Finding the Fit: Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens
Quarterbacks who underperform year in and year out tend not to retain their jobs for long. Teams are often too anxious and reactive to allow subpar quarterbacks a generous leash for longer than one poor season, let along a few in a row. Joe Flacco is a rare case, regularly one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league while still holding onto his job.
Flacco has not played up to the expectations of the massive contract extension he received following the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl run in 2012-2013. The past three years, in particular, have been a train wreck. Among 22 quarterbacks to start at least 32 games over the past three seasons, Flacco ranks dead last in yards per attempt and touchdown percentage. He is not of the inefficient, high-scoring mold like Cam Newton, nor does he fit into the low-scoring, highly efficient mold like Tyrod Taylor or Alex Smith. Flacco has been the worst of both worlds for some time.
Lamar Jackson is a hard redirection away from Flacco. Jackson can inject the offense with new life as a rushing threat and open up the offense with his ability to throw comfortably to all levels of the field. The Ravens offense has been shackled with Flacco at the helm, restricting his air yardage as much as possible and lacking use of the quarterback in the run game.
The Lamar Jackson Skill Set
It would be a shame to not start with Jackson’s rushing ability. Running the ball may not be his primary job description, but it is certainly the most exciting part of his game. Few players at any position in recent memory have displayed the speed, explosion, and instincts of Jackson, much less other quarterbacks. Jackson is a truly unique talent in that way.
When I first came across this play early last season, I said there had not been an athlete at quarterback like Jackson since Michael Vick and I still firmly believe that. Others such as Johnny Manziel or Cam Newton were (or still are) fantastic escape artists, but nobody matches the stop-start explosion of Jackson aside from Vick. For Jackson dart one way, stop in his tracks, and immediately get back to full speed going the other way takes rarest of the rare athletic ability.
Of course, with exciting scrambles like the one above, quarterbacks earn the stigma that they succeeded in college primarily through their athletic ability rather than their passing ability. For some, maybe that rings true, but Jackson hardly looked to scramble and do things on his own. He is a calculated player, very willing to exhaust his passing options and resort to check-downs. Though an accomplished runner with over 4000 rushing yards in college, only 26.8% of Jackson’s career rushing yards were the result of scrambles, per Pro Football Focus. The remaining 73.2% of his rushing yards were by design.
Inverted veer was Louisville’s weapon of choice when calling Jackson’s number in the ground game. In short, inverted veer is a read-option play designed like power to the play side. It is the same concept Gus Malzahn abused in 2010 with Cam Newton behind center. Like with Newton, the play was a cheat code with Jackson. Jackson has a knack for swerving through traffic and carrying his weight through contact, which made it easy for him to squeeze between the first and second levels of the defense before exploding into the open field for big gains.
Running the ball is not Jackson’s primary source for success, however. He is excellent with the ball in his hands and should continue to merit rushing opportunities, but Jackson is a capable passer. He is particularly well versed as a pre-snap surveyor and quick-game passer. Seldom does Jackson look lost or ill-prepared for what the defense shows him.
One of Jackson’s best traits as a passer is understanding leverage and using that knowledge to manipulate linebackers. In the quick passing game, the windows are much tighter because you are not working with as much of the field. Knowing how to slightly open those windows can be the edge in completing significantly more passes to the short area of the field.
Take this throw vs Purdue, for example. Jackson is in an empty formation with three receivers to his right and two to his left. The innermost receiver to his right is running a deep slant over the middle. With the way Purdue is trying to convolute their blitz up front, Jackson knows there is no immediate coverage on the slant and any defender who trails off the line of scrimmage to cover the slant will have a tough time. Jackson also knows he needs to keep the middle of the field clear to safely throw the slant. Upon taking the snap, Jackson turns to his left to hold the defender in place near the left hash. Jackson then quickly turns to throw to the slant without telegraphing the move at all, knowing the throw should be there since he opened up space by holding a defender with his eyes.
Jackson shows the same reaction time and confidence over the intermediate parts of the field. Contradictory to the common perception of Jackson’s offense, the majority of Louisville’s passing concepts asked Jackson to sit in the pocket and read multiple progressions. Jackson was not given a handful of layups and one-read plays. He was extremely uncomfortable playing in this style of system as a freshman in 2015, but he grew into it as a sophomore and further developed his understanding of the offense in 2017. By that junior season, Jackson’s reactions within the system almost seemed robotic, similar to Marcus Mariota at Oregon.
Jackson’s instant reaction on this throw is mesmerizing. This camera angle does not show the full play concept well, but Louisville has two receivers going vertical down the left sideline and numbers, while an intermediate crosser and a drag route cross from right to left. With the vertical routes clearing the left side of the field and the drag route sucking in underneath defenders, Jackson knows the intermediate crosser should be open if he needs it. Jackson initially has his eyes down the sideline, but realizes the coverage is playing too far back to confidently throw deep. Jackson turns his attention to the intermediate crosser and fires almost instantly. It only takes him a fraction of a second to know that the linebacker can’t make a play on the ball if the pass leads the receiver correctly. Jackson drills the difficult throw, allowing his receiver to keep stride and pick up yards after the catch.
As an added bonus to his mental processing, Jackson is far and away the best from this draft class at understanding when to check down or throw the ball away and move onto the next play. Young quarterbacks, and even many veterans, too often struggle with making the smart play. Jackson is content in picking up whatever few yards he can and avoiding forced throws to maintain possession. His approach to the game does not feel rushed; it feels relaxed and calculated.
