5 for Friday: Slowing Jackson always job No. 1

In the 1980s, the Detroit Pistons faced young star Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls against which they developed what they called, "The Jordan Rules."

The Jordan Rules called for the Pistons to converge on and be very physical with Jordan any time he had the basketball.

The Steelers don't call the way they defend Baltimore's Lamar Jackson the "Jackson Rules," but how they have defended the Ravens' star quarterback has been very similar to the way the Pistons defended Jordan.

And if the Steelers are going to beat the Ravens on Sunday, they'll need to once again reign in Jackson.

"I don't know if we're the only ones that have them," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "But I think the bottom line is we have to make sure that we try to get the ball out of his hands because when he has the ball in his hands, he's too dynamic of a player. The more you can get it out of his hands the better we are."

Sure, that sounds simplistic. The same could be said every week of the opposing quarterback. But it's even more true now than ever about Jackson and the Ravens.

The Steelers have made life difficult on Jackson by having their outside linebackers crash the pocket and hit him anytime he runs an RPO, even if he hands the ball off instead of keeping it.

Todd Monken was brought in this season by Baltimore as offensive coordinator to help boost the Ravens' passing game and make them less reliant on Jackson's running. As a result, the Ravens are running fewer RPOs.

But while Jackson is completing a career-high 74.3 percent of his passes, he still leads Baltimore's rushing attack with 220 yards, while his 41 rushing attempts through four games is only three behind running back Gus Edwards for the team lead.

Baltimore's passing game has become very perimeter oriented, with a lot of bubble screens and quick slants, primarily to rookie receiver Zay Flowers, who leads the team with 24 receptions through four games, but for only 244 yards. If you take Flowers' long catch for the season – 52 yards out of the equation – he's averaging 8.4 yards per catch on his other 23 receptions. The same thing goes for tight end Mark Andrews, the team's second-leading receiver. If his long catch – 36 yards – is taken out of the equation, he's averaging 9.5 yards per reception.

Only three NFL receivers have an average depth of target lower than that of Flowers, who has seen passes thrown his way just 6.1 yards downfield. And none of the three receivers with less air yards than Flowers are anything close to the No. 1 receiver on their respective teams. Andrews isn't much better at 6.7 air yards per attempt, but that's not uncommon for tight ends.

"A lot of perimeter screens, a lot of perimeter runs," said Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson. "We know Lamar with the RPO actions, giving him the run-pass option. It's kind of been their game in the past, but they're getting more involved with it having Zay Flowers as a dynamic receiver with the ball in his hands. Those guys are doing what their personnel does well."

So, the Steelers are going to have to play a game of cat-and-mouse with Jackson.

The Ravens are either getting the ball out of his hands quickly on most occasions, or they are designing runs for him to take off and pick up yardage.

There won't be a lot of long-developing plays to allow Steelers edge rushers to affect him in the passing game – at least not when they're in their own territory.

"I don't know if it's the trend in the NFL, but a lot of teams, when they're on the back end of the 50-yard line, there's a lot more rhythm passing, quick passes and screens," Peterson said. "Once they get to the logo, that's when teams take their shots, get a little more creative with the trick plays, things like that. That seems to be the trend of the league. With the Ravens, they seem to have a different passing scheme than they did in the past, but they still want to have the opportunity to implement the run game the best they can."

So, the key is shutting down Baltimore's quick game and rushing attack when they're in their own territory, then being ready for the deeper stuff when they're in Pittsburgh territory.

Using their rules of hitting him whenever possible, the Steelers have done a better job than most at slowing Jackson in their previous meetings with him, limiting him to 4.3 yards per rushing attempt and a passer rating of 67.4. It's a big reason why they're 1-2 against Jackson in his three starts against them. The only other teams against which Jackson has a losing record in his career in three or more starts is Kansas City (1-3) and Miami (1-2).

As part of their rules defending Jackson, Baltimore's running backs have had some good games against the Steelers. But it's deemed a better option than allowing Jackson to run wild.

Given how the Steelers have struggled controlling opposing running games early this season, it could be a pick-your-poison approach. If the Steelers take that approach again Sunday against Jackson, they're designating their two of their best run defenders – T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith – out of the equation. But they would also be trying to nullify the Ravens' best offensive weapon in Jackson.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin called his team out for a lack of physicality this week following its loss to the Texans last week. You can bet part of that message was delivered knowing the Steelers have a meeting with the Ravens upcoming.

