How Lamar Jackson can beat the Dolphins’ Cover-0 blitzes this time around

Last season, per Football Outsiders, no starting NFL quarterback was blitzed more often than Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens, and no starting NFL quarterback had a more glaring decline in performance as more defenders came right at him.

Jackson faced five or more pass-rushers on 33% of his snaps. He was good for 7.6 yards per play and a 35.5% DVOA with four pass-rushers. That dropped to 5.7 yards per play and a -21.9% DVOA against five pass-rushers, and 3.2 yards per play with a -67.5% DVOA against six or more.

The absolute nadir of this trend for Jackson came in Week 10 against the Miami Dolphins. In a 22-10 loss to Miami, Jackson completed 26 of 43 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown, one interception, four sacks, and 19 total pressures.

When under pressure, per Pro Football Focus, Jackson completed five of 13 passes for 50 yards, one touchdown, one late desperation interception (the first regular-season pick he’s thrown in the red zone in his career), and a passer rating of 45.4. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Jackson had completed 36 of 75 passes under pressure for 517 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 77.5, so it wasn’t just pressuring Lamar. There were other things afoot.

How different was the game plan put together by Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer? Per Next Gen Stats, safeties Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones were all over the field, and they blitzed at a rate Next Gen Stats had never seen before.

The Dolphins sent defensive back blitzes on 24 of Jackson’s dropbacks, which was also the most he’s faced in his career. The Ravens had two plays of 20 or more yards in this game — they had averaged 5.5 per game before. Per NFL Research, the Ravens scored fewer than 14 points for the first time in their last 53 games. Their 52-game streak with 14 or more points was the second-longest such streak since 1940.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was not amused.

“That’s something they’ve done all year,” Harbaugh said of the safety blitzes. “We worked on it all week. We didn’t have a good enough plan for it, you know, as a group, and we didn’t execute well with the plan we had.”

Well, yeah, but this was a case of the Dolphins throwing the ice cream factory at the Ravens from a DB blitz perspective. As the Ravens face off against the Dolphins at 1:00 p.m. EST today, Harbaugh and his staff had better have a better idea than the one they had before. Boyer is still Miami’s defensive coordinator even after all the coaching churn that’s happened with the franchise of late, so given past results, Jackson and the Ravens should expect to see more of the same.

Don't get fooled again.

(Syndication: The Courier-Journal)

If you were wondering why Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman didn’t have a plan to attack Miami’s Cover-0 stuff when it started, one reason could be that the Dolphins, with all the talk about zero blitzes, didn’t show one defined defensive profile in this game. They weren’t playing zero all the time, and when they did, they threw all kinds of stuff at Jackson with it. They had either a single high safety, or a two-safety look spun to single-high, on their first seven defensive snaps.

The Ravens caught a delay of game penalty on the first Cover-0 look. The next play, third-and-9 from the Miami 28-yard line, had Jackson overthrowing receiver Sammy Watkins in the end zone. Watkins had defensive back Justin Coleman beaten downfield for the touchdown, but because Miami brought three defensive backs on the backside blitz, and safety Jevon Holland was the free blitzer, Jackson couldn’t make the connection. You could easily argue that this was a touchdown if Watkins reached for the ball, but the effect on Jackson and the offense was obvious.

Get the ball out quickly.

(Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

That 30-yarder to Bateman was the only pass of 20 or more air yards Jackson completed in the game of four attempts. He completed two of seven passes of 10-19 air yards for 20 yards, and both his touchdown and his interception. But he completed 18 of 22 passes of 0-9 air yards for 153 yards, and this 20-yard completion with 14 yards after the catch to Bateman with 4:47 left in the game showed how Miami could have their aggressiveness turned against them.

If the Ravens keep that short passing game going, and bet on the big plays coming on yards after the catch as the game starts, the idea there is to take the exotic stuff away from the defense, because there simply isn’t time for those more esoteric concepts to take effect. Over time, it could have an effect on the Dolphins, forcing them to be more transparent with their intentions underneath, and potentially leaving them open to a deep pass or two. But the Ravens may have to set that up for a while.

Lamar must move out of the pocket aggressively.

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

In that game, Jackson completed just one of six passes outside the pocket, and his one interception — an end zone target to Bateman with 47 seconds left in the game — showed that most of the time, when Jackson was throwing outside the pocket, it was reactive, not proactive. Jackson was not setting the tone with his first-level mobility — he was having the terms dictated to him.

The Ravens definitely have this on their minds.

Lamar Jackson John Harbaugh
Lamar Jackson John Harbaugh

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

“We would have been negligent if we hadn’t worked on it,” Harbaugh said last Wednesday of the Dolphins’ zero blitzes.It was something we needed to get a lot better at, and we studied it the whole offseason. We’ll have a plan for it and hope it works, because these guys are probably the best in the league at doing it right now. They do it more than anybody, they do it better than anybody and it’s just something they’re committed to. I have all the respect in the world for what they’re doing defensively.

Harbaugh brought up one play against the Jets as a reference point — Jackson’s 25-yard touchdown pass to receiver Devin Duvernay with 3:51 left in the third quarter. He also played down the idea of the Bateman touchdown against the Jets due to timing issues, but as we said, that’s why you set a defense up with body blows.

“It certainly builds confidence,” Harbaugh said of the deep pass. “It depends on what they give you. Those particular passes, maybe the first one to Devin, the quick fade route out of the bunch would have a chance against a zero blitz. The one to Bateman would not, you wouldn’t have enough time to get that off, but those are the kinds of things that we’ll be looking at. Yes, you’d love to hurt them that way. That’s the idea, hurt them any way you can in terms of that, and we’ll have different ideas in terms of how to do that, and I’m sure that they’ll be preparing for those things as well.”

Here’s the fade in question. It’s a deep pass, but the ball’s out quickly — Jackson takes a three-step drop with a hitch out of of offset pistol, and the ball had better be gone in a hurry within the design of the play. The Jets were playing Cover-1 here, so the man-beater element plays to type. Duvernay was left one-on-one because the safety was late to the passing strength, and the two other receivers in the bunch set — tight ends Isaiah Likely and Mark Andrews — cleared Jackson’s vision to the outside by running routes that bent to the middle and the seam.

“They just caught us off guard, really,” Jsckson said Wednesday of the Dolphins shoving zero blitzes down his throat. “We hadn’t really gone over defenses doing all-up zero against us – like, just all-up flat-out zero. But I feel like we’ll have an answer for it this year. We watched film – watched a lot of film on those guys – because we don’t want it to happen again.

“Other teams did zero [blitz], but it was just the way they did it that kind of affected us. But like I said, we’ll have an answer this time around if they do the same thing.”

Of course, the Dolphins may not make the zero blitz the epicenter of their defensive plan this time around, simply because they know the Ravens are waiting for it. Coaches can read transcripts, too. But if Josh Boyer does go all-up zero, as Jackson put it, it will be fascinating to see how the Ravens attack something they (and no other team) had seen in a very long time, if ever.


Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire