What’s your favorite Lamar Jackson narrative? You can’t pick the “He’s a running back” one—that’s old hat. Nobody still believes that nonsen—
The #Bengals play the #Ravens next week.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 17, 2021
Bengals Linebacker @ljw21 just said that @Lj_era8 is a RB who plays quarterback.pic.twitter.com/O1NY7Id0lQ
Oh. Oh no.
Logan Wilson clarified his comments in an ensuing quote tweet, emphasizing that “We all know he’s an elite passer too.” And of course Wilson does. He’s got two eyes and, in that he’s a professional football player, I imagine those two eyes have spent a lot of time watching football. Everyone who fits those qualifications knows that Lamar can sling it.
But it’s been easy to miss just how well Lamar’s throwing the football this year. Jackson’s 67.5 completion percentage, 8.7 yards per attempt, 9.9 average depth of target, and 80 percent on-target throw rate are all the highest single-season marks of his career. Put another way: Never has Lamar ever thrown as many accurate balls; and he’s never thrown the ball as far downfield, either. And this is happening without a significant increase in his time to throw (3.12 seconds, just above his career average of 3.11 seconds) in pressure rate (19.1 percent, just above his career average of 19.0 percent), or sack rate (7.6 percent, just above his career average of 6.9 percent).
That, quite simply, is not how football is supposed to work. Passers don’t become more accurate, while also throwing farther downfield, while also not taking more sacks or pressures. Lamar is breaking the natural laws.
In a vacuum, that’s astounding—in context, it’s even wilder. There isn’t a team in the league more injured than the Baltimore Ravens. Even after their Week 6 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, the Ravens still had 16 players on injured reserve, including starting offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, starting guard Ben Cleveland, starting corner Marcus Peters, backup cornerback Chris Westry, backup cornerback Iman Marshall, starting running back JK Dobbins, backup running back Gus Edwards, and backup running back Justice Hill. At least first-round rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman was finally active for his first game of the season.
With Orlando Brown Jr. shipped off to Kansas City and Stanley out for the season, this is at least as poor of an offensive line as Lamar has played behind in his career, if not the worst. With the poor line play and the injuries at running back folded in, this is the worst running game that Lamar has been asked to carry in the league as well. On 120 combined carries, Ravens running backs have generated 511 yards, at 4.26 yards a tote. That’s almost a yard worse than the 5.21 yards per carry average the Ravens backs generated last season. Lamar is having a tougher time running—on average, he sees 3.6 yards before contact on his runs, which is the lowest number since his rookie year—yet he’s still churning out his same eye-popping production on the ground, as his 2.6 yards after contact per rush is the best number of his career. His 10 broken tackles in 2021 almost match the 14 total broken tackles he had in the three previous years combined.
Quite simply, Lamar is carrying the Ravens like he never has before—arguably, like no quarterback has ever carried a team before.
When we place these gaudy numbers in context, it helps us remember that Lamar won the MVP award just two seasons ago. The counting stats in that 2019 season may be tough for Lamar to match this year: He threw 36 touchdowns and only six interceptions, ran for another seven scores, and took just 23 sacks on the season. This season, Lamar is on pace for fewer total touchdowns, more total picks, and more sacks to boot, but that’s why we look at advanced numbers that are more indicative of effective performance, the context of the banged-up Baltimore team, and of course, the film. Because all of those bear out the truth: This is the best Lamar Jackson we’ve ever seen.
The Ravens were obviously hoping for this improvement coming into last season. Following Jackson’s MVP year, head coach John Harbaugh said that the next step for his star quarterback was throwing the football downfield. “Those corners are going to be one-on-one and those safeties are going to be one-on-one against receivers, especially on some downfield throws, and we’ve got to make them pay for it. We absolutely have to make them pay … The ability to make them pay for tilting their defense toward stopping our run game with a really, really efficient passing game, I do believe that’s the next step of this offense. I really do believe Lamar is going to take the next step.”
But Lamar didn’t fully take that step. In 2020, he threw downfield more, but completed only 34.6 percent of such passes (20-plus yards downfield) for 11.2 yards an attempt. The improvement instead has come in 2021, as Lamar’s completion percentage on deep throws is up to 40 percent and his yards per attempt is up to 14.1. Pro Football Focus has Jackson producing big time throws—valuable throws graded at the top of their scale—on 34.4 percent of his passes, up from 25 percent last season.
