When Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert stands under center Monday, he'll be confronting one of the NFL's elite defenses and a trend that suggests that he's in for an extremely long night.
One of the defining traits of the Ravens' defense has been a tendency to batter and befuddle young quarterbacks. The Ravens are 6-0 in the John Harbaugh era against first- or second-year starting quarterbacks, and they were last beaten by a rookie signal-caller Oct. 21, 2007, when Trent Edwards led the Buffalo Bills to a 19-14 win.
"You don't want any quarterback to do well, but I think we're built in such a way that it's hard to recognize what we're doing," Harbaugh said when asked about the challenge young quarterbacks face when they play the Ravens. "We've got good players. That's the main thing. I also think that we have players that understand the system."
Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in April's draft out of Missouri, will be making just his fifth career start against the Ravens, and he'll do it in front of a national television audience. However, the stage will be the least of his worries.
The Ravens' defense allows an NFL-low 14.2 points per game and 4.5 yards per play, and forces a league-high 2.8 turnovers per game. It also is averaging three sacks and has held opposing signal-callers to the league's second-worst quarterback rating at 65.9.
"We're going to do what we do," Ravens first-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "It doesn't really matter who is under center with this group in our room. They're well aware of who is under center, who he is and this, that and the other. But we've watched enough tape on [Gabbert]. He's more than capable if given time, if given a clean pocket to make some plays. He's athletic. He's big and strong, and he can make throws. We have to be on point, we have to execute and we have to take care of business."
Pagano's unit hasn't discriminated in its badgering of quarterbacks this year. It harassed the Pittsburgh Steelers' two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, into five turnovers and four sacks in Week 1. It held the St. Louis Rams' second-year quarterback, Sam Bradford, the first overall pick in last year's draft, to 166 passing yards and a 62.8 rating, while forcing an interception and a lost fumble in Week 3.
A week after that, they prodded the New York Jets' third-year quarterback, Mark Sanchez, into 11-for-35 passing for 119 yards, which included an interception and three lost fumbles.
"You see their front seven, from their D-line through their linebackers. They're probably tops in the NFL, from a player standpoint," Gabbert said. "Then you've got guys like Ed Reed in the secondary who have played at such a high level for such a long period of time, so we've just got to be aware of these guys and protect the football, eliminate turnovers and just execute."
Plenty of young quarterbacks before him have learned that is much easier said than done. The Cleveland Browns' Colt McCoy, the last rookie starter the Ravens faced, went just 15-of-29 for 149 yards and three interceptions Dec. 26.
Out of the six first- or second-year quarterbacks the Ravens have faced under Harbaugh, a list that includes the Oakland Raiders' JaMarcus Russell (2008), Pittsburgh's Dennis Dixon (2009), the Jets' Sanchez (2010), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Josh Freeman (2010), McCoy (2010) and Bradford (2011) — none has thrown more than one touchdown pass in the game. In fact, the six of them have combined to throw for more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (four).
Russell, one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history, is the only one of the six to throw for more than 170 yards. McCoy is the only one to complete more than 50 percent of his passes. The six have combined to go 85-for-178, a completion rate of less than 48 percent.
"Our scheme is built around mixing up our pressures and moving coverages around and disguising," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "It's tougher for a young quarterback. Obviously, veteran quarterbacks have more experience, they've seen it more times, they know what to look for. Young guys, they haven't seen it as much. Peyton Manning would tell you that the scheme that we run is extremely tough, especially the amount of film it takes to prepare all the different looks."
Johnson, who was highly complimentary of Gabbert, suspected that the toughest part for a young quarterback facing the Ravens is adequately preparing for the game. The Ravens, especially under the ultra-aggressive Pagano, employ so many different looks and pressure packages, confounding even experienced quarterbacks.
On the Jets' first offensive play, Reed came in untouched off the edge, sacked and stripped Sanchez. Last week, the Houston Texans picked up a blitzing Reed but left inside linebacker Ray Lewis untouched for a sack. On another play, Johnson was left one-on-one with a tight end and muscled past him, then wrestled quarterback Matt Schaub to the turf.
And even if the opposing offensive line picks up the blitz and is able to handle linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the quarterback still has to account for Reed, who not only covers a ton of ground from his safety position with his speed and athleticism, but also loves playing mind games and baiting quarterbacks.
"It takes someone who's studied us for a long time to kind of dial in on exactly what we do," Lewis said. "The young guys are kind of already set in what they're going to do and set in where their reads are going to go. That's kind of more basic for them to try to play against us instead of trying to figure out all the moving around. But that's kind of one of our packages. Our package is to disguise and show them something different and then give them something once the ball is snapped."
Gabbert has thrown only two interceptions compared with four touchdown passes, but he has also been sacked 14 times and completed just 60 of 123 passes (48.8 percent). Gabbert's 71.1 quarterback rating is 31st among the NFL's 33 qualifying quarterbacks.
While the Ravens had only positive things to say about Gabbert, it is clear that if they can contain the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, who is third in the NFL in rushing, they like their chances Monday.
Ravens look to continue trend of roughing up young quarterbacks
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