This week, I’m going to check in with the quarterbacks from the 2018 NFL draft for progress reports through their first two seasons. Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round that year, and I’ll take detailed looks at Lamar Jackson (Tuesday), Josh Allen (Wednesday), Baker Mayfield (Thursday) and Sam Darnold (Friday). Sorry, Josh Rosen; I’ll get to you another time.
Let’s begin with the guy who has made his way to the top of the class. Jackson only entered the starting lineup in 2018 after Joe Flacco was injured, but he instantly transformed the Ravens. They went 6-1 after he took over and they rode their new quarterback to a 10-6 record and AFC North title. After they disappointed in a home playoff loss to the Chargers, though, there were suggestions the league might have figured out Jackson and the run-heavy Baltimore offense.
Well, all Jackson did in his first year as a full-time starter was lead the Ravens to the best record in football and win league MVP. There’s obviously a lot to like about one of the league’s most exciting players after two years, but let’s get into how and why he has emerged as one of the most productive players in all of football. I’ll also cover why he’s struggled in the postseason and whether other teams will be able to crib what Tennessee did to slow Jackson in his second consecutive home playoff defeat.
Jackson’s 2019 in review
When this quarterback class arrived, I wrote a two-part series detailing how difficult it is to evaluate quarterbacks and why there was little reason to trust the league to get it right this time around. I also mentioned that regardless of who each team drafted, the most important thing for any QB prospect might hinge upon what the organization does to make itself fit around its new signal-caller.
Enter Lamar Jackson. Twenty-eight different NFL organizations passed on their opportunity to draft the Heisman Trophy winner, including the Ravens themselves, who drafted tight end Hayden Hurst at No. 25 before moving up to grab Jackson with the final pick of Round 1. Four quarterbacks were chosen before the Louisville signal-caller, who was the subject of pre-draft chatter suggesting that he would improve his chances of succeeding as a pro by moving to wide receiver. For whatever else happens from here on out, Jackson was the league MVP in his first full season as a starter. The majority of the league clearly missed on its evaluation of his pro potential.
Jackson was was always a more promising quarterback prospect than those detractors suggested, but the biggest thing the skeptics got wrong was that they underestimated the will of the organization that drafted him. Baltimore has molded its offense around his talents. It has paid a premium for players like tight end Nick Boyle and running back Mark Ingram, both moves I didn’t like at the time before they made clear sense on the field.
Most crucially, the Ravens took Jackson out of the offense he ran at Louisville. In college, he was a pocket passer in a pro-style, pass-first attack who just happened to be the most productive runner in football. As a pro, John Harbaugh’s team has moved him into an offense that emphasizes his unique abilities as a runner while using that threat to create plays in the passing game. Jackson famously said his performance against the Dolphins in Week 1 last season wasn’t bad for a running back. Unlike the other quarterbacks from his draft class, it’s already clear he is a great quarterback.
After hiring Greg Roman as an offensive assistant in 2017 and promoting him to offensive coordinator before the 2019 season, the Ravens inserted Jackson in a modernized version of the same attack Colin Kaepernick ran in San Francisco and Tyrod Taylor used in Buffalo. The results were spectacular. Jackson finished third in the league last season in passer rating and fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt. He didn’t throw the ball a ton, as he finished with 401 attempts across 15 games, but he was an incredibly efficient passer.
That alone would be excellent, but Jackson was simultaneously an incredible runner, racking up 1,206 rushing yards while averaging nearly 7 yards per carry. He posted the highest first-down rate (39.8%) for any player with at least 150 carries going back through 2001, which is where ESPN’s data ends. He produced more expected points as a runner than any running back in the league. You don’t need me to tell you he was great, which is why this will be more about how and why Jackson and the Ravens made that happen.
Roman incorporated some of the same concepts he ran with Kaepernick and Taylor in his prior stops for Jackson, but there’s more motion in this offense than there was in those other attacks. It’s possible Roman picked that up from the Rams, who used heavy doses of jet motion in their zone-rushing attack to create opportunities for Todd Gurley. Motion for the Ravens helps create blocking opportunities and forces opposing defenses into difficult run fits on the fly. The Rams don’t have a running threat at quarterback, but when Baltimore combines those heavy doses of motion with Jackson, the offense gains a numbers advantage in the running game. When you have more blockers and possible runners than defenders on one side of the field, the result is typically a big play.
Taking it a step further, the threat of Jackson, Ingram and the rest of this running game also dictates how opposing defenses try to stop the Ravens’ passing game. Up front, in addition to defenses getting beaten up by a physical rushing attack, the possibility of Jackson escaping the pocket for easy running yards forces edge defenders to honor their contain commitments. This keeps them from cheating for pass-rush opportunities, which helps keeps pressure off the quarterback.
