QB Breakdown – Lamar Jackson, his Mechanics, and his Decision-Making

A 75% completion percentage, 169 passing yards, five passing touchdowns, and how about we toss in eight carries for 95 yards on the ground too. Lamar Jackson has begun to run away in the MVP race with his week 12 performance. With 2,427 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air and 876 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground, Lamar Jackson is doing things we’ve never seen a quarterback do. There’s a lot to love – including decision making mechanics being greatly improved over last season.

Given his explosion on Monday Night Football against the LA Rams, let’s look at that game and break down his play purely as a thrower of the ball. We’ll use the same grading scale I use for the quarterbacks I coach at Tamalpais since it gives a concise look at how a quarterback is performing in all phases of passing. On each play the QB is graded on their Drop Technique, Throw Technique, and their Decision. Each one of these is given a 0 or a 1 on each play. You either did them correctly and made the right decision, or you didn’t. The grades are then summed with a maximum grade being a three. Here is Lamar’s grades for the game and then we’ll go into detail on his mechanics, what he needs to work on, and what he did well.

Drop TechniqueThrow TechniqueDecision
16/2017/2019/20
0.80.850.95
 Total Grade 
 2.6 / 3.0 

It’s hard to know exactly what he’s being coached to do as far as footwork and decision making but I tried to stay as true to form as possible and only grade him down for things that are clearly un-coached and not proper technique. I also give QBs completions for dropped passes, and interceptions for dropped interceptions. Lamar’s receivers had 3 drops on the night. His other two passes were throw-aways. When he threw the ball to a receiver he completed 100% of his throws and every pass should have been caught by an NFL receiver. We can nitpick ball placement but at the end of the day, he delivered catchable balls and did an exceptional job of leading the pass game through his decision making.

Let’s start with his drop technique. The first thing I noticed with his drops is that they’re inconsistent. A lot of the time he’s using a skip drop. He may be coached to do this since he does it frequently, but I don’t like it for a number of reasons and haven’t seen the technique coached before. 1. It’s inconsistent as far as depth and timing for hitting receivers in rhythm and having a consistent feel for the pocket, 2. It gets both his feet off the ground at the same time which is a huge issue if you have to throw hot or out of rhythm. You always want at least one foot on the ground to be able to move and drive the ball. 3. It can cause vertical bounce and inaccuracy. With vertical bounce, your whole body is moving up and down. This can lead to vertical inaccuracy if you throw on an up bounce or on the way down. It’s one more variable for you to compensate for with your release point. You want to be as even as possible to maximize your consistency as a thrower.

In the gifs below, take a look at how much you can see his hips, and helmet move vertically up and down. Like we talked about, we want to minimize that as much as possible. You can see in the last gif where he skips and then takes a 3-step after, he’s much more even and stable.

Lamar Jackson with skip drop and vertical bounce
Another skip drop and bouncing from Lamar Jackson
Skip drop to 3-step. More even on 3-step than on the skip

Having a pure crossover 3-step drop matches timing of receivers routes, minimizes bounce, and is way easier to perform more consistently on a snap-to-snap basis. While utilizing the skip drops didn’t impact him too materially, it could lead to issues down the road. When he did use a 3-step drop a couple times his base got a little wide at the top of his drop. This can again create issues in his vertical accuracy. His back plant leg is extended too far which causes his whole body to dip. When your hips and head dip significantly like this, it can cause you to air mail throws because there’s one more variable to account for when throwing the ball as you are now rising up as you throw – just like with the skip drop. Again, take a look at the picture and then the gif to see how much his hips and head drop as his back leg plants in the ground at the top of his drop.

Lamar over-extends his back leg creating lots of vertical movement for his hips and head

On the whole though, his base was exceptional. He kept his feet slightly outside his shoulders, had very little heel click (another causer of vertical inaccuracy) on his hitches, and had exceptional pocket presence. He clearly worked on his base over the offseason and it has really paid off. A good base sets the table for good throw mechanics, power, and accuracy.

As far as his throw technique is concerned, he is much more consistent here than he is with his drops. His only issue tends to be with pointing his toe where he wants the ball to go. Twice he threw behind his receivers or to their back hip because his toe was pointed behind them instead of putting the ball out in front and allowing easier catches or more yard after catch. Having your toe pointed in the wrong spot can mess with your hips and follow through. Generally you finish your follow through with the bulk of your weight solidly over your front foot. So if your foot and leg are pointed away from your receiver – or behind the receiver in these cases – it can cause the ball to travel that direction since your momentum and throwing action will end up pulling it that way. It’s not a necessity on every throw but it helps create consistent ball placement. You can see in the picture and gif where his toe is pointing is where the ball ends up going. The green arrow indicates where he should be pointing to lead his receiver to space and allow for an easier catch.

