Week 7 Film Review - What Makes Lamar Jackson so hard to defend?
The National Football League is currently in an era of truly exceptional quarterback play, that is plain to see. As the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees cement their place in the history of the game, young superstars like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson pave their way on a similar path. The game is always changing, and throwing the ball is more important than ever, in this high-octane era of air raid offenses and high-flying pass-heavy football. Among all of this, there are new faces and old who incorporate running into that system, and as fantasy and NFL fans know, mobility has never been more of a staple in quarterback play.
Young stars are applauded for their ability to run as much as their ability to pass, and the 40-yard dash time of a QB is now as important as any other position.
When you think about mobile quarterbacks, there is nobody who follows the NFL who couldn’t provide the name Russell Wilson. Well, this week Wilson was on the end of a loss – and his opponent was the gold-standard of the new age of mobile quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson.
The Baltimore Ravens drafted Jackson in the first round in 2018, and he made his first appearances as a starter in his rookie year. He rushed an absurd 147 times in just seven starts, and turned that into just shy of 700 yards and 5 touchdowns. Last year the moniker that Jackson was a running back wasn’t far wrong, as – hilariously – he only attempted 23 more passes than he did rushes.
This season it’s been a different story, well different-ish.
Using his legs to open up the passing game
Lamar Jackson has become one of the most difficult quarterbacks in the NFL to stop. His athleticism and rushing ability are now getting backed up by an increased ability to, well, play quarterback.
By the end of Week 2 he has already thrown seven touchdowns, so to say that he’d improved would be a huge understatement.
In the first few weeks of this year it was evident that the Ravens had something special, and this week we saw him stand up to a real test, when Baltimore defeated the Seattle Seahawks on the road, against Wilson, who himself is being billed as a legitimate MVP candidate.
Within the 30-16 win, there were plays which had the 12th man pulling their hair out in the stands. This week showed off all of the ways that Jim Harbaugh can utilise his superstar signal-caller, and the reasons that he is so difficult to defend, right from the start.
The first of the ways that Lamar Jackson can beat you is through play action and throwing after he has threatened you with his mobility. This combines the two strengths and puts the defense off balance at the same time.
On the opening drive of the game, we got to see that in action.
On just their fourth play of the game, the Ravens dialled up some play action. This rollout shot play is a nice design which puts everybody on one side of the field and uses a nice block from a tight end (lined up as a fullback) to get Jackson outside the pocket with a switch combination to that rolling side.
The reason that this play is so effective with Jackson at quarterback is because it gets him moving and he can scramble if he wants to, especially if the defense backs off too much, but then obviously he’s also reading for the shot play downfield. It was 2nd and 5, so Jackson could happily have taken off for some yardage, but he kept his eyes downfield and when he saw that the single-high free safety of the Seahawks was a bit flat-footed, he let the ball rip for a 50-yard completion to Miles Boykin.
This pass was pretty impressive. Boykin had a skinny post with a seam release, that left him one on one with the deep safety after the motioned wheel route occupied the cornerback, and Jackson was able to throw the ball accurately in behind the safety while on the run. Being able to give his receiver a chance to make a physical play on the ball was all it took, as the safety was trying to recover.
The reason that the recovery was necessary was because the threat of Jackson rushing held Tedric Thompson, the safety in question, for just an extra second in his read steps before breaking off to play the over-the-top coverage of his Cover 3 responsibility.
If Lamar Jackson pulls defenders down towards him because they assume he’s going to run, and he is also capable of letting the ball fly with pretty surprising deep accuracy, that’s a dangerous combination.
A dangerous broken play scrambler
For what it’s worth, it isn’t wrong of the defenders to be paranoid about him running, because he’s really damn good at it. In reality, though, sometimes there’s just nothing they can do. There were two separate occasions in this game where Jackson just straight up broke the spirits of Seattle’s defense. Those plays that just suck the life out of you.
Once on 3rd and 8, and once on 3rd and 10, the Ravens QB turned on the jets when there was nothing available through the air, and got first downs and much more.
Plays like these two that follow are what can completely shift an offensive drive, turning a punting situation into a fresh set of downs and good field position with just one flash of athleticism.
On this play, Jackson has a simple play call of five vertical routes, he wants one of two things – either somebody beats their guy, or everyone just runs away from him. When the defenders all back off, he easily evades the players who are left underneath and turns up the sideline for the first down and an extra few yards back inside for good measure.
What was a 3rd and 10 is now 1st and 10, after a 28-yard scramble out of nowhere. Plays like this are so frustrating for a defense, and that’s why they are always looking to actively contain him.