In coverage, teams can’t count on defending the run against the Ravens with a seven-man box, forcing them to push one of their safeties up and preventing them from playing many two-deep coverages. Defenses also don’t want to play man-to-man coverage and assign one defender to try and account for Jackson, because if the quarterback beats that man as a scrambler, there’s nobody left to help. Typically, he is seeing Cover 1 or, more frequently, Cover 3.
Naturally, the Baltimore passing game is built around attacking Cover 3. Its most common deep-passing concepts were both Cover 3-beaters. One was the deep over, with a wide receiver running a go route and one of the tight ends working across the field and running an out into the space vacated by that go route. The other was all verts, with the Ravens sending as many as five receivers on straight vertical routes to stress zone coverage.
Jackson was a good downfield passer at Louisville, and he was excellent on those throws in 2019. He posted a passer rating of 117.9 when he threw deep in 2019, the fourth-best mark in the league. The Ravens emphasized adding speed during the 2019 offseason in adding wide receivers Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin and Seth Roberts, but Brown struggled to stay healthy during his rookie season after a two-touchdown debut. If Brown takes a step forward and stays on the field in 2020, Jackson could be even more of a threat as a deep passer.
One other element of Jackson’s college game that has extended to the pros is his ability to pick teams apart when he has an empty backfield. Only three teams went empty more frequently than the Ravens did last season, and Jackson used the space to dominate. He posted the league’s best passer rating (123.8) and QBR (92.2) out of empty sets and then averaged 11.1 yards per carry when he chose to keep the ball himself.
Patrick Mahomes, Terrell Owens and other past Madden cover athletes send their congratulations to Lamar Jackson for being on the cover of this year’s edition.
Accuracy was my biggest concern for Jackson coming out of college given his track record, but that wasn’t an issue in 2019. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he would have been expected to complete 65.6% of his passes. Instead, he was able to complete 66.1% of his throws. Only 17.4% of his throws were determined to be off-target, which is right in line with the league average of 17.7%. After weighting his air yards, ESPN Stats & Info has Jackson’s adjusted completion percentage at 71.8%, which ranked 10th in the league. If that’s going to be the weakest part of his game, it’s a great sign for the 23-year-old’s future.
If anything, we don’t talk enough about Jackson’s intelligence. His decision-making is generally excellent, especially for a quarterback so early in his career. He has only thrown interceptions on 1.6% of his passes; the only player to have a lower interception rate while throwing more passes than Jackson over his first two seasons in NFL history is Nick Foles, who had a 27-TD, two-INT season in 2013. Jackson is clearly comfortable working through his progressions in the pocket and doesn’t panic under pressure. Some athletic signal-callers rely on their ability to escape pressure with their feet to the point that it becomes a debilitating crutch for their development; Jackson isn’t one of them.
For a quarterback who runs as frequently as Jackson does, he has also done an excellent job of avoiding big hits. When I checked in on Jackson last October, I found that he was only brought down with a tackle by an opposing player on about half of his rushing attempts. He almost never slides, but he’s incredible at getting out of bounds and often gives himself up before running the risk of taking a hit in the middle of the field. This is a skill, especially in light of how Andrew Luck and current Ravens backup Robert Griffin had their careers altered by taking so many big hits early in their careers.
The Ravens have taken Jackson’s skills and weaponized them in the context of the offense. As one of the most analytics-friendly organizations in the league, Harbaugh & Co. were already comfortable going for it on fourth-and-short in areas of the field in which other teams were not. Using Jackson as part of the devastating running game forces defenses to stop the run on an extra down, which can make all the difference. Baltimore was 8-for-9 going for it on fourth down with 2 yards or less to go last season, producing more than a half-win by ESPN’s win expectancy model in the process.
Was Jackson’s MVP season a flash in the pan?
Quarterbacks who can run face arguments that their success will be fleeting, owing to the shortened high-level careers enjoyed by guys like Griffin and Kaepernick. These comparisons aren’t realistic or fair, given that Griffin suffered a serious knee injury at the end of his first season and Kaepernick was essentially expelled from the league as a result of his fight against systemic racism, but they do exist.
To start, Jackson has already overcome the first of those arguments, given that there were some who thought the Chargers figured out the run-first Ravens offense when they forced the rookie into a dismal performance during their 23-17 wild-card round win during the 2018 postseason. That defensive model clearly didn’t prove to be sustainable — Jackson responded by going 14-2 and winning league MVP.
The Chargers were forced by injuries to use defensive backs as linebackers, which served as a good counter for Jackson’s speed, but the moves Baltimore made during the offseason — namely adding Ingram — kept teams from selling out with speed to stop a power rushing game. The Ravens were also caught tipping plays with their offensive line splits and formations, issues that were alleviated with more practice time in a scheme they only really adopted in the middle of the 2018 season.
