NFL Film Breakdown: How Lamar Jackson Has Grown as a Passer and is Used in the Ravens Run Game

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.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

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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Zone Read Made Easy – Brought to you by the Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have been putting on a clinic in the run game all year and it’s not even things that are incredibly fancy or intricate. It’s simple reads, good blocking, and a great job of making the defense pay for not being sound in their run fits and play disciplined defense with solid tackling. On Sunday the Ravens continued their rushing tear with 256 yards on the ground against the Texans. While the Houston defense has struggled on the back end, their rush defense is middle of the pack (ranked 13th overall giving up 101.3 yds/gm) and are no slouches with a couple legit defenders upfront.

The running threat that Lamar Jackson provides forces defenses to play honest and allows the Ravens to gain extra blockers and create explosive plays in the run game. While the zone read isn’t new to football, not many NFL teams run it because, well, not a lot of teams have Lamar Jackson. The speed of defenders and the tighter hashes in the NFL make it way more difficult to run the zone read effectively. Baltimore, however, uses it with lethal effectiveness. On 12 zone read plays on Sunday they gained 163 yards, a 13.5 yard average. Even without their three explosive plays of 25, 39, and 63, they still averaged a respectable, if not amazing, 4 yards a carry on zone read plays.

Unblocked “read” defender marked by the red triangle. Offensive blocks marked by yellow. Running tracks by QB and RB in blue.

Zone read, at its simplest, is leaving a defender – usually a defensive end or OLB walked up on the line of scrimmage – unblocked. You leave this defender unblocked because the plan is to put them in conflict and whatever action they take will be the wrong one. Pictured, above, the red triangle is the unblocked man. If he squeezes down and turns his hips towards the sideline to tackle the RB on the inside zone dive, the QB can pull the ball out of the mesh and run outside and around the crashing unblocked defender. If he stays with his hips square to the QB or comes upfield on the otherhand, the QB simply hands the ball off and that player is no longer involved in the play. Meanwhile, the wing, #86, is taking an arc release to wall off any flowing linebackers in case the QB keeps the ball and runs to the outside.

As you can see below, the unblocked defender stays wide which tells the QB to hand the ball off. The offense has gained a man that normally would be used to block this unblocked defender and now #79, the left tackle, can help on the double team with the guard, create push to the second level, and wall off the flowing linebacker. Textbook blocking and climbing by the Ravens offensive line allows an easy 11 yard gain by Mark Ingram.

Below is another example of the zone read with a couple little wrinkles. There’s a lot of lines but what’s going on is that the Ravens understand that the Texans and #59 in particular, are respecting Lamar Jackson and QB keep. So, instead of blocking the read man to create more space in addition to the mesh and threat of a QB keep, they have the fullback take a crunch and kick-out motion like he’s going to hit the end and then feed upfield to get a block downfield since the unblocked man is already out of position to defend the give to the RB. The Jet sweep motion in yellow also adds an additional element that widens the defense to protect the outside and gets secondary help out of position for the inside run. The jet sweep then turns into an outside blocker to help seal any flowing defenders in case the QB decides to keep it and run outside. As it turns out, the safety roles with the jet motion, the unblocked man gets up field and out of position so as to prevent the QB keep, and the gained blocker in #79 helps double team the defensive tackle and work up to the LB and create an explosive play for the Ravens. All off of a simple zone read concept with window dressing.

Take a moment to look at our read man in the red getting up-field to protect against the QB keep, the safety flowing with the jet motion, and the hole it creates for the RB to run through.

Finally, below, Lamar Jackson decides to keep it. The read man actually does a great job of recovering and forcing Lamar to cut back inside towards his help. Unfortunately you can also see how strongly both the LBs bite on the inside run and get out of position. It even looks like the Ravens block this up incorrectly because they leave two guys unblocked. Both the defensive end and the defensive tackle on the offensive left are untouched. But because of the over-committed LBs being unable to flow over to help and Lamar Jackson being Lamar Jackson, it goes for a huge gain. Not many QBs can make people miss like this which is why he is such a threat and opens up so much space in their run game. Just the idea of Lamar taking off scares defenses and makes them over-protect any possible QB keep.

Note how hard the two middle linebackers flow to tackle #21 Mark Ingram because they have been handing it off all day. Even with #86 leading up the hole and blocking nobody and a missed block on the defensive tackle the play still goes for a huge gain because of the linebackers lack of ability to scrape and help make a tackle.

We’ll throw one last gif in that comes from the end of the game and goes for a 63 yard touchdown. The read man makes life super easy and gives a clear handoff read by coming way upfield to protect the QB keep. Everything works smoothly and it’s the easiest run all day. The running back does a great job pressing the hole and making the LBs commit inside before taking advantage of the cutback – one of the biggest boons of zone scheme running. Props to #80 Crockett Gilmore getting the scoring block downfield and turning this from a big gain into a touchdown.

The Ravens don’t do anything too fancy, they just run the zone read correctly and make teams with poor run fits or undisciplined ends pay for it with explosive cutbacks and QB keeps. Awesome to see concepts that are simple and done at all levels translated to the NFL with minimal window dressing but just executed at an elite level. The Baltimore run game is on a historic pace and one of the hardest offenses to scheme against and stop. The way things are clicking, it’s starting to make you wonder who can stop them from running all the way to a Lombardi Trophy.

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