There, for example the Seahawks brought pressure off the edge with a slot cornerback blitz, alongside a double twist from the four defensive linemen. Jackson saw the blitzer coming and was able to escape away from him, leaving the D-line as the only people within a mile of the fastest man on the field. The defense is running a Cover 1 where the corner who blitzes leaves his receiver to a safety over the top, and so there are five rushers, five defenders in pure turn-and-run man and then one single zone defender watching from over the top. Man coverage against any mobile QB is risky but against Jackson it’s suicide.
Here, watch this other play I mentioned earlier.
3rd and 8 this time, and the Seahawks call the exact same play.
Just before the ball is snapped, the slot cornerback (this time on Jackson’s left instead of right) slides in from his man-alignment and shows clear intentions of blitzing, and the safety over the top starts walking up. This shows that once again the Seattle defense is running the Cover 1 with a five-man rush. They’re basically asking for it at this point.
Jackson does look for a pass, but he’s also very aware, from even before this ball is snapped, that the same look is coming from before. So, he does the exact same thing again to punish it. He steps up, finds some open field, and rushes for 30 yards.
Plays like this completely deflate the defense – especially in the fourth quarter.
Stepping up to the plate through the air
The growing confidence of the Ravens passing game isn’t to be over simplified, either. While there are plenty of plays where the play breaks down and he exposes a mistake or if he scrambles for the first down. Lamar Jackson is now stepping up and making some real big boy throws, proper NFL throws.
One such beautiful pass came in the second quarter, when he connected with Mark Andrews on a ball that showed some impressive touch and accuracy.
Once again, the play design simplifies the reads by sending all of the traffic in one direction – although this time Jackson stays still. The tight end to the boundary side runs an out-and-up wheel to the sideline, and the running back fills in to help protect, then a three-man bunch to the tight left of the formation all run routes which break towards the right side.
Mark Andrews runs a slice route straight behind the linebackers, into the opposite seam, and there is a narrow variant of a mills concept.
The primary combination of routes is Andrews’ slice route from the tip of the bunch, and the wheel to the right sideline. These work together to target the Cover 3 zone that the Seattle Seahawks used to dominate the league for so long. When the wheel route gets wide and goes vertical, the cornerback has to turn his hips and chase the tight end to cover him, turning it more into a man coverage than he’d like. Once he’s turned to get deep and protect the sideline, Mark Andrews attacks the seam, getting behind the linebackers and into the deep third that the cornerback who is now up the sideline should be covering.
The route combinations worked great, and the throw from Lamar Jackson was beautiful. He put some touch on the pass to drop it in behind the scrambling linebacker. If he threw this too flat, K.J Wright is athletic enough to get in the way and make a play to knock the ball down, but he got a bit underneath it and took some weight off to make it an easier catch down the seam for a nice gain.
Jackson, in this play, just uses his arm – no running around, not even proper play action. He just stands in the pocket and puts the ball on a dime to get them down into the red zone.
Designed QB run plays
Let’s not forget the other thing that scares every defensive coordinator. The element of Jackson’s game that not every player at his position can do – his work in the designed QB running game.
The Ravens used one such play in this game when they were going for a killshot in the third quarter. It was fourth down, and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh called a timeout and deliberated with his young star. They decided to go for it, and who else’s hands would they put the ball in but his? Jackson is the leading rusher on the team, and their franchise QB – and he gave them what they needed to open up the lead in this tough game.
Nothing fancy here, just some damn good blocking from a jumbo formation on the QB Power play call. What this represents, once again, is that the defense can do everything right, stop the offense – be it holding them to 4th down, or where earlier they had great coverage on 3rd and long – it’s not enough.
Before he was scrambling for a first down when the receivers were locked up, and now he’s breaking the defensive spirits once again, this time it’s 4th and 2 and he runs in for a touchdown to give his team a lead they would never relinquish.
We asked the question – why is Lamar Jackson so difficult to stop?
Last week we saw the answer, and it’s simply because he can beat you in every single possible way. Not only is he an athletic star who can beat you on the ground through both designed and improvised rushing situations, but now he can also throw the ball much more consistently and effectively in his second year as well.
As the Baltimore Ravens watch their franchise QB grow, and he becomes more confident and dangerous, defenses will have to simply accept that it’s impossible to stop all three of the ways he can beat you, and pick your poison. Do you want him to beat you through the air, or on the ground?
So, what’s it going to be?
A graduated Journalism student, Tyler also writes for Read American Football and Gridiron Hub. He played Wide Receiver and eventually Quarterback for his university team at DMU, and is now using his knowledge and passion for learning to dive deeper into the analysis of X’s and O’s in the NFL.
Image credit: Steve Mitchell – USA Today