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Can NFL Defenses Solve Lamar Jackson?

Regression is coming for the Ravens offense. But that doesn’t mean defenses have an answer for their read-option-based attack.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL had few answers for Lamar Jackson in 2019. The second-year phenom did things we’ve never seen from a quarterback, smashing Michael Vick’s record for QB rushing yards (with 1,206) while throwing a league-high 36 touchdown passes. En route to MVP honors, Jackson became the first quarterback in league history to throw for 3,000-plus yards while rushing for 1,000-plus yards, and he scored 43 total touchdowns along the way―nine more than the next closest quarterback. And he did all that in what essentially amounted to 14 games: He sat out a meaningless Week 17 matchup with the Steelers, and was pulled from fourth-quarter action in five of the Ravens’ blowout wins. In short, Jackson put together a truly ridiculous performance.

The Ravens offense, as a whole, followed suit. The team crushed a 41-year-old record by posting 3,296 rushing yards, becoming the first team to average 200-plus rushing yards and 200-plus passing yards per game while finishing first in the league in points per game (33.2), first in offensive touchdowns (58), and first in offensive DVOA.

The first question that comes to mind after listing off all of those incredible numbers, though, is an obvious one: Can Lamar and the Ravens do it all again this year? That’s impossible to say, but it’s clear that if Jackson and this Baltimore offense are going to match―or even exceed―their performance from last year, they’re going to have to debunk a few narratives along the way. For starters, one common refrain we’ve heard about running quarterbacks like Jackson over the past 10 years or so is that with a full offseason to look at the tape and study his weaknesses, coaches around the NFL will find a way to “solve” the problems he creates on read-option plays. Another theme that could hurt the Ravens is that Jackson is a lock for massive statistical regression―something that history tells us is likely coming, regardless of whether defenses actually cook up new ways to try to stop him.

But what Jackson showed us time and again last year is that he’s a unique player at the helm of an extraordinary offensive system. If any quarterback is capable of bucking trends and beating regression, it’s got to be Jackson … right? Here’s a look at what teams may do to try to slow Jackson and the Ravens offense down in 2020―and how the defending MVP could still outdo himself in Year 3.

The beauty of option-based schemes like the one the Ravens run is that if executed well, no matter what the quarterback decides―whether he’s handing it off or keeping it himself―someone on the defense ends up wrong. On the most standard zone-read looks, the backside edge defender might crash down the line of scrimmage to try to tackle the running back, only to realize the QB still has the ball and is now picking up big yards downfield. On the very next play, that same defender might position himself to the outside in anticipation of a QB-keeper run, thereby opening up just enough room on the end of the line for the running back to shoot downhill. That conundrum played a huge part of both Jackson’s and the Ravens’ successes in 2019.

But as read-option plays have become more popular and more varied in the NFL, defensive coaches have come up with ways to counter them. Teams have already deployed a handful of methods against the league’s option-heavy squads over the past decade, a few of which aim to take the option out of option football. The scrape exchange is a prominent one: Generally speaking, in this strategy, the backside edge defender runs headlong at the running back at the snap in order to force a “keep” read for the quarterback. But instead of giving the quarterback a free rushing lane on that backside edge, a second-level linebacker “scrapes” over from the middle and comes up to the line of scrimmage to stop the quarterback-keeper. In essence, teams want opposing quarterbacks to run, because they believe their midlevel defenders are fast enough to track down and tackle QBs.

One alternative method is for an edge defender to force a “handoff” read to the quarterback by maintaining leverage to the outside. This takes the QB out of the equation as a runner and allows the defense to focus its energy (by dropping a safety down into the box, for instance) on clogging up all the gaps in the middle of the field in hopes of stopping the running back in his tracks.

Both of these basic strategies can work, but neither is foolproof. The scrape exchange is a dicey proposition against a quarterback like Jackson, whose extraordinary quickness and speed as a ballcarrier makes him difficult to wrangle in a one-on-one tackle situation in space. A defense can scheme everything up perfectly and still get gashed for a big play when an elusive runner like Jackson is involved. And mush-rushing against Baltimore wasn’t always super effective either: That group’s strong interior offensive line did a great job of clearing out run lanes, blocking defenders, and springing the team’s dynamic backs for big gains up the middle. Mix in the never-ending schematic counterpunches that offensive coordinators like the Ravens’ Greg Roman have thought up over the years―including trap plays that target overaggressive defensive linemen, slice blocks by tight ends that take out those mush-rushing ends, and everything in between―and there’s a reason the option game is alive and well in the NFL today, years after we were all told the league would eradicate it.

The back-and-forth chess match never stops, though. The Titans had some success with 3-3 stack looks (three defensive linemen bolstered by three second-level defenders) in their upset win over Baltimore in the divisional round, a strategy that allowed Dean Pees’s group to get additional athletic, rangy defenders onto the field. Instead of trying to beat Baltimore in the trenches, Pees had his linebackers drop back a bit off the line of scrimmage in order to give those second-level defenders a better chance to flow to the ball and avoid getting either frozen (by a zone-read play) or blocked out of the play.

On a handful of the plays above, you can see the Titans line up with five or six box defenders (both defensive linemen and linebackers or safeties) inside the tackles. This general concept―known as a “tite front”―has gained popularity in the college game, where zone-read-heavy offenses are ubiquitous. The idea is to clog up the middle of the field and force everything toward the sidelines. The Ravens are still capable of breaking off big plays on outside runs, of course, but in theory, they have to run farther to do it. That gives teams with speedy, athletic defenses a better chance to chase down and tackle ballcarriers, and, hopefully, limit those back-breaking jailbreak plays we saw Baltimore make so many times last year.

