It’s a big wide world of football out there, with no lack of storylines to cover.
As someone who focuses on quarterback play and offensive schematics, that often requires watching a lot of football each week. It’s a tough job for sure, but I slog through the film as best as I can to try and inform readers about interesting concepts, high level execution, and the like.
Okay, I’m joking. It is not really hard. I’m living a dream. But please don’t stop reading, my oldest needs braces…
Some weeks, however, the assignments are easier to handle than others. This week in particular has been one of those weeks. After applying some lessons from the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO to the Chicago Bears offense and Mitchell Trubisky, my next task for the week is to highlight what makes Lamar Jackson so difficult to defend.
An assignment that I should be able to handle, given one of the other hats I wear each season.
You see, dear reader, perhaps it is confession time. You might not be aware, but I am...wait for it...a New England Patriots fan. I write for the SB Nation Patriots website, Pats Pulpit. I also host a podcast over there, titled The Scho Show (talk about being self-absorbed) where I talk about the Patriots a few times a week. Before covering them professionally, I was “covering” them as a fan. In fact, if you dig around deep enough on the internet, you’ll find versions of my current articles on some message boards…
But enough about me.
It is my Patriots’ fandom, however, that gives me a unique view into this assignment. After all, I just watched Lamar Jackson dismantle over the course of four arduous quarters what was the league's best defense. Watching that game multiple times from multiple angles has put me in a position to address this topic.
What makes Lamar Jackson so difficult to defend? The fact that he - and his offense - can make you automatically wrong no matter what you try. On both a micro and a macro level.
First-and-10, on the Baltimore Ravens’ opening possession from Sunday night. Jackson (#8) is in the pistol formation with running back Mark Ingram (#21) behind him. Fullback/defensive tackle Patrick Ricard (#42) is aligned as an upback. New England has their base 3-4 defense on the field:
Baltimore runs speed option on this play:
First notice Ricard. The FB executes an arc block, moving to the second level to block the first inside threat. They leave Kyle Van Noy (#53), the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS) unblocked, and that is the player Jackson will read. Whatever Van Noy does will be wrong. If he tries to cover the running back, Jackson will keep the football. If he tries to split the difference between Ingram and Jackson, the QB will keep the football. If he, even for a step, closes on Jackson, the quarterback will make the pitch.
Really, even if just for a step:
Van Noy steps toward Jackson and that is all the QB needs to make the pitch. From there, Ingram picks up the block from his fullback on safety Devin McCourty (#32), who is flying down into the box. Right tackle Orlando Brown (#78) neutralizes inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (#52) and the first player to make contact with Ingram is safety Patrick Chung (#23), more than ten yards downfield.
First-and-10 Baltimore, late first quarter. They have a heavy "13" personnel package in the game, with Ricard aligned as a tight end. They use a diamond pistol alignment, with Gus Edwards (#35) behind Jackson, tight end Nick Boyle (#86) to the left of the quarterback and fellow tight end Hayden Hurst (#81) to the right of Jackson:
Seeing this big package on the field, New England responds by going heavy as well. They operate with a 3-5 heavy front, putting five linebackers in the game.
Here is what the Ravens do:
They run a split inside zone play with five blockers flowing left, three flowing to the right, and Edwards serving as the vertical stretch on a potential inside run. Jackson will meet him at the mesh point and either give or pull.
On this play, three defenders— Elandon Roberts (#52), Dont’a Hightower (#54) and Lawrence Guy (#93) — read the inside run. So, Jackson pulls and keeps to the right edge, where he picks up a lead block from Boyle flowing to the right side in front of him:
Again, New England thinks they can figure this out, go heavy in response and be prepared. But sometimes muscle memory takes over. Guy tries to stay home and read this, keeping himself in position to prevent Jackson from having a crease. But he takes one small step down in response to a potential handoff to Edwards, and that is all Jackson needs to pull and take off.
Of course, these are both option plays, that are designed to keep a defense guessing. But when you widen the lens a bit and look at the growth from Jackson as a passer, you can see how the Ravens can make you wrong when putting the football in the air.
Third quarter, with Baltimore leading by four. New England has overcome a poor start and a disastrous Julian Edelman fumble to close the gap. If the vaunted Patriots defense can get off the field here by forcing a three-and-out, the visitors can take the lead. It is third-and-5.
Baltimore goes light, lining up with "11" personnel and Jackson in the shotgun. New England counters with a sub package as well, with two down linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs:
Baltimore runs a straight drop back passing concept on this play, sometimes called Double China-7 or Double In. It pairs two in routes from the outside with a corner route from the inside trips receiver:
Now, coming into this week one of the big questions in the football media world was “how would Bill Belichick look to stop Jackson?” An option presented by some, myself included, was a double spy with perhaps linebacker Jamie Collins and a defensive back. The concern with that approach, however, is by taking two players to defend the potential - potential - threat of a Jackson scramble, it leaves the defense at a numbers disadvantage somewhere else on the field.
This is what the Patriots do defensively:
Both Collins (#58) and defensive back Jonathan Jones (#31), likely New England’s fastest defender, spy the quarterback. They even blitz D. McCourty off the edge. By rushing five and spying with two, they are forced to play Cover 0 in the secondary. In week’s past, the Patriots have been more than willing to play Cover 0, trusting that the likes of Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones and Josh Allen will miss on throws.
Jackson, however, is a different quarterback:
The second-year passer puts this corner route on the money to Mark Andrews (#89), and the Ravens extend the drive. They would cap off their possession with a back-breaking touchdown, one that had many New England fans reaching for their remotes.
If those New England fans managed to stick out until the end, they saw the final piece to how the Ravens and Jackson can make you wrong as a defense no matter what you do. Here is Jackson’s final touchdown run of the night:
This is a straight QB power play to the left side. My first year playing the position I ran this play over and over again: 19 Power. The Patriots are ready for it, however, and as Jackson starts to the left he finds all the running lanes clogged.
So he simply, and patiently, cuts back to the other side, finds a crease, and gets into the end zone for a touchdown.
Even when you’re right, he makes you wrong.
That is the crux of the Lamar Question. How can you defend a quarterback and an offense that consistently makes you wrong, no matter what you do? The reason zone read plays, and option plays, are successful at lower levels is because they flip the numbers equation. Cris Collinsworth highlighted this on Sunday night. On a traditional running play the defense has the advantage, as the QB hands the ball off and becomes a non-paying spectator.
But on these plays, like the first two we saw, the quarterback is a threat that needs to be accounted for. As we saw, sometimes with multiple defenders. Additionally, on many of these designs, defenders are left unblocked by design. The flow of the play will “block” them. The numbers are flipped in the offense’s favor.
The fear with running this at the professional level has always been two-fold. First, quarterbacks with this skillset are often subpar passers. Jackson is anything but a subpar passer. He was a much better pocket passer than he was given credit for coming out of Louisville, and we are seeing further growth and refinement from him this season. He has fixed his narrow throwing base and his accuracy has improved. But the second concern was one of cost. Given the expense of quarterbacks on a salary basis, is it wise to build an offense around a player who is going to be both expensive, and exposing himself to hits in an offense like this?
Well, Jackson protects himself extremely well. Plus, you can’t hit what you can’t catch.
This is a scary quarterback and offense to try and defend right now.
What is even scarier? This week, Jackson starts just his 16th NFL game.
Imagine what he’ll look like in “Year 3.”