Guest column by Keegan Abdoo
This is the second article in a three-part series exploring the schematic advantage Lamar Jackson can bring to an offense with his athleticism. Specifically, I am looking at how Jackson performs against Man Cover-2, especially when scrambling, and if defensive coordinators change their use of the coverage when facing Jackson accordingly. In the first article, I leveraged the Sports Info Solutions (SIS) database to test which coverages are most susceptible to scrambles at the NFL and FBS levels, verifying that scrambles are most successful against two-man at both levels. Now that we have established that, this article will examine whether defenses played less Man Cover-2 against Jackson and how that related to his success and scramble rate against the coverage.
Man Cover-2 Deterrence Effect
Looking at the 2017 season, it is readily apparent that teams avoided playing Man Cover-2 vs. Jackson last season. Given that teams only face around 10 to 14 opponents in a season and the diversity in talent and scheme is vast between the 100-plus teams in the FBS, it is important to take into account each opponent's relative tendencies when examining the distribution of coverages each quarterback faced.
For my sample in this analysis, I took the 123 FBS quarterbacks who had over 200 dropbacks in 2017. Before I explain this process for this opponent adjustment, I created a flow chart to illustrate it:
The steps for this are as follows:
1. For each qualifying quarterback, find the Man Cover-2 rate in each of their matchups.
2. For each matchup, calculate the Man Cover-2 rate used by the opponent in all of their games that season against teams other than the quarterback's team.
3. Take the difference between these two rates in each matchup.
4. Calculate an average (weighted by dropbacks by the quarterback in each game) of that difference, and you have the Opponent-Adjusted Man Cover-2 Rate Faced for each quarterback.
The Opponent-Adjusted Man Cover-2 Rate Faced represents the general change in two-man coverage strategy of defensive coordinators when facing a specific quarterback over the course of a season.
After doing calculations, we once again find evidence that teams avoided playing two-man against Lamar Jackson. Interestingly, enough, Jackson's opponents used Man Cover-2 in their games against other teams at the fourth-highest rate in the sample (9.1 percent). However, in their games vs. Louisville, they only employed the coverage on 5.2 percent of dropbacks (52nd-lowest rate). Jackson's Opponent-Adjusted Man Cover-2 Rate Faced was -4.4 percent, which was the eighth biggest discrepancy in the sample. Clearly, defensive coordinators were limited in matchups against Jackson and were forced to scheme away from using Man Cover-2.
We can be even more confident that this deterrence effect is signal and not noise by looking at 2016 to see if the trend repeats itself. There were 118 quarterbacks who had at least 200 dropbacks in the FBS during the 2016 season. Jackson's 2016 opponents played Man Cover-2 in their other games at a rate of 8.1 percent (38th-highest rate), which was still above average. Jackson only saw Man Cover-2 at a 4.9 percent rate (31st-lowest). His aggregated opponent-adjusted Man Cover-2 rate was -3.1 percent in 2016, which was the 17th-biggest discrepancy in the sample. Jackson ranking in the top 20 in back-to-back years just confirms that teams avoided using the coverage against him.
Combining both years, Jackson clearly sticks out as a quarterback who forced teams to avoid playing two-man. Below is a graph that illustrates this effect. He falls in the quadrant where opponents usually employed an above-average rate of Man Cover-2, but when they played Jackson they used the coverage at a below-average rate.
We can also use the Opponent-Adjusted Man Cover-2 Rate Faced to see if this deterrence effect extends beyond Jackson to any quarterback with a tendency to scramble against the coverage. Below is a graph of the 104 quarterbacks who had at least 400 dropbacks over the past two seasons, with their Opponent-Adjusted Man Cover-2 Rate Faced plotted against their scramble rate against the coverage.
Jackson is clearly an outlier, with a ridiculous scramble rate of 26 percent. Beyond him, there exists a statistically significant relationship between a quarterback's tendency to scramble against two-man and their deterrence effect with the coverage, as seen in the graph. The threat of a given quarterback scrambling against two-man accounts for about ten percent of an opponent's likelihood to employ that coverage scheme against him above or below their normal tendency. If you look at the top 10 and bottom 10 in the Opponent-Adjusted Man Cover-2 Rate Faced, it becomes pretty clear that a quarterback's scramble rate plays a role in how often Defensive Coordinator's employ two-man against them.
