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Entering year 5, Lamar Jackson is still applying pressure, still misunderstood

Even advanced metrics are continuing to learn how valuable Jackson is as a quarterback

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Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

We have, more or less, three and a half years of tape with Lamar Jackson behind center as the Ravens starting quarterback entering his fifth season in Baltimore. The 2019 NFL MVP and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner has matured as a passer while maintaining his awe-inducing home run ability as a runner. While there have always been polarizing “takes” on Jackson as a passer, regardless, his impact on the football field not only as a runner, but as the orchestrator of the best ground attack in modern football is undeniable.

Along with Jackson’s home-run ability, he’s arguably the most efficient runner in NFL history and carries moon-like gravity on defenses, severely limiting what defensive play callers and players can do in both the run and pass game. The Ravens utilize nearly every major type of blocking/run designs while macrodosing motions and options. This, in addition to Jackson’s ability to generate explosive runs with consistency, forcing first-, second- and third-level defenders to do one simple thing: think. Hesitation is disaster defensively while the Ravens use motions, option reads and a heavy dosage of pulling blockers to gain number advantages. The pressure Lamar Jackson applies on defenses is obvious, but perhaps not yet understood in terms of quantifying that gravity in formulas and analytics.

Even notorious “running backs don’t matter” and “running the ball is inefficient” propagandists are in unanimous harmony that Jackson’s weight in the run game is heavy. From the above, we know the following.

  1. Edge defenders are weary, if not completely unwilling, to speed rush around the arc. Only Josh Allen has forced slower get-off (0.03s slower) than Jackson in recent years. This makes life easier on the offensive line, therefore exposing how poor Baltimore’s protection really was last season.
  2. The Ravens offense, with Jackson at the helm, generates by far the highest yards before contact in the run game, regardless of running back. When they run the ball, they’re more likely to generate positive gains before a defender makes contact than any other team.

We also know Jackson limits what defensive play-callers can do, forcing them to get creative. Referring to the hesitation, defensive coordinators also hesitate, particularly to call man coverage. According to Sports Info Solutions, Jackson faces the lowest percentage of man coverage in the NFL dating back to the beginning of 2019. If a defensive coordinator dials up man coverage, they run the risk of having their secondary’s backs turned if Jackson escapes the pocket. That’s not a recipe for success.

Simply put, these factors are a winning recipe. Jackson’s impact as an athlete forces defenses to play more sound football in order to get off the field. As a passer, Jackson makes as much of an impact as any of his peers when forced to pass.

One of the best summaries that encapsulates Jackson’s entire ability as a quarterback, and potentially where misunderstandings come from, was from PFF’s Sam Monson.

Of course, focusing just on passes strips away one of Jackson’s biggest assets: his athleticism and ability to scramble for positive yardage. Certain people view quarterback play only through the lens of pocket passing, but moving the chains is moving the chains, and Jackson does that a lot with his legs. When trailing by more than a score over the past three seasons — the situation where Jackson’s passing grade is the worst — he averaged 8.0 yards per carry on scrambles, breaking a tackle almost half of the time and getting a first down 39% of the time he took off.

When you factor those rushing plays into the overall analysis, the Ravens have the best successful play percentage when trailing by more than a score in the league over that time, ahead of Kansas City. They’re second only to the Chiefs when trailing in any capacity.

As goal posts have moved throughout Jackson’s career, the new de-facto is that “this offense can’t win in the playoffs.” The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz posted an article that dug into this topic, referring to instances such as the Titans and Patriots using inverted cover-2 schemes to bring defenders into the box and limit the Ravens run game.

The Titans used various strategies to get extra numbers in the box, but especially a concept called “Cover 2 Invert,” which has become a bit of a meme on NFL Twitter due to its ineffectiveness against deep passes over the middle. The coverage plays out like a typical Cover 2 defense, with two defenders splitting the deep part of the field, two defenders manning the flats, and three defenders over the middle. Typically, the two deep players are safeties and the two flat players are cornerbacks. But on Cover 2 invert, the cornerbacks man the deep areas. I can assure you that Bill Belichick, whom Pees worked under in New England from 2004 to 2009, studied the hell out of that film. Earlier in the 2019 season, his Pats gave up 37 points to Lamar and the Ravens. Belichick didn’t throw any real curveballs at Lamar in that game; he just brought an extra safety into the box and played man coverage on the outside. Baltimore had seen similar game plans throughout the season and had no problem moving the ball against New England. Things changed the following season when the two teams met in Week 10. Having seen his former assistant stifle the Ravens with that inverted Cover 2 scheme, Belichick went ahead and made the whole plane out of it. Does this look familiar?

These are all valid points, but ignore a couple of factors.

Baltimore faced the Titans defense again in the playoffs a year later. The Titans attempted a similar game plan, took a 10-0 lead, then the Ravens started spraying the ball to the flats and went on a 20-3 run to close out the game.

  • In the 2021 regular season, Baltimore started pushing the ball downfield at a historic rate. The deep ball limited defenses yet again. Baltimore stormed back from deficits against the Chiefs, Colts and Vikings as well as late-game heroics against the Lions and Raiders. Their offense ultimately couldn’t handle injuries to Ronnie Stanley, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Sammy Watkins and even Jackson. Teams started to use cover-0 fronts to dictate pressure and get free runners against a rag-tag offensive line before Jackson ended up missing five games.

Baltimore’s offense has grown. Jackson has grown. Jackson forces defenses to get creative and execute while limiting their options. Pass rushers can’t pin their ears back and rush upfield. Their run game still creates easy yards before contact. The fact that playoff defenses, particularly just the Titans in 2020 and the Bills in 2021 (in a game that had below freezing temperatures and 35 mph winds) were able to execute and beat the Ravens should not be an indictment of a quarterback that has been among the most efficient, effective and difficult to defeat in the sport over the last 3.5 years.

In that time we’ve watched Jackson progress as a passer in several ways. Mechanically, he has a more sturdy base, has become more effective on known passing downs (especially third and long) as well as outside the numbers. Advanced metrics are still learning Jackson’s impact. In summation, we know the following.

  • Pass rushers rush with caution.
  • Jackson is among the elite on third down/known passing situations.
  • The Ravens have a historically efficient run game, large in part due to Jackson.
  • Defenses are forced to rely on zone.
  • Jackson has grown to counter the answers that have defeated him.

Defensive coordinators are still up at night game-planning. Jackson is still expanding his game. Few quarterbacks limit what defenses can do like Jackson. He will continue to apply pressure to defenses and put the Ravens in a position to win games, make the playoffs and be a threat in the AFC if given simply serviceable pass protection and a healthy supporting cast.