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NFL Draft

Lamar Jackson’s Willingness To Throw Deep Key To Ravens’ 2020 Success

  • The Draft Network
  • June 5, 2020
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At the end of the 2017 NFL Season, the Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl 52. They did it with Nick Foles at quarterback, a cool trick pass on fourth down (and they went for it on fourth down a lot), and dog masks were involved at some point, and basically none of it would have happened if Keanu Neal didn’t flying crane kick a football in midair.

Everything was magical and awesome, and once it all died down, what was left was the real engine behind all of that magic: the Eagles’ offense, which had somehow survived the injury of their franchise left tackle and potential MVP quarterback en route to the Lombardi Trophy. While RPOs had existed long before Doug Pederson’s 2017 masterstroke, it was that offense that thrust RPOs to the forefront of every broadcast booth, every offensive coaching clinic, and subsequently, every NFL defensive coordinator’s offseason hit list.

RPOs have remained a huge part of NFL offenses—the 2019 Baltimore Ravens certainly ran their fair share—but defenses have been quick to find answers for common RPO looks by crowding the line with potential rushers and concealing their underneath zone defenders, or by spinning safeties late into the box. This is the ebb and flow—offenses innovate on existing edges and defenses innovate to level the scales again.

The Ravens currently rock one of the two biggest edges in all of NFL football. His name is Lamar Jackson, and he’s one of the best runners in the league despite playing quarterback (Kansas City has the other really big edge). The Ravens didn’t win the Super Bowl like Philadelphia, but they did have the most effective rushing attack in the NFL by multiple degrees. During a time in which the running game is waning from public favor, the Ravens’ ground game roared into the top tier of NFL schemes, causing impossible headaches for defensive coaches across the league.

Every defensive coordinator in the NFL wants to walk into training camp and have a plan for stopping the Ravens’ multi-back, motion-heavy, shotgun-based running game. But Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh knows they’re coming.

During availability last week with Baltimore media, Harbaugh detailed the focus of the 2020 Ravens offense in light of the attention their running game will be receiving.

"Those corners are going to be one-on-one and those safeties are going to be one-on-one against receivers, especially on some downfield throws, and we got to make them pay for it. We absolutely have to make them pay," Harbaugh said. "The ability to make them pay for tilting their defense toward stopping our run game with a really, really efficient passing game. I do believe that's the next step of this offense. I really do believe Lamar is going to take the next step."

Harbaugh alluded to the most likely solution that will be presented by defenses looking to stymie the Ravens’ rushing attack: numbers. The value of the quarterback run is baked into the extra player—the quarterback—that base NFL defenses are not structured to account for. With a running back behind five offensive linemen, there are six gaps a defense must account for, so most defenses would put six defenders in the box. With a mobile quarterback potentially keeping the football on a zone read, there’s the potential for a “seventh gap,” as one defender will be occupied with the running back, who doesn’t have the football. 

As such, defenses need extra run defenders to remain gap sound against the Ravens, and those extra run defenders have to be pulled from the passing game. While many defenses would like to have three defenders over two potential receivers—think zone coverage or safety help in man coverage—they may be forced to go two-over-two to get that extra player in the running game, instead.

And as the defense floods the box to suffocate running lanes, the Ravens want to flood the deep areas of the field, putting athletes in one-on-one situations with tons of space to truly stretch the defense to its limit. This offensive philosophy is reflected in the weapons the Ravens have acquired over the last two drafts. 

In 2019, the Ravens brought in an elite speedster in wide receiver Marquise Brown and a top-tier developmental athlete in wide receiver Myles Boykin—who also had the run-blocking ability that fit into the Ravens’ base offense—to add to the best vertical, pass-catching tight end from the 2018 NFL Draft class in Mark Andrews. In 2020, the Ravens kept their foot on the gas, drafting explosive Texas wide receiver Devin Duvernay. This pass-catching unit is built to go deep and get there fast. 

The limiting factor on the Ravens’ deep passing attack is, as Harbaugh said, Jackson. Jackson took strides in every facet of passing from his rocky rookie season and was by no means a poor deep passer in 2019. On targets at least 20 yards downfield, Jackson’s adjusted completion percentage was 41.8%, which was tied for 12th among quarterbacks with at least 50 deep attempts—his passer rating was fifth-best. In the PFF QB Annual, Jackson only graded with above-average accuracy on attempts of at least 20+ yards down the field.

The room for improvement in deep accuracy is a bit skint, though it’s still there. Where there is room for improvement is in Jackson’s willingness to take deep shots. Jackson only attempted throws with at least 20 air yards on 15% of his passes, just a small tick over the NFL average of 13% despite the favorable coverages he faced and dangerous weapons he was offered to attack deep. In my 2018 Contextualized Quarterbacking charting, Jackson graded out as the passer with the best placement on throws 20-plus yards down the field but was again average in his target share of deep passes (17.6%).

The development on offense that Harbaugh alludes to is both one of theory and of practice. The Ravens do want to become a better deep passing team because every team wants to be a good deep passing team, as deep completions famously get more yards than short ones. The Ravens want Jackson to become a better deep passer because they’ve built the offense around him to throw it deep. As he improves, their offense improves. But it is also the simple practice of willingness to take deep shots when one-on-one coverage is ripe for the picking that may end up mattering more for Baltimore. 

The gravity of their offense currently pulls defenders into the box. If they aren’t able to create an opposite pull in the deep zones of coverage with the passing game, they won’t be able to make defenses pay for tilting into the box to stop the run. The continued success of the Ravens’ running game relies, in part, on their ability to recognize when it’s been beaten by simple arithmetic, and accordingly posture with a deep strike to force opponents to play more honest football.

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