What's Wrong with Lamar Jackson?

Pittsburgh Steelers ER T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers ER T.J. Watt
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

Comments

20 comments, Last at 10 Dec 2021, 12:22pm

#2 by Pat // Dec 09, 2021 - 10:57am

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,

Not only is this impatient, it's also a mistake - looking over to the checkdown's a total waste, because the linebacker's already turned to close on it (and does, as soon as he sees his eyes there). If he didn't like the square-in, he needed to go to the checkdown immediately. 

Great to see this, Derrick. Lines up a lot with what I've seen - Jackson definitely looks like he's got the yips quite often, putting himself off-balance and killing plays early. And the receivers aren't doing him any favors with route-running either, which is why Jackson's got such a crazy average depth of target - many of his throws are when the defense busts coverage completely.

 

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#1 by Pat // Dec 09, 2021 - 10:57am

wtf dup

 

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#3 by BigRichie // Dec 09, 2021 - 12:47pm

Defenses adapt. Especially once one DC/Head Coach figures it out. Then everybody copies.

If Lamar actually had good passing skills, he would've been the top pick a la Michael Vick.

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#4 by Drunken5yearold // Dec 09, 2021 - 1:10pm

You somehow missed the entire point of the article. The analysis focuses on how poor the offensive games plans and coaching are. The Ravens are failing to execute basic offensive principles and the result is that Jackson's play is downtrending. I think the impetus for it is obvious: he's spooked in the pocket. We've seen this a bunch of times with QBs. Jackson is amazing and he was able to compensate for awhile but eventually really poor offensive line play will always affect the mindset of the QB.

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#7 by Pat // Dec 09, 2021 - 2:01pm

but eventually really poor offensive line play will always affect the mindset of the QB.

The offensive line isn't really that bad. I mean, OK, they're bad, but the quick passing game that would normally help an offensive line just isn't working. Partly because Lamar's, I dunno, doubting what he's seeing? Maybe? But also partly because the receivers just aren't getting open or are flat-out screwing up. I see more of the latter than the former, at least to me.

Derrick blames the coaches on this ("the entire offense seems to lack detail in anything they do. That's a coaching problem.") and I pretty much agree, but it's not like we're talking about Hall of Fame type receivers here or something. Andrews is great, but he can't make up for the rest of the mess. Better receivers or better coaching would fix it, in my opinion.

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#8 by BigRichie // Dec 09, 2021 - 2:45pm

No, you Drunken5yearold, I'm Contesting! the entire point of the article. That a coaching staff that has been the 2nd-best in the entire AFC - heck, make that the entire NFL - for the past 14 years is now incompetent.

Lamar. Jackson. Does. Not. Pass. The. Ball. Well. By. Starting. NFL. QB. Standards.

He has a slow release, mediocre accuracy, mediocre arm strength. It's why he fell to the absolute bottom of the 1st Round despite his incredible, QB-pertinent athletic skills.

Every draftnik was right. About Lamar. What they missed was how well the 2nd-best coaching staff in the NFL could leverage those things Lamar is great at to get one fantastic regular season out of him, when dealing with defenses which every Monday had to start over from scratch in dealing with the now-upcoming week's opponent.

The League has caught up. Flores hammered in the final nail. From this point on Lamar will have a Vick-career. A good-but-absolutely-not-not-not-great starting NFL QB provided you tailor your entire offense around the things he is great at.

That while Lamar is healthy. That one gif is very telling. Lamar takes a massive hit from behind while he hesitates, trying to figure out how to get another necessary few yards. Lamar has maybe another 2-3 years where you can reasonably count on him being healthy through an entire season. 2-3 years tops.

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#10 by ImNewAroundThe… // Dec 09, 2021 - 2:58pm

Like Vick? What are we doing here?

Do we think this is Roman's first stop? Was Rodgers really figured out or did Mccarthy overstay his welcome? 

Not the "he'll only be healthy for x years" statement, oh no

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#5 by Drunken5yearold // Dec 09, 2021 - 1:16pm

Nice article! It's amazing to me that poor coaches can somehow stick around at the NFL level. You would think they would naturally get weeded out.

Reminds me of poor, inflexible Gus Bradley and his "Cover-3 all the time!" defensive philosophy. Belicheck is somehow able to mold his defense into whatever is needed in any particular game. Bradley, on the other hand, can't adapt for the life of him. I still can't forgive him for playing Cover-3 against Brady in the playoffs in 2018. Brady DESTROYS the Cover-3. He knows exactly what to do and where to go with the ball. If you KNOW that a certain game plan isn't going to work, you MIGHT AS WELL TRY SOMETHING ELSE! 

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#13 by dank067 // Dec 09, 2021 - 4:59pm

It's not that Greg Roman isn't deserving of a place in the NFL. He's coordinated a lot of good offenses and a lot of good rushing attacks in particular - even in between SF and BAL, he ran some pretty good offenses in Buffalo, too, especially considering the personnel there. He just can't coach an adequate passing game. Both his 49ers and Ravens teams have hit the wall as their passing games have failed to take off or evolve. That said, while he's probably not cut out to succeed as a coordinator at this level, I'd hire him in 5 seconds in a "running game coordinator" type of role, especially if I had a mobile QB.

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#6 by jonnyblazin // Dec 09, 2021 - 1:32pm

Lamar clearly improved his downfield throwing this year. But at this point his greatest technical weakness is his ability to receive the snap and fire off a quick, short, accurate pass. Hence all the blitzes recently. 