One thing that did pop up, though, is the idea that teams would do better against the Ravens after seeing Jackson and this offense for a second time. Indeed, the Chargers lost 22-10 and allowed Jackson & Co. to run for 159 yards during the 2018 regular season, but they did much better in a second go-round during the playoffs. Is there any evidence that defenses figure out Jackson and this offense with more reps?
I’m skeptical. By win-loss record, you might be able to make a case, given that Jackson is 16-2 when he plays an opposing defense for the first time and 3-3 in his rematches, but the offense isn’t the problem. Baltimore has averaged 30 points per game in Jackson’s first start against opponents and 29 points per game in rematches.
The evidence that teams are able to figure him out seems mixed at best; for every game like the wild-card loss to the Chargers, there’s an example like the Browns, who faced Jackson in a 2018 loss and then held the Ravens to 25 points in a 40-25 victory in Week 4 last season. In his third and final start against the Browns, whatever knowledge Cleveland had of Jackson didn’t help, as he went 20-of-31 passing for 238 yards and three scores while adding 103 yards on the ground in a 31-15 victory last December. We don’t have enough evidence to prove that this is a meaningful problem, and if you want to think back toward the past, you can ask Packers fans about what Kaepernick did over his various starts against Green Bay. Ten of Baltimore’s 16 games in 2020 are against teams that have already faced Jackson, so we’ll get more insight into whether this matters.
What about teams that get ahead and make Jackson one-dimensional? Is he exposed as a passer when the Ravens fall behind and he’s forced to throw? You could argue that has happened in both of his playoff losses, though I’ll have more to say about that Titans game in a minute. It makes sense that running quarterbacks would lose some effectiveness once they’re forced to pass, but is that borne out by evidence?
It’s true that Jackson has played worse when trailing, but it’s not a significant difference. According to the regular-season splits at Pro Football Reference, he has posted a passer rating of 108.6 when his team has been in the lead, falling to 101.0 when it’s trailing. If we include the playoff losses, Jackson’s passer rating falls to 91.6 when the Ravens are behind, which is the 17th-best mark in football since the start of 2018. It’s just ahead of players like Tom Brady (89.8), Philip Rivers (89.7) and Jared Goff (87.5), so it’s not terrible.
This hasn’t been a problem for other running quarterbacks. Kaepernick, for one, posted a passer rating of 92.5 when the 49ers were in the lead and only dropped off to 86.0 once they were trailing. PFR only has those splits through 1994, but we can also find quarterbacks from the past who had far more significant drop-offs. Over the final five years of his career with a dominant 49ers team, Steve Young‘s passer rating fell from 113.7 when leading to 93.2 when the Niners were trailing.
Over a much more significant portion of his career, Brett Favre would be the ultimate example. From 1994 on, the legendary Packers quarterback posted a passer rating of 112.1 while his team was in the lead. Once Favre fell behind, though, his passer rating fell all the way to 72.0, a difference of more than 40 points! If Favre could make that work and still have a Hall of Fame career, Jackson should be OK.
In an obvious passing situation like third-and-long, Jackson has also been fine. He has posted a passer rating of 82.6 on third down with 8 or more yards to go, which is just above the league average of 82.0. When you use QBR, which factors in his scrambling ability in those situations, Jackson’s 36.6 QBR on third-and-long is the seventh-best mark in football since the start of 2018.
Can teams copy the Titans’ playoff formula?
Since Jackson took over as the starter in Week 11 of 2018, no team has won more regular-season games (19) or averaged more points per game (30.7) than Baltimore. Over that time frame, he ranks third in QBR at 70.2. His regular-season résumé through two years is pristine.
In the playoffs, Jackson’s Ravens are 0-2. His QBR is 20.7. They have lost two home playoff games as favorites after losing just one such game in franchise history before he arrived. I’m not a particularly firm believer in the idea that there’s something different about playoff football, but they have laid two eggs in Jackson’s two postseason starts. I talked about the Chargers game and how teams weren’t able to emulate their 2018 plan earlier, but are teams going to be able to copy the Titans’ formula in beating the Ravens?
Yes and no. There are elements of what the Titans did that you’ll see teams try to make part of their toolbox against Baltimore, but there were also parts of that game that were downright unsustainable. I mentioned the Ravens’ dominance on fourth down earlier in the piece; they went 0-for-4 against the Titans, including a pair of stuffed fourth-and-1 runs. Baltimore scored one touchdown in four red zone trips, while the Titans went 3-for-3, converting on third-and-goal each time. After dropping 10 passes all season, the Ravens’ receivers dropped four Jackson passes in one night. They had six drives of 55 yards or more and produced just 13 points.
