Lamar Jackson is one of the most unique quarterbacks in the NFL right now with over 2,000 yards rushing in his career paired with almost 6,000 passing yards and a 102.1 passer rating. A lot of talking heads diminish Lamar’s ability calling him a running back playing quarterback like it’s some kind of knock or dig at his ability. Some of the criticisms are valid, he can struggle mechanically and can overly rely on athleticism but trying to box Lamar into the strict definition of what a quarterback is as foolish as trying to tackle him in the open field. He isn’t a normal quarterback. So why try to define him as one? Lamar is an all-world runner so people try to point out his his ability, or inability, to throw – especially this year where his completion percentage has dropped (although his receivers have dropped 4.9% of his passes) along with his sack numbers rising and a higher rate of fumbling and interceptions. He’s not producing at his 2019 MVP level but let’s take a look at Lamar the player and not just as a pure passer – though we’ll look at that too. When looking at Lamar you have to take a wholistic view and understand how he helps that offense operate both in the run game and the pass game.
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Lamar is at his best in the passing game when he’s working the underneath game and throwing on rhythm. Because he’s such a dynamic runner, when he progresses through his reads, he can start to get jumpy in the pocket and is prone to try to escape because, ultimately, I think he still trusts his legs more than he does his arm. However, he has started to throw with really good anticipation that shows trust in the scheme, his receivers, and illustrates his growth in his ability to throw off of defensive movements. There are some mechanical issues, but for the most part, the mental side of the game seems to be really slowing down for him.
Here, the Ravens are running a deep Dagger concept with a clear out post from the slot and a 15 yard dig from Hollywood Brown outside. The running back releases into the flats to try and hold the linebackers from getting depth underneath the dig. The post here is designed to hold the safety and pull defenders to open a window for the dig. The clear out is able to pull the safety and there is a window but it’s not a very big one and it’s 15 yards downfield. Lamar begins his throwing motion just as Brown is getting out of his break but he’s still about 10 yards from where he’ll catch the ball. Lamar see’s the two linebackers dropping to their seam responsibilities in cover 3 and knows he has to drive it in the deep hole behind them with anticipation because if he’s late, the window to the dig will close fast.
These anticipation throws are the biggest step Lamar has begun to take in his game and more than that, is an indicator that he’s starting to trust his eyes and his arm to make these plays. These aren’t throws where he’s seeing someone open first and then throwing. It takes high level processing to make these kinds of throws. Here, Lamar is starting his throwing motion just as the receiver is planting to break to the corner. Lamar trusts his guy to be at the right spot and trusts his arm to get it there. It’s an impressive tight window throw with pressure bearing down on him.
Anticipation like this is a really good indicator for Lamar. On this play, he’s hoping to throw the seam to his tight end the whole way but he sees the safety shaded directly over the top bail to the middle of the field at the snap. He looks off the safety to ensure that he has created enough room and then throws an absolutely perfect ball to the seam right over the defenders’ head and before the safety has a chance to make a play on the ball.
However, like I said, as a passer, there are still some big mechanical issues that Lamar has and they’re issues that he also had last year, which is concerning since they don’t seem to have been cleaned up much. This play encapsulates basically all parts of Lamar. His biggest issue throwing the ball is a huge dip at the top of his drop, subsequent heel-click which causes even more issues with vertical accuracy, and then an occasional tendency to drop his eyes and look to escape from the pocket. On the flip side, despite all that, he turns this play into a 10 yard gain and first down.
At the top of his drop, you can see how low Lamar gets and how much his hips sink towards the ground. As a quarterback, you want to stay as even and stable as possible and you don’t want that vertical bounce because if you throw off of this last step in your drop, your body is now rising simultaneously as you throw, it’s harder to get good power and drive, and you get a lot of vertical accuracy issues. Because of this elongated last step of his drop, he also tends to heel click and bring his feet together on his hitch steps. This again creates vertical bounce which you want to eliminate. He then drops his eyes and looks to scramble but if he kept his eyes up, he would see the safety is flat footed and his receiver is running open on a seam for a potential touchdown. Lamar has a pocket, but instead escapes out. I say all this knowing that he gains a first down on this play and that’s great, but it’s important to know that he is leaving plays on the field in the passing game as well.