Other than Alex Hornibrook and Skyler Howard, all of the quarterbacks in the top 10 had either an above-average overall scramble rate or two-man scramble rate. In the bottom 10, all of the quarterbacks scrambled at a below-average rate both overall and against Man Cover-2, other than Eric Dungey. It appears that not only are defensive coordinators discouraged from using the coverage against scrambling quarterbacks, but they also increase their usage against quarterbacks who do not scramble often.
Jackson's Dominance vs. Man Cover-2
After providing ample evidence that teams did in fact shy away from playing two-man vs. Jackson, naturally the next question to ask is was it warranted? The answer to that is: absolutely. Jackson dominated Man Cover-2 with his legs. He faced two-man on 50 dropbacks and he scrambled on 13 of those (26 percent). Small sample aside, his numbers are incredible. He had a ridiculous 84.6 percent Success Rate and 15.2 yards per attempt on scrambles. If you look at all of his dropbacks vs. two-man, his success rate was 51.9 percent, which ranked ninth out of the 85 quarterbacks who faced the coverage on at least 30 dropbacks over the past two seasons. This is visualized in the graph below, which plots the Opponent-Adjusted Man Cover-2 Rate Faced against each quarterback's success rate on all dropbacks vs. the coverage. Jackson falls in one of the "rational" quadrants, where he was very efficient when facing two-man and defensive coordinators reacted accordingly.
Jackson was able to recognize the vulnerability in this coverage and take full advantage, as evidenced by his outlier scramble rate vs. two-man (which was three times the FBS average). This highlights Jackson's ability to process information quickly and make optimal decisions. Contrary to some popular narratives, Jackson was adept at moving through his reads playing in Bobby Petrino's pro-style offense. Given his experience in Petrino's system, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg recently said that Jackson has done "an outstanding job" at training camp so far and is "way ahead of the curve."
According to Benjamin Solak's incredibly detailed charting project, Contextualized Quarterbacking, Jackson stands out in two aspects that illustrate his football intelligence: ball placement and moving beyond first read. Jackson had great placement at every level past the line of scrimmage; out of the 13 quarterback prospects who Solak charted, he ranked:
- fourth in placement (75.3 percent) from 0 to 9 yards;
- third in placement (69.2 percent) from 10 to 19 yards;
- and first in placement (60.4 percent) at 20-plus yards.
As Solak explains, this shows that Jackson "is acutely aware of where the ball belongs relative to the coverage" when he throws. Furthermore, Jackson threw the highest share of his attempts moving past his first read (21.7 percent), and on these throws led the sample by a substantial amount in placement (72.2 percent; Kyle Lauletta was second at 67.1 percent). This exemplifies Jackson's "ability to retain his head post-snap … the playbook understanding, poise, and self-control to shred a defense with whatever they give him."
Jackson's experience in a pro-style offense with complex reads can be further seen in the distribution of his snap-to-throw time on his shotgun dropbacks, where he had highest median of all the drafted quarterbacks we timed.
After looking at how often each qualifying quarterback faced Man Cover-2 relative to their opponent's tendencies, it is evident that defensive coordinators avoided using the coverage when playing Jackson. We also noticed that the other quarterbacks clustered around Jackson who faced a low opponent-adjusted two-man rate almost all had above-average scramble rates; conversely, the quarterbacks who faced a high adjusted two-man rate almost all scrambled less than average. Looking at Jackson's performance against the coverage, it is clear that he scrambled often and was hyper-efficient on those scrambles. Even including passes, Jackson was one of the most successful quarterbacks in the FBS over the past two seasons vs. Man Cover-2, so defensive coordinators were acting rationally by decreasing their use of the coverage against Louisville.
Our first two articles have explored the charting data and verified the thesis that a quarterback of Lamar Jackson's athleticism can take advantage of Man Cover-2 with hs legs, and as a result force opponents to play less of the coverage. In the final article on Friday, I will dive into a few of the plays on film to visualize how Jackson takes advantage of two-man with his legs and decision-making.
Keegan Abdoo is a former Research and Development Intern at Sports Info Solutions. Interested in working for SIS and being able to perform this type of research with access to its rich charting database? Apply here for a R&D position.