Opposing teams can’t count on that happening every week against the Ravens in 2020, but there are ideas they can take away and try to use. One example, as Cody Alexander noted in his breakdown of the game, was that the Titans were able to successfully use a coverage concept known as Invert 2 or Inverted Tampa to gain a numbers advantage.
Invert 2 popped up quite a bit around the league early in the season with limited success. You’re probably familiar with the classic Tampa 2 coverage shell the Buccaneers used under Tony Dungy, with two cornerbacks sitting in the flat and two safeties splitting deep halves of the field. Invert 2 flips those responsibilities, with the cornerbacks taking the two deep halves and the safeties becoming the flat defenders. This coverage shell allowed the Titans to push their safeties up into the box and get eight or even nine defenders in the box, reducing Baltimore’s numbers advantage, while retaining deep defenders for when the Ravens did try to attack downfield.
Tennessee was also able to make its defense look like Cover 3 before the snap before moving to Invert 2 after the snap, and while it didn’t really confuse Jackson on a regular basis, the Ravens weren’t able to take consistent advantage of the weaker spots in that coverage. The Titans didn’t use Invert 2 a ton, but they were brave enough to use man coverage more frequently than most teams did against Baltimore. The goal was to flood the box with defenders and take away both the numbers advantage in the running game and the middle of the field for Jackson as a passer.
The Titans’ safeties played a huge role in the win, and there aren’t many teams that have the sort of safety combination capable of doing what Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro did. They were viable, meaningful members of Tennessee’s run fits on the interior and were able to reliably track down Baltimore’s ball carriers and tackle them without much wasted motion. With only a couple of exceptions, the Titans didn’t run themselves into mistakes by leaving a gap uncovered, a problem even the Patriots ran into when they faced Baltimore during the regular season. Byard and Vaccaro each had an interception.
Doug Kezirian, Anita Marks and Joe Fortenbaugh are high on Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens winning it all this season.
The only other team that had the sort of safety play in the box against the Ravens in 2019 was the Bills, who held the Ravens to 3.6 yards per carry in a 24-17 December loss. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde seemed to be in the right place at the right time on just about every snap, although Poyer was caught looking into the backfield on Hayden Hurst’s 61-yard touchdown. The Bills’ ends did a great job of shedding blocks and freeing themselves on the edge to either force Jackson to give the ball or chase him down when he tried to run outside.
Buffalo, which has one of the league’s best-coached defenses, also found a way to try to keep up with the Ravens’ motion. As Paul Alexander noted, the Bills noticed the Ravens would almost always follow motion at the time of the snap by running to that side, so once they motioned toward the center, the Bills adjusted their linebackers to start accounting for a run in that direction. Baltimore adjusted for this tendency in the subsequent weeks by running in the opposite direction, but you could see teams change their defensive rules or adjust how they deal with motion to try and keep up with Jackson and the Ravens.
All of this stuff helps, but I’m not sure having versatile, physical safeties and excellent coaching like the Bills and Titans is an easy plug-and-play solution. Unless you can dominate in the red zone, eliminate every fourth-down opportunity and dominate field position, your team probably isn’t going to be able to emulate the game plan that worked for Tennessee in the playoffs.
The 2020 outlook
If only because it’s virtually impossible to improve on an MVP campaign, history suggests that Jackson will decline some this season. He threw touchdowns on 9% of his pass attempts last season, which was just the third time a player has managed that over a full season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The other two guys are Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, who were only able to do that once. It’s no criticism of Jackson to suggest that a 9% TD rate will be nearly impossible to replicate.
Both Jackson and the offense around him were also very healthy. Baltimore’s 14 primary offensive players only missed a total of nine games due to injury, five of which belonged to center Matt Skura. No other player missed more than two games before the Ravens sat their starters in Week 17. They were one of the most banged-up offenses in football as recently as 2017, when they ranked 27th in offensive Adjusted Games Lost.
The pieces around Jackson have also changed. Hurst was traded to Atlanta for a second-round pick, depriving the Ravens of their third tight end and their best replacement for those times when breakout weapon Mark Andrews struggles to stay healthy. More significant was the retirement of star guard Marshal Yanda, who had made it to eight Pro Bowls across his final nine seasons in the league. The Ravens drafted Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson in the middle rounds and signed D.J. Fluker; while they’re one of the best teams in the league when it comes to drafting and developing interior linemen, it’s tough to imagine them getting Yanda-quality play at right guard this season.
With that being said, barring serious injury, Jackson isn’t going anywhere. He’s going to present the same problems for opposing defenses in the years to come, and the Ravens are committed to building their offense around his dizzying array of skills. Asking for another MVP performance in 2020 is likely too much, but he should remain one of the best quarterbacks in football.