuff on the fly.

"Am I going to predict a shutout? No. Do the Bills likely need to score 20-plus points again to win? Likely. And you know what? Against quality teams, you do. I think the Bills can definitely win this game."

Provided they have some answers for that "special" player Wood first heard about in 2015.

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