As a pure passer, these mechanics are going to make you less consistent. You can see here that same huge vertical dip at the top of his drop and how that gets him onto his toes and bouncing in the pocket. If all your cleats aren’t in the ground, you’re going to have difficulty generating power and accuracy from your legs up. As a result, Lamar is unable to open his hips to the throw with his toe pointed towards the sideline and can’t generate enough power and leaves the ball behind his receiver which results in an interception.
The longer the throw, the more impactful this heel click and vertical bounce can be on his vertical accuracy. You can see how pronounced it is here against the Bengals on this deep shot which causes him to overshoot the throw by about 5 yards.
These mechanical issues and misfires pop up in almost every game. Big dip at the top of the drop, lots of heel click, and vertical inaccuracy. While Lamar does tend to sidearm which leads to most of his horizontal inaccuracy, issues with touch and vertical misses are all because of his footwork and this is now year three of these same issues.
A passer isn’t all that Lamar is, though. It’s foolish to think of him as just a quarterback because he just flat out isn’t just a quarterback. He might not be what most people think of as a conventional player, but to use that as a knock just flat out makes no sense to me. We are seeing that he is capable as a passer and to add that to what he does on the ground is what separates him from every other player in the league.
Lamar adds a ton to the Ravens run game as you might expect but he does it whether he keeps the ball or not. The Ravens use a ton of read option which leaves one defender free to be read by Lamar. This allows them to gain an extra blocker and forces defensive flow and gap fits to become compromised. The Ravens really like to run a center and tackle counter read and it can be incredibly powerful. A lot of the time, teams have issues sealing off backside pursuit on counter and preventing penetration from the defensive end but since the Ravens read that guy, it eliminates that issue. Since the Ravens have two ball carriers in the backfield at all times by default with Lamar, they now can force teams to be gap sound on every play. If that end comes down to chase the counter and pulling tackle, Lamar will give the ball to the running back running to the outside. If that end stays up-field, Lamar will pull it and run the counter himself. What this also does is give false read keys to the linebackers who are often taught to read and follow pulling linemen. They can’t really do that anymore because if they do, there’s no way they’ll be in position to chase the running back. You can see that here as the linebackers are frozen during the mesh and are late to get outside which enables to running back to get around the edge of the defense.
The Ravens will also switch it up and have Lamar be the outside keep and the running back run counter. The same principles apply. Read off of the defensive end. If he chases, pull the ball and run around him. The Ravens are also crunch to arc blocking with their fullback. He’s coming around to go up and block the linebacker to seal the outside for Lamar if he keeps the ball. So now there’s a ton of backfield motion for defenses to look at and Lamar is special in the open field. If you crash down like the defense does here, he’s capable of ripping off huge gains when he keeps the ball.
Now since Lamar has kept it once, it opens up the counter action for the running back. Just watch this at full speed and try to figure out what’s going on in the backfield and know that Lamar is capable of burning you if you don’t protect against him keeping it to the outside. The defensive end comes up the field so Lamar gives the ball to the running back since he has taking away his path to the outside. Two of the linebackers are also now sitting and staying home in case of the keep by Lamar which gets them out of position on the counter. The Ravens now have +1 blockers to the play-side as Lamar has influenced three separate players on defense and taken them out of position to make a play.
This is the full power that Lamar has. He influences the running game like no other quarterback does and then he can also play action and boot out of those same looks and has developed into a solid passer of the ball. If for a second, you aren’t sound on defense, the Ravens will make you pay on the ground. That’s never really been up for debate. But as Lamar has grown in the passing game, they’ve also started to make teams pay through the air. Lamar is not by any means an elite passer at this point, but he is still growing and is showing signs of the game slowing down for him. With all that he brings to the field, there’s no deadlier weapon in the NFL right now and if Lamar can continue to evolve, the Ravens may just run – and throw – their way to the Super Bowl.
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