That being said, every one of his other throws had great technique. He had great hip whip to generate power and consistency, generally good follow through, a high elbow, and pretty quick release. One of the off platform or alternate angle throws he made was pretty insane. You can check it out below. He has good patience, has to adjust his angle, and delivers a perfect ball.

Lastly, we’ll go over a couple of his reads and decisions. He did a great job all night and diced up the Rams secondary. He did an awesome job reading cover 0 and attacking the leverage of #26 on a four verticals play in the red zone. It showed a great understanding of how to deal with an all-out blitz and where to attack if that happened. You can see #26 with outside leverage which is an enormous no-no for man. ALWAYS, always, always inside shade to force the QB to make a longer throw to the outside. This is too easy and Lamar quickly sees the leverage that Snead #83 has on an inside seam pre-snap. Snead immediately beats #26 who does some kind of shuffle off the snap and Lamar throws a strike in rhythm for a touchdown.

Leverage from #26 gives Snead, #83 a clear inside release and easy touchdown

The last play I’ll show you is one of Lamar getting off his first and second read before hitting his third read, Mark Andrews, over the middle for a huge catch and run of 38 yards. The Rams are showing two high safeties pre-snap and pressure in the A gap but they roll into cover three as Lamar hikes the ball and the linebackers bail into coverage. He immediately looks to the top of the field to see if his man can win on the fade. When the corner stacks on top, he comes down to the two rub routes – something the Ravens ran a lot this game. When he sees the linebackers sitting in the flats and staying shallow looking at the underneath routes, he knows that there will be a window behind them on the deep dig, hitches and delivers a dart in a small window between the linebackers that allows for Andrews to make an easy catch and run.

You can see everything we talked about previously here. He takes a skip drop into a 3-step, is a little wide at the top of his base creating some vertical bounce but collects himself on the hitch. There’s a little heel click but he then keeps his base wide, leads his throw with his hips, points his toe, and delivers a strike after coming off his first two reads. A little bit of everything on this play – the good and bad.

Lamar can clean up his footwork but other than that, he’s a pretty polished thrower of the ball. Most impressively, he is making excellent decisions. He’s able to read post-snap changes in coverage, exploit leverage, understand hot routes, and deliver the ball to exploit the weaknesses he sees. He has the arm talent and athletic ability to overcome some inconsistency in his drops but as he fixes those, he will only become more consistent as a passer. Something nobody in the NFL except the Ravens wants to see.

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Opening Scripts and Exploiting the Defense

Seven plays, 75 yards, 4:21 off the clock, and 7 points. The Saints’ first opening drive touchdown of the year did a great job attacking the weakness of a defense and stacking plays that look different but are the same basic concepts.

Play-callers often come into games with a set script for their first drive. Usually it builds in different formations, personnel, and looks to 1. See how the defense adjusts and reacts to, 2. Attack weakness in the defense, 3. Show plays that will be built on later that look similar but that are different, and 4. Potentially catch the defense in a sub package of players that they feel like they can exploit on that drive. This set script can range anywhere from five to 15 plays that coordinators want to run at the beginning of the game to get their playmakers involved and test the defense.

The Saints huddle on 3rd and 12 vs. the Panthers on their opening drive in week 12 of the 2019 NFL season

Data shows that if you have no explosive plays in a drive (16+ yard pass or 12+ yards on a run), you have a 9% chance of scoring. If you have one explosive play that scoring probability goes to 49% and if you have two explosives, it goes up to 77% (Maddox & Slack, 2011). The Saints had two in their opening drive including the 26 yard TD run by Murray.

The best way to get explosives is by scheming up plays for your best players. The Saints started off doing just that. Murray, Thomas, and Kamara each had two touches on the drive and Tedd Ginn had a 30 yard gain on a scramble drill from Brees. What capped the drive is how they started with their first play though. The Saints came out in heavy personnel to try and force the Panthers to match with big bodies, something the Panthers are thin on with an already porous run defense.

The opening play featured a personnel group with three tight-end types and one running back – Latavius Murray. The Saints crunch their H, #86 across the formation in the hopes that it pulls a LB out of position and causes a loss of gap integrity. Instead, Luke Kuechly and the linebackers bump over, fill perfectly, and cause Murray to bounce right into a gap filled by Eric Reid (#25). The center and right guard are occupied by the defensive tackle #95 Dontari Poe and can’t climb to get an extra block. You’ll still take your RB in a hole on a safety any day though and Murray falls forward for three yards. You can see the blocking scheme and the tracks and fits of the LBs in the image below.