• If not for a twist of fate, Dick Butkus might have been a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Hall of Fame linebacker died Thursday at 80 well known from his playing days with the Chicago Bears and maybe the greatest Bears player of all time.

But the Bears selected Butkus with the third pick in the 1965 NFL Draft thanks to a trade they made with the Steelers.

During the 1964 NFL Draft, the Steelers traded their 1965 first-round draft pick to the Bears for Chicago's second- and fourth-round picks in the 1964 draft.

With those selections, the Steelers took Notre Dame's Jim Kelly, a wide receiver who would convert to tight end, in the second round and defensive lineman Ben McGee from Jackson State in the fourth round.

Kelly would play just one season for the Steelers. McGee lasted for nine seasons and was a good player, going to the Pro Bowl in 1966 and 1968 and was still with the team when they lost to the Dolphins in the 1972 AFC Championship, a week after the Immaculate Reception took place.

Chicago, meanwhile, selected Butkus with the pick they acquired from the Steelers in the first round in 1965, then took Gayle Sayers with their own pick, which was fourth.

Two picks. Two Pro Football Hall of Fame players.

The Steelers could have had either had they kept their first-round pick. They also could have taken Beaver Falls native Joe Namath, the 12th pick in that draft – though by the Cardinals. Namath instead chose to play for the rival Jets of the AFL, who also selected him in the first round that year.

The Steelers did recover to select future Pro Bowl wide receiver Roy Jefferson in the second round of the 1965 draft, but didn't have another pick until the seventh round.

The Steelers often traded away draft picks in the early 1960s as head coach Buddy Parker didn't have a lot of patience when it came to young players.

Parker was gone after the 1964 season. But here's guessing he could have found the patience to deal with Butkus, who was a first-team All-Pro at middle linebacker for the Bears as a rookie.

• With four games now in the books across the league, there's a big enough sample size to look at officiating and see if there are any shifts in what's being called more or less often than in recent seasons.

The big gainers this season are unnecessary roughness and facemask penalties. 

Last season, there were .57 unnecessary roughness calls per game. This season, that percentage stands at .70.

Facemask penalties were called at a rate of .27 times per game in 2022. In 2023, that stands at .48 per game – making the one missed on a Jaylen Warren catch in space in last week's game against the Texans an even more egregious oversight.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Holding penalties are up this season from last (2.35 to 2.15), but are still under the 2.37 called per game in 2021. It's still an increase from the 1.77 called in 2020, a year in which holding was practically legal.

Also of note is that defensive pass interference has jumped to 1.17 calls per game, up from .82 in 2022. But that number matches the 1.17 that were called in 2020.

• Which officiating crews don't you want to see doing your games each week?

This season, Ron Torbert's crew is calling 16.25 penalties per game, edging the crew of Brad Rogers, who is at 16.0.

Tra Blake's crew leads the way in yards penalized per game at a whopping 141.5, beating the crew of Rogers, who come in at 137.25.

Meanwhile, if dismissed penalties are added to the equation, it's actually Alex Kemp's crew that is the most over officious. That crew has called 80 penalties in four games, edging Rogers' crew, who have thrown flags on 77 plays.

The least flag-happy crews have been those of Clay Martin and Clete Blakemen, both of which have averaged 10.0 accepted penalties per game.

So, if those numbers mean anything, the games in which the crews of Kemp and Rogers have been much more sloppy than those of Martin and Blakeman, which defies some level of belief.

• The crew of Carl Cheffers is handling this week's Steelers-Ravens game.

That crew has only called a respectable 11.67 penalties per game, which is obviously among the fewest in the league.

A closer look shows Cheffers' crew has called 15 penalties for false starts, easily the most common among their 35 total penalties assessed this season. Holding is second at just four penalties called.

Don't expect to see a flag fest in Sunday's game – unless the home crowd at Acrisure Stadium can create some noise and get the Ravens to flinch.

Baltimore has been one of the more heavily penalized teams in the league thus far. And eight of the team's 28 penalties this season have been for false starts, meaning the Ravens have averaged two per game.