Jackson’s continued trust in third-year receiver Marquise Brown is the keystone here. Even through Brown’s struggles with key drops, Jackson has continued to pepper him with downfield targets, and the two have developed a strong chemistry despite the shaky results of years and games past. Jackson has always thrown with excellent touch on downfield passes, but you can see better rhythm in his dropbacks and that he has more comfort bringing his eyes to the route late. These are the signs of a mature downfield passer. Brown’s drops detail just how much better Lamar’s downfield passing numbers could be.
As it is, Jackson still leads the league in both intended air yards and completed air yards per attempt. But that isn’t the only area in which Jackson excels. According to Next Gen Stats’ charting, Jackson also leads the league in passes thrown to the intermediate middle of the field.
Using @NextGenStats passing charts, calculated the % of middle field throws each QB has attempted through 6 weeks.— Carter Donnick (@CDonnick3) October 21, 2021
I classified a 'middle of field' throw as an attempt between 8-20 yards and within the middle 1/3 width of the field. (Minimum 50 passing attempts) pic.twitter.com/hO0YANmhJo
This is perhaps the trickiest area of the field to throw the football. Quarterbacks must account for a higher volume of moving pieces—sinking linebackers and lurking safeties—than they do when targeting outside the numbers or in the short areas of the field. At the bottom of the list, we can see many quarterbacks whose passing games are significantly limited by their play styles: Ben Roethlisberger, Jalen Hurts, Baker Mayfield, and Kirk Cousins. But even going back to college, Jackson was strong when targeting the middle of the field.
That’s because Lamar, by reputation, changes the way that linebackers play. He pulls linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage and suckers in their attention and anticipation with the threat of the scramble. They lose focus on their zone responsibilities, creating easier windows to target.
But those safeties, in seasons past, could have an easier time lurking in intermediate windows. The Ravens needed something to pull them deeper down the field, widening that intermediate middle hole that Jackson is so adept at targeting. For this reason, Harbaugh emphasized the deep passing game, and in 2021, Jackson has delivered. The Ravens didn’t get a new deep-ball threat; they didn’t improve the pass protection. Jackson simply is throwing the ball so much better down the field that the intermediate passing game is feasting off the space created. This is particularly where tight end Mark Andrews, with good quickness and a large catch radius, shines for Baltimore.
Defenses facing Jackson find themselves in a bind that is essentially inescapable. Bring the safeties up into the box as part of the run fit and suffer the Ravens’ deep passing game. Pull them back, and you open up the intermediate passing game instead. Somehow take it all away, and Jackson can still just tuck and run—and trust me, that isn’t a win for your defense. Jackson has scrambled 24 times this season, behind only Jalen Hurts; his 219 yards are the most generated on scrambles this year; his 110 yards after contact is more than all but four other quarterbacks have on scrambles altogether. Every Monday, a different NFL defense sits down in their respective meeting room, sees the Ravens as their upcoming opponent, and asks themselves “How do we stop this?”
From the outside looking in, we ask a different question: “How do the Ravens sustain this?” Has Lamar improved so much as a passer that he’ll be able to continue pushing the ball downfield at a league-leading rate, while still captaining one of the league’s most efficient passing games? Just how poor of a supporting cast in the running game can he carry? This upcoming Sunday against the Bengals, the Ravens catch the 10th-best run-stopping defensive line in the league by ESPN’s run-stop win rate and the third best by rushing success rate allowed. Just last October, Lou Anarumo’s defense held Lamar to his quietest outing of the season: only 19 completions on 37 attempts, 4.9 yards an attempt, and two carries for 3 yards. As Kaelen Jones wrote this week, the Bengals defense has finally found an identity.
If the Ravens can keep this offensive production rolling against Cincinnati on Sunday, it’s hard to imagine their hot hand ever running cold. Lamar isn’t just carrying the entire offense—he’s lugging the shakiest defense of his Ravens career, as well. A win over the Bengals not only would give the Ravens a two-game lead in a competitive AFC North and the driver’s seat in the AFC playoff race altogether, it also would cement a reality long questioned with Lamar: that he can carry a team; that he can win the games that matter; and that he can account for poor play around him. Despite the raucous whining of his frequent detractors, Lamar long ago proved that he’s a franchise quarterback; with his herculean efforts this season, he’s proving that he can stay a franchise quarterback for a very, very long time.