Saints first play from scrimmage. Hand-off to Murray for 3 yds (E.Reid)

Take a look at the great job of the Panthers linebackers all being assignment-sound and fitting perfectly in their gaps. Great team football. Murray makes a decisive cut and falls forward for what he can when he meets Eric Reid in the hole.

After going spread and hitting a short completion on a shallow crosser to Michael Thomas, the Saints are set up with 3rd and 3.

They dial up a pretty simple high / low concept with their two best players on the same side of the field Kamara (#41) takes a wider split in the backfield to enable an easier release and Michael Thomas (#13) is split to the single receiver side. With both of them on the same side and only three players on defense to guard them, one of them will be singled up and open a window for the other. With a pre-snap motion and no man follow, Brees knows that the Panthers are in cover two with two outside leverage corners up close to the line of scrimmage and two deep safeties. Now all Brees has to do is read #23 (the red triangle), the nickel corner over Kamara. If he comes up on Kamara’s hitch pattern right at the line to gain, he can throw the post behind him to Thomas. If #23 drops under the post, he can throw the sit for the first down. Super easy concept and read which was helped to diagnose with the pre-snap motion.

D.Brees pass short left to M.Thomas to NO 45 for 13 yards (E.Reid). Pass 12, YAC 1

Not the easiest catch, but watch the space it creates for Thomas when #23 comes down on Kamara to play the sticks.

Following their first down, they give it to Kamara for a 5 yard run. While the next play goes for 30 yards on a scramble drill, it also might be concerning for Saints fans. The Saints go with a two-back set and split Kamara #41 out wide hoping for a mismatch. The Panthers, however, are in nickel with an extra defensive back on the field to guard against exactly this type of thing. Kamara demands too much respect as a receiver to put a linebacker on him but this also lightens the box and makes it easier for the Saints to run. A double edged sword. The Saints use a short motion to try and create some leverage for Kamara on a corner-fade while sending Ted Ginn on a skinny post down the middle of the field right at #25 Eric Reid at safety. Ted Ginn does a great job of stemming his route outside and forcing Reid to turn his hips to the sideline to prevent against a fade. He then snaps it off to run a post and there’s absolutely nobody in the middle of the field with #33 the other FS coming down on the intermediate dig route. Drew Brees is looking right at him… and doesn’t throw it. It’s as wide open as you get in the NFL, he has a clean pocket, and all he has to do is throw it out down the opposing hash and let Ginn run under it. You can see in both the sideline and end-zone views that Brees is looking at him. Concerns about Brees’ arm strength have been a concern as he has gotten older and the Saints are only attempting about three deep passes a game which might make you wonder if Brees trusts his arm on deep throws anymore (Player Profiler, 2019). Despite the miss on the read throw to the post, Brees moves out of the pocket, Ginn works back towards the ball and they connect on the sideline for a 30 yard gain.

D.Brees pass deep left to T.Ginn ran ob at CAR 26 for 30 yards. Pass 30, YAC 0

Watch Eric Reid, the Safety at the bottom and how Ginn forces him to flip his hips and wins the middle of the field.

On the scoring play they go back to heavy personnel and actually bring in an extra lineman in addition to two tight-ends and a running back (Murray) but are essentially in the same formation. A couple plays earlier, Dontari Poe, who helped blow up the first play and hold a double team, game off with an injury. Wouldn’t you know it, the Panthers lined up exactly the same as they did on the first play of the game when faced with heavy personnel and wouldn’t you know it, the Saints ran essentially the same play right at McCoy’s replacement. This time, with a little window dressing, a shift, the right guard and right tackle win their double team and drive their man into Kuechly (#59) who reads the fullback and goes to fill the wrong gap. As a result, he can’t scrape over the double team and the cutback lane opens up. Murray reads the hole, cuts off his guards back, and explodes into the open field for a touchdown.

W.Clapp reported in as eligible. L.Murray right guard for 26 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Watch Kuechly #59 at MLB move to the right to attack the FB and designed gap for the play. Not sound defense though. #54 is already there to fill and with Kuechly out of position, it opens up a hole for Murray.

While nothing world-beating or terribly innovative, the Saints opening drive exploited every weakness it could find in the Panthers defense. As soon as a backup came in, they attacked, they overloaded one side of the field with two of their best players, they threw different formations and personnel at them, and they called plays to get the ball in their best players’ hands. All resulting in an opening drive TD for the Saints and a perfect a start to a division game as you can hope for.

you liked this post make sure to subscribe here and let us know what you think. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen. If you feel like donating to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here.

References

(2019, November 26). Retrieved from Player Profiler: https://www.playerprofiler.com/nfl/drew-brees/

Maddox, D., & Slack, D. (2011). From Helmet to Headset: Coaching the R4 Expert System. Apopka, Florida: Certa Publishing.

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