The concern with Jackson is whether he can clean up his throwing mechanics and improve his consistency in ball placement. Jackson is an accurate passer in the grand scheme of things, but he lets too many wide open throws get away from him. Because the throws should be easy, it sticks with you when a quarterback misses those throws, making the quarterback seem more inaccurate on the whole than they may actually be. Jackson’s random bouts of inaccuracy remind of Cam Newton, who is generally an accurate passer with occasionally baffling misfires. Jackson needs to keep his inconsistencies in check to avoid hindering his overall game.
Changing the Tune of Baltimore’s Offense
Throughout this “Finding the Fit” series, the basic formula has been to highlight the player’s tools, explain their fit in the new offense, then wrap it all together in a couple paragraphs. Jackson presents a unique situation, however. Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are stepping into offenses already primed for their skill sets. Josh Allen is getting a clean slate under Brian Daboll, who incorporated things into his Alabama offense that Allen will be comfortable with in Buffalo. None of that is the case with Jackson. Flacco has damaged the overall construct of the Ravens offense and doesn’t provide the same tools Jackson does. It is difficult to extrapolate Flacco’s past couple seasons to predict what Marty Mornhinweg wants to do with Jackson. With Jackson under center, the offense will likely be overhauled.
For one, the personnel of the offense is going to change. Last season, per Football Outsiders, Baltimore ran the lowest percentage of 3-plus wide receiver sets (43 percent) and the highest percentage of 2-plus tight ends or 6-plus offensive linemen (55 percent). Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, and John Brown were added via free agency this offseason, as well as two late-round wide receiver draft picks in Jordan Lashley and Jaleel Scott. The Ravens also drafted two tight ends, Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, but Andrews can be more of a jumbo slot player along the lines of Eric Ebron, Travis Kelce, Jimmy Graham, etc. and thrive in spread formations. The Ravens won’t suddenly shoot up to first place in 3-plus wide receivers sets, but do not expect to see them in dead last at this time next year.
The composition of the offense should change as well. Starting with formations, the Ravens offense should look different than it has in recent seasons. Baltimore ranked 26th in shotgun/pistol formation (50 percent) and 30th in single-back usage (64 percent), meaning Baltimore was often under center with a fullback or tight end in the backfield. Between Flacco’s mediocre passing ability and a lack of legitimate receiving weapons last season, Baltimore often resorted to downhill running or limited play-action passing concepts out of their under-center formations. Bootleg concepts out of these heavy formations were also common, but more often stressed quick routes in the flats rather than comebacks on the sideline or crossers over the middle.
Inserting Jackson into the offense will bring more shotgun/pistol play not only because Jackson is more familiar with those formations, but also because he is a rushing threat out of those formations. When lined up in the shotgun/pistol, Baltimore can make use of option plays, RPOs, and designed quarterback runs in a way that being under center does not enable. Of course, heavy formations under center will still be part of the offense and are something Jackson had some experience with at Louisville. Jackson can step in day one, capable of opening up the rollout and bootleg game from those formations, with more diverse route combinations and the ability to throw further down the field.
The aesthetics of each pass will look different, as well. Flacco has become a lethargic and even careless passer. He throws a handful of passes per game not actively assessing whether they are the right throws or how to properly make them. The ball just comes out of his hand randomly and ends up on the ground within a five-yard radius of the wide receiver. Jackson, on the other hand, is a deliberate and calculated passer. Even when Jackson makes a mistake, his intent is clear and it is easier to reconcile the mistake as something that can be fixed. Flacco is well beyond that point.
Compare and contract these few plays; one from Flacco and two from Jackson. The play calls are not all the same, but each of them feature deep passing routes with interior pressure. Flacco in his example does little to assess whether or not throwing deep down the middle is a good idea. As soon as someone broke the interior of the pocket, Flacco heaved it anyway and should have been easily picked off.
Jackson, in his two examples, makes quick work of the defenders who invade the pocket. Jackson evades them, resets, and finds targets down the field. In fairness, the receivers in Flacco’s example do not appear open, whereas Jackson’s receivers eventually find room, but the difference in processes is glaring. Flacco is not able to avoid a bad throw while Jackson actively saves poor situations to make good throws. Jackson could have made a different play in Flacco’s shoes, whereas Flacco likely would have fallen flat in the two situations Jackson faced. More than anything, the differences between these plays speak to the dynamism and mobility that Jackson offers, as well as a more defined and intentional thought process.
A New Flock of Ravens
Jackson will usher in a new era. The Ravens can now implement a faster, more open style of offense that allows for more creativity and unpredictability. Jackson can already handle all the quick passing and play-action concepts Flacco made use of last season, and Jackson adds so much more on top of that. The offense should look unidentifiable compared to last season.
Of course, none of the infatuation over Jackson is to say he will be perfect. There will be growing pains—botched coverage reads, ill-advised scrambles with hits taken, and inaccurate passes—but the renovations and extra tools Jackson provides over Flacco are enough to make a positive impact despite the Jackson’s inevitable struggles as a rookie.
The Ravens’ coaching staff seems dead set on giving Flacco a chance to retain his starting job, but first-round picks occasionally unseat expected starters. Russell Wilson usurped Matt Flynn, Mitchell Trubisky and Blake Bortles only sat for a few games before becoming starters, and Carson Wentz excelled enough before his rookie season to convince the Eagles that Sam Bradford was expendable. With a full preseason ahead, Jackson could dethrone Flacco or, at the very least, thin the margin of error for Flacco heading into the regular season.
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