I would expect this to be a point of emphasis in the offseason, and anticipate him coming back next year improved in this area. Hopefully Lamar continues working with Tom House so his downfield accuracy maintains/improves. 

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#9 by BigRichie // Dec 09, 2021 - 2:49pm

It's much more difficult to catch and make an immediate pass out of shotgun than it is behind center. Going behind center would have a major adverse effect on Lamar's designed runs, which are such a major aspect of his play.

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#14 by dank067 // Dec 09, 2021 - 5:29pm

What? Throwing quickly works just fine out of shotgun. Straight non-PA dropbacks from under center are the least common type of pass play in the league and probably have been since Mike Holmgren retired.

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#16 by jonnyblazin // Dec 09, 2021 - 8:45pm

"Going behind center would have a major adverse effect on Lamar's designed runs, which are such a major aspect of his play."

Possibly. In Roman's system, definitely. But in a Kubiak/Shanahan system, a lot of the runs are from under center. I think Lamar might thrive the more in the latter. 

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#11 by BigRichie // Dec 09, 2021 - 4:06pm

Difference between Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson: Vick had typical NFL-starting-QB arm strength. Also, one is confident Lamar won't make offing pit bulls part of his off-season business routine.

Difference between Vince Young and Lamar Jackson: Lamar Jackson was drafted by the 2nd-best staff in the NFL. Vince was drafted by a team that figured, 'Heyyy! Wouldn't it be cool if we had a pocket passer who could also run really really great, too!?' Also, Vince clearly had at least some issues while still a young pro. (then many more after, as Bill Russell first generally remarked that I noticed, the World took Vince off the life scholarship he as a great athlete had been on ever since 2nd grade)

(starting with Dan Reeves and pretty-much-relevantly-finishing with Andy Reid, Michael Vick actually operated under pretty good coaching, overall)

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#15 by jonnyblazin // Dec 09, 2021 - 8:42pm

The premise that the Ravens have ever had top notch OFFENSIVE coaching is utterly laughable. 

They've had good defensive coaching since their inception when they hired Marvin Lewis in 1996. 

They've had good special teams coaching since Harbaugh took over in 2008. 

They've had a great year of offensive coaching when Kubiak was OC in 2014. But aside from that, the Ravens have a long history of mediocre to bad QB play and poor development of WRs. 

They idea that Lamar stepped into to this juggernaut of offensive coaching is a joke. 

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#17 by ImNewAroundThe… // Dec 09, 2021 - 8:55pm

2nd best staff may be true but that doesn't mean Greg Romans system hasn't faltered. He is human after all, on his third OC stint! 

Anyone knocking Lamar because he doesn't have Vick arm strength is also silly. Like...what? How does he think he's survived this long? Geez, it's clearly good enough. 

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#12 by Johnny Ocean // Dec 09, 2021 - 4:08pm

Great job with the analysis of Baltimore's offensive woes.  Roman has always produced great running attacks coupled with bottom third passing attacks as an OC.  Baltimore has spent a lot of draft capital on wide receivers and it is surprising that they are effectively playing street ball in the passing game.  I think the organization has failed to address the problems with the passing attack due to Lamar's ability to make it work well enough to win most games.  On a positive note all the team needs to do to fix the problem is use properly spaced route combinations on passing plays and stop Lamar's penchant for waiting for Brown to get open rather than taking the open receiver as soon as they come open.  His inaccuracy is driven by laziness in decision making.  If you approach passing plays as a check down from is my favorite WR open to should I take off and run this ball, you never really go through a proper check down and your passes end up as afterthoughts thrown with poor focus.

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#18 by Caw Caw // Dec 09, 2021 - 9:30pm

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.

This is especially bad because they've missed a ton of practice time together due to constant WR injuries and Lamar's various illnesses. Andrews is practically the only one who can make it through a whole week and it shows.

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#19 by Romodini // Dec 10, 2021 - 12:31am

Kurt Warner did some videos on Dallas's offensive woes and some similarities are apparent. Dak has been rushing through his reads due to impatience and nervousness too, even on plays with a clean pocket, and missing receivers coming open because he doesn't seem to trust the blocking. To make matters worse, he's tried looking for low percentage big plays down the field to make up all the sluggishness and miscues with one play, and failing. Throwing off his back foot, missing wide open receivers. Not sure how this will change anytime soon, because the pass blocking DVOA is not good and defenses playing tight coverage and jamming receivers has prevented Dak from getting the ball out early.

There were some coaching issues Kurt went over that could be improved on to help the offense, but they don't seem to be as sloppy as what the Ravens offense is experiencing. However, the Ravens at least seem to still have a running game. After a great start, the Cowboys running attack has been pretty bad since week 6 or so, and wasn't even good against the Falcons. It certainly didn't help that McCarthy played musical chairs with the starters and their positions despite claiming O line chemistry and consistency as a priority of his. With Zeke and Pollard both hobbled and the Cowboys facing a strong run defense in Washington, Dak will have to get out of his funk if they're to not collapse like in past seasons.

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#20 by Leporelf // Dec 10, 2021 - 12:22pm

The maturity process of the Ravens passing game is immature.  The scheme has no continuity or progression of routes that Lamar can go through.  The offensive line is struggling, so the passing game needs to be structured and practiced to get the ball out quicker with faster reads for Lamar.  His growth as a Quarter back is limited because of the lack of coaching!

Roman is not a good fit for Lamar.  His passing scheme makes no sense and it makes Lamar look like a High School quarterback doing whatever he wants to do, to make things happen.

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