What's Wrong with Lamar Jackson?
NFL Week 13 - A productive offense does not have to be a sound offense. The latter often births the former, but there will always be outliers. When an offense has enough cheat codes on the roster, particularly at quarterback, star power can override a poor or unimaginative structure. That's what the Baltimore Ravens passing offense has gotten away with for most of the past three seasons with Lamar Jackson behind center.
The star power in Baltimore's offense has dimmed over the past few weeks. Jackson, the brightest star of the bunch, has been uncharacteristically antsy in the pocket and unwilling to trigger on throws he would normally throw without hesitation. Pair that with the usual volatility the offense's other stars in Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews always have, as well as a bottom-five offensive line, and it's not hard to see how the fragile construction of the Ravens offense shatters when Jackson is not at 100%.
Jackson's issues right now seem to boil down to not trusting the structure of the offense. He does not believe in the offensive line to hold up and his mental trigger is running hot and cold in a way it has not since his rookie season. This is a relatively new phenomenon, too. We know Jackson has been good enough in years past with respect to poise in the pocket and decision-making to win the MVP, but Jackson was also producing earlier this season. The Ravens ranked 12th in passing DVOA through the first seven weeks of the year, never mind what Jackson brings as a runner. The player that was propping up the offense earlier in the season has not shown up in about a month, dating back to that horrific showing against Miami in prime time.
Last week against Pittsburgh, Jackson's discomfort with the offense produced a handful of plays where he rushed himself through the progression, often to bail the pocket. Jackson did not want to wait around in pockets he assumed would soon be closing. If Jackson's man was not open clear as day right away, he too often looked for the fastest way out of the play rather than allowing the play to work itself out. On the one hand, it's understandable that Jackson would not trust this offensive line anymore, but at some point, he has to bear at least some of the burden for making things worse.
The Ravens have a spot/square-in combination working out of the bunch from the right side. This is a high-low concept designed to pull the linebacker (Joe Schobert, 93) down to the spot route in order to throw the square-in behind it. Jackson opens the play by peeking the "alert" vertical route on the left side against one-on-one coverage, which is all fine and dandy. As Jackson brings his eyes back to the middle of the field, Jackson catches the linebacker still technically in the window for the square-in.
Past versions of Jackson could see the linebacker's angle and anticipate the window behind them because there is no way the linebacker can turn around to defend the square-in from there. Instead, Jackson only sees enemy colors in the window, pulls his eyes to his checkdown, and panics upon realizing there is a free runner off the edge— the very thing that has him playing this antsy in the first place. This is a tough play, to be clear, but it's one that better versions of Jackson have made before. He has set the bar for himself and plays like this do not clear it.
Jackson also had a few instances where he simply did not throw to open receivers. As pared down as this concept may be, Brown is open on the sideline to Jackson's right. Jackson can rip this ball over the underneath defender and towards the sideline away from the deep cornerback. Oddly enough, Jackson had taken a leap earlier this season with regards to his comfort and accuracy throwing outside the numbers, but he got gun-shy here. Jackson then bails from the pocket at half-speed, fails to entertain either of his checkdown options, and allows himself to be sacked. There were multiple chances to avoid that outcome. The current iteration of this offense does not give Jackson many clean throws like this, so they cannot afford for Jackson to squander them when they are there.
All of that being said about Jackson, the primary issue with the Ravens offense is the same as it has ever been: coaching. For years, Greg Roman's passing game has been lamented for being too static, too sloppy, and having too many downfield concepts without enough to keep defenses honest underneath. All of that remains true. The difference this season is not only that the offensive line has declined, but the details within each passing concept have only become worse. Baltimore's offense regularly looks like the entire receiving corps stepped straight out of summer vacation and into Day 1 of training camp, and now Jackson is not playing at an elite level to make up for it.
This play concept does not make sense. Mesh with a "sit" route over the ball is as standard a pass combination as any in the NFL. The thing is, this is a quick-game dropback concept designed to stretch the defenders in the middle of the field horizontally. In theory, one of the crossers gets left uncovered or the linebackers expand enough to give the "sit" route space. Tying this in with play-action, which both disrupts Jackson's timing and brings the linebackers up rather than stretching them wide, does not make sense.
