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Jets’ test: Gregg Williams’ X’s, O’s versus Lamar Jackson’s oohs, aahs

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has done a terrific job in his first season with the New York Jets, but let’s be honest: The Jets have not faced an abundance of dynamic players. There was Cleveland’s Odell Beckham, Jr. in Week 2 (“Odell who?“), and that didn’t work out well for Williams. Beyond New England’s Tom Brady and Dallas’ Dak Prescott (maybe), they haven’t played an elite quarterback.

That all changes Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET (Fox) at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, where Williams & Co. will confront a dynamic player and an elite quarterback in Lamar Jackson. This is the ultimate challenge for any defensive guru.

Fired up, coach?

“When you’ve been in this game as long as Joe Vitt and I have, you’ve been playing a lot of them, guys that are already in the Hall of Fame, that [have] actually been there, got the jacket and everything,” Williams said, referencing his right-hand man as an assistant with the Jets. “I don’t know how many times we had to go against Michael Vick and all the things that those guys do, too. There’s a different skill set each week and we love to compete. I think that’s what drives us this long.”

Williams and Vitt have a combined 70 years of NFL coaching experience, so they have prepared for all the greats and all the trend-setting quarterbacks. They’re football lifers, smart guys, but knowledge can’t tackle a 6-foot-2, 212-pound blur in the open field. If the Jets hold the Ravens (11-2) under 21 points, the Pro Football Hall of Fame should get a copy of the game plan and display it in the hallowed halls in Canton, Ohio.

The Jets (5-8) would be hard-pressed to contain Jackson under ideal circumstances. These aren’t ideal circumstances:

  • An already depleted lineup probably will be without starters Jamal Adams (ankle) and Quinnen Williams (neck), the only two former first-round picks remaining on the 53-man roster on defense. Counting previous injuries, the Jets will be down five starters.

  • On paper, this wasn’t an overly talented defense to begin with. In fact, six of their top 10 tacklers entered the league as undrafted free agents. There’s a shortage of speed in the front seven, meaning it will be difficult to contain the elusive Jackson, who became the first quarterback in league history to produce 1,000 rushing yards and 2,500 passing yards in the same season.

  • It’s a short week for the Jets, significantly reducing the amount of prep time. Instead of practices Monday and Tuesday, the Jets held walk-throughs. So they had to prepare for the league’s No. 1 rushing offense — a sophisticated scheme that employs option football — without a traditional practice. They didn’t have time to simulate Jackson, not that there’s anyone on the roster who could have played that role.

“You’ve got a better chance if we were actually, like, actually practicing for real, but you’re still not going to replicate what he’s doing right now,” said Jets coach Adam Gase, who has a 0-3 career record in Thursday night games.

The Jets relinquished their No. 1 ranking in run defense because they had trouble with 37-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who rushed for 65 yards last Sunday. It certainly makes you wonder about their chances against Jackson. But as Williams noted, they will have a specific game plan for Jackson. They will alter their pass-rushing techniques with the hope of keeping him in the pocket. Fitzpatrick’s success, albeit in a loss for the Miami Dolphins, provided coaching points for Williams.

“They’ve heard about that a couple of times this week, with maybe some colorful adjectives,” Gase said of his players.

When Williams got to his office Tuesday morning, he caught his first glimpse of Jackson’s ankle-breaking juke move last Sunday on Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano.

“Have you guys seen that clip? Oh, my gosh,” Williams said. “That’s a tremendous thing, and we’ll be showing that to everybody in the meetings.”

Jets linebacker James Burgess Jr., knows Jackson better than anyone. They were teammates at the University of Louisville.

“The first time I tried to tackle him, I definitely missed,” he said with a laugh. “He definitely made me look bad. We saw it from the first day. He’s such a gifted athlete. A guy like that, you can tell with the naked eye. Anyone can see that kind of talent.”

Williams will cook up a sound plan for Jackson, but that doesn’t mean it will work. As he noted, “Athletically, can you match up in space with Lamar?” The answer is no, the Jets can’t do that. They will try to be physical with him, especially when he’s outside the pocket. Williams preaches that mentality. Once upon a time, it landed him in hot water (see: BountyGate). He has to live with that stain on his reputation, but he still wants his players to push the envelope.

He suggested that Jackson, like Vick did many years ago, will learn to adjust his game, running less for the sake of longevity. Williams believes Vick added years to his career and became a better passer “as the hits piled up. … Lamar is going to go through that same thing. It’s been remarkable on the minimal big hits that he has taken, but when he starts taking those hits like a running back takes, it’s a tough business to be in. Sometimes it motivates you to be even a better thrower.”

A subliminal message, perhaps?

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