The key, though, is that for this type of scheme to work, a defense needs athletic, versatile defenders. Some may point to the Ravens’ implosion against Tennessee as a “blueprint” for stopping Jackson in 2020, but it’s worth noting that defensive schemes are only as good as the players asked to execute them. (It’s also worth noting that Jackson still ran for 143 yards in that game.) There’s another problem these types of defensive looks present, too: They mitigate a defense’s ability to rush the passer, and by stacking so many guys into a small area, it creates holes in coverage downfield. That serves as a good segue to why Jackson’s so special as a quarterback: In addition to being one of the best pure runners in the league―note that I didn’t limit that to his position―Jackson is an accurate and aggressive passer too.

Jackson threw for 3,127 yards with 36 touchdowns and just six picks in 2019. He finished 12th in completion percentage over expectation; his 8.9 adjusted net yards per attempt ranked fourth in the NFL; his 113.3 passer rating ranked third; and his QBR of 81.1 ranked first. He fared well throwing against zone coverage (he ranked sixth in expected points added per dropback on those throws, as The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia points out) and absolutely lit up man looks (first in the NFL in EPA/dropback). He was effective from the pocket and on the move. By basically any measure, Jackson proved that he’s a bona fide dual-threat quarterback.

But no quarterback is perfect, and Jackson certainly has a few vulnerabilities to address. The second-year pro was most comfortable throwing over the middle of the field in 2019 (Baltimore threw a league-high 36 percent of its passes to that area last year, per the Football Outsiders Almanac, and ranked seventh in DVOA on those throws), but his own personal quarterback coach has pointed to two areas in which Jackson must improve in 2020: on deep passes downfield, and on throwing outside the hash marks. Jackson was a bit scattershot in those two areas, and until he can clean up his accuracy on both, teams will look to devise schemes that force him into his lower-percentage throws.

The schematic back-and-forth between Roman and Baltimore’s opponents isn’t the only thing working against Jackson in 2020, though. Regression is a real concern following the team’s extraordinary outlier of a season in 2019. Jackson threw a touchdown on 9 percent of his passes, becoming one of just 12 quarterbacks in league history to pass 300-plus times and post a touchdown rate over 8 percent. Every single one of those QBs declined the following year, and the average next-year dropoff in that group was an average of 3 percentage points, per numberFire’s JJ Zachariason. For context, if Jackson had thrown the same amount of passes last year but notched a 6 percent TD rate, he would’ve finished with just 24 touchdown passes. More context: The league median for touchdown rate last year was 4.5 percent.

The Ravens offense overall is a candidate for similar regression. That group, which scored a league-best 58 touchdowns, would be another massive outlier should it outpace last year’s total. As Zachariason points out, of the 11 teams to score 55-plus touchdowns since 2011, only one―the 2011 Patriots―actually improved that number the following year. The average dropoff among those teams (14 touchdowns) is dramatic.

All of that is a long way of saying that in the NFL, it’s hard to post the types of otherworldly numbers we saw from the Ravens last year, and the teams that have risen so far above the norm have typically benefitted from a lot of things going their way. Those variables can range from things like injury luck, opponent schedule, team chemistry, the weather, or simple bounces of the ball. There are a million moving parts to any NFL team and another million that affect the outcomes of any given NFL season. This year, a shortened offseason, lack of fans, and any number of other COVID-related factors could play a part in throwing the Ravens’ equilibrium out of whack.

Despite all that, though, there are reasons to believe that both Jackson and his team could somehow be even better than what we saw in 2019. For starters, at 23 years old, Jackson is still just scratching the surface of his potential as a passer—and crucially, the support system around him looks stronger heading into Year 3. The team took speedy receiver Devin Duvernay in the third round of the draft before adding the reliable James Proche in the sixth―and Jackson’s two top targets in tight end Mark Andrews and receiver Marquise Brown are both primed to make big leaps in 2020. Both Andrews and Brown played through injury last year, and head into the season expected to play far bigger roles and far more snaps in the team’s passing attack. That duo gives Jackson a fighting chance at avoiding a huge dropoff when it comes to the team’s ability to score touchdowns through the air.

As for the ground game, the loss of future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Marshal Yanda certainly stings. But adding a talented second-round running back like J.K. Dobbins into the mix could help ease that pain. More importantly, the Ravens pulled off perhaps the biggest offseason coup of all in retaining Roman for another year. That provides valuable continuity in a chaotic offseason and all but guarantees that this Baltimore team is going to be a major pain in the ass to defend. The team may simply choose to run with Jackson a little less often, anyway. As Roman explained to The Athletic in December, in addition to all the Jackson-centric option runs, opponents must be prepared to defend just about every other rush concept in the book, from gap schemes, power schemes, counters, tight zone, wide zone, pin and pull looks, sweeps, toss-cracks, and draws, to name a few.

At the end of the day, any defense can come up with a plan for stopping this Ravens offense. But as we saw so often last season, the hard part is actually executing those plans. So while it’s fair to expect that Jackson sees some statistical regression and that the Baltimore offense falls short of last year’s lofty totals, I’m also not ready to simply assume that it’s a given. With a few big jumps among his pass-catching corps, a few new layers to Roman’s mad-scientist scheming, and another offseason of development under his belt, Jackson has a chance to cement himself as the outlier of all outliers.