That's only half the problem. The other half is that Brown (on the left at the snap) runs his shallow crossing route at 7 yards. That's not very shallow! The point of mesh is to get the two shallow crossers running through the linebackers' vision and get them to stretch out. Running the crosser shallow also means a player can catch the ball and turn up field, not having to come back towards the line of scrimmage the way Brown does after he clears the linebacker here. Also, Andrews (89), who is supposed to be on the "sit" route, never tries to settle down. Perhaps Andrews caught a glimpse of Jackson getting pressured and wanted to go make a play, but he never really tried to sit down in the first place, so that feels like a generous appraisal of the situation. The play was poorly constructed even if it had been run correctly, and then it was not run correctly. That's not a winning formula, but it's one that is all too familiar in the Roman offense.
Route detail gets completely lost in all sorts of ways in this offense. Running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends alike have all been guilty on different concepts. If it were just one guy, there would be a good case that this was a player issue and not a coaching issue, but the entire offense seems to lack detail in anything they do. That's a coaching problem.
There is not any precision to Sammy Watkins' route on this play. Watkins (14, at the bottom of the screen at the snap) breaks off the route at 6 yards, but rather than running to a spot or in any particular direction, he sort of turns an open chest to the quarterback and shuffles around towards the hash. There is no clear landmark or angle out of the break, no point where the receiver is supposed to work towards and settle on. Watkins is just supposed to saunter around in space and "be open." Jackson does not know where Watkins wants to be and throws a somewhat catchable ball that ends up a bit low, and Watkins fails to bring it in.
Asking players to find space like this is not inherently bad. It can be useful as a tool for some concepts, such as sitting down a shallow crosser versus zone coverage or running it through against man. Making "finding space" the ethos of an entire passing offense is not sound ball, though. It puts the onus on Jackson to have this outstanding chemistry with his receivers in order to connect consistently. That does not exist for either Jackson or the receivers right now. It's a vibes offense, and the vibes are catastrophic.
The combination of poor coaching and a dip in performance from Jackson churned out plenty of plays where both deserve some degree of blame. In several instances, Jackson bypassed an easy read underneath in hopes of finding something more aggressive, only for the rest of the offense to fall apart around him before he got a chance to correct the decision.
This play encapsulates the entire Ravens offense against the Steelers more than any other. Andrews is the No. 3 receiver (innermost) to the right-hand side. Pre-snap, a quarterback should see the space Andrews has here and anticipate the No. 3 being able to outrun the linebacker on the stick route. Every quarterback should take that space right away.
The problem is Brown's route, if you want to call it that. When every other team in the NFL runs stick, the No. 2 receiver (middle to that side) runs outside and attacks the flat defender. The goal is to stretch him out and give the stick route room to run after the catch. Brown instead turns his back to the quarterback immediately without running a route, then flails around without much space between himself and Andrews. This ball could have still been thrown and completed to Andrews, but it's frustrating to watch an offense where the receivers seem to play with their own set of "rules" that no other team in the league uses. These kinds of mistakes show up all the time.
And then none of those mistakes mattered, neither Jackson's nor Brown's, because sometimes Jackson can still just take off for 10 yards. Jackson did not make those plays at his usual rate in this game, though, and that is a problem when both he and the offensive structure shoot themselves in the foot in the passing game.
One has to assume the clunkiness of Baltimore's passing offense will remain. Roman is still the offensive coordinator and his offense is not going to magically become crisp and clean in time for the playoffs. The offensive line trying to glue the whole operation together is not going to get any better at this point in the season, either. Baltimore made their bed and must lie in it until Jackson returns to elite form, if that can even happen this year.
The pressure is on Jackson to start playing the way he was earlier in the season. It's an unfair burden, but it's the one the Ravens have incurred him with. Perhaps a return to form is possible in the coming weeks— there is far more evidence that Jackson is a special player than whatever he has been the past month. It is just difficult to see which pieces around Jackson can suddenly be better, while also understanding that Jackson may just continue to struggle so long as the conditions remain the same as they are now.