How Lamar Jackson can perfect his game… and silence the skeptics

It’s a day ending in “Y,” and a year ending in a number, so there’s somebody in the NFL more than willing to tell you: Lamar Jackson ain’t all that. Even after his MVP season of 2019, and even as he dramatically improved his pure quarterbacking from the pocket, the guys all the way back from when Bill Polian was telling us that Jackson should become a receiver were happy to spout off with their own perceptions of Jackson’s game. Something Polian later had to recant, by the way.

There is a schism between Jackson the athlete and Jackson the quarterback in the minds of many who make their money in the NFL. There’s some legitimacy to that after Jackson’s 2021 season, when regression reared its ugly head.

When Mike Sando of The Athletic put together his annual Quarterback Tiers piece, speaking with 50 NFL coaches and executives, that schism was out in full force.

“You cannot go into a game and not account for this guy — like, we are meeting with people every offseason to find out how they would defend this type of offense,” one defensive coordinator told Sando. “At the same time, I can totally see why you can go anywhere from 1 to 3 on him. If he has to drop back and throw the ball, it is not the same, but if he is on rhythm and they are running the ball and they are running the play-action off it, if you can’t account for that dude, he is going to kill you.”

More common were the slings and arrows regarding Jackson as a quarterback.

“If he has to pass to win the game, they ain’t winning the game,” another defensive coordinator said. “He’s so unique as an athlete and he’s really a good football player, but I don’t [care] if he wins the league MVP 12 times, I don’t think he’ll ever be a 1 as a quarterback. He’ll be a 1 as a football player, but not as a quarterback. So many games come down to two-minute, and that is why they have a hard time advancing even when they are good on defense. Playoffs are tight. You have to be able to throw the ball, and he is just so inconsistent throwing the ball. It is hit or miss.”

Well There’s cogent analysis of the player, and there’s stuff like “I don’t [care] if he wins the league MVP 12 times,” which seems a bit more personal — as if this particular coach came into the picture with a specific idea of what Jackson is and isn’t, and he’s not going to change that for anything.

One offensive coach had a more balanced interpretation, though there are layers to the truth here.

“I think what we saw with Lamar, starting with the Miami game and carrying through the rest of the season, was someone who struggled to identify coverages and make pre-snap reads. He is still a really dynamic player, brings something different to the group, but by and large, is going to have to continue to improve as a passer in order go deep in the playoffs and put himself in the Tier 1 group.”

The Week 10 game against the Dolphins is a good place to start for our discussion purposes. Did Jackson struggle to comprehend what he was seeing against Brian Flores’ defense? Absolutely. But the Dolphins also gave Jackson some thing he had not seen — and no other NFL quarterback has seen in recent years.

Jackson finished that game with 26 completions on 43 attempts for 238 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a passer rating of 73.8. He was sacked four times, and was pressured on 19 of his 53 dropbacks. 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.

So… when we say that Lamar Jackson is or is not this or that, maybe we need to see the situational context.

The 30,000-foot view tells us that Jackson has some things to work on. Certainly before he can be in anybody’s first tier as a pure thrower of the football as opposed to an unprecedented athletic threat, which he has already been for a while.

Back to the alleged disrespect…

Jackson also didn’t make ESPN’s recent list of the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks — a list complied by Jeremy Fowler, who also spoke with a range of coaches and executives.

“Hard to stay healthy when you run that much; he’s actually gotten a lot better as a passer,” an offensive coach told Fowler. “But if you play that way [with a run-heavy attack] and it’s a close game and you’re down, it’s really hard to win, because you’re asked to do what you only minor in, not major in, and that’s passing the ball when they know you are gonna pass it.”

Full disclosure: Jackson ranked ninth on our own Mark Schofield’s recent list of the NFL’s 12 best quarterbacks. Mark pointed out in his analysis that early in the 2021 season, Jackson was punishing defenses as a pocket passer, and as a runner in designed and second-reaction concepts.

Jackson and the rest of the Ravens team dealt with a nasty streak of injuries last season, especially down the stretch. That has something to do with  the regression that did show up both in the metrics and on tape.

So now, with Jackson coming into his fifth NFL season, and looking for the kind of ginormous contract extension given to the league’s elite (and at times, not-so-elite) quarterbacks, there is the question: How can Jackson not only silence the doubters, but also make that extension a fait accompli –– the kind of thing a franchise simply can’t afford to refuse?

We have a few thoughts on how Lamar Jackson, Quarterback, can become just such a force on a more consistent basis.

(All advanced metrics courtesy of Sports Info SolutionsPro Football Focus, and Football Outsiders unless otherwise indicated).

Speed up the internal clock.

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Mark’s first half/second half analysis of Jackson’s season is on point. In Weeks 1-9, Jackson completed 173 of 266 passes (65.0%) for 2,209 yards (8.3 yards per attempt), 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 96.2. Not quite at the level of his MVP season, when he completed 66.1% of his passes for 36 touchdowns and nine interceptions, but at least we had something to work with here.

Then, there was the Week 10 game against the Dolphins, the Week 12 game against the Browns (one of his worst games as a passer), and a spate of injuries that shut him down sooner than anybody would have wanted. In Weeks 10-14 (when his 2021 campaign ended due to an ankle issue), Jackson completed 73 of 116 passes (63.9%) for 673 yards (5.8 YPA), three touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 65.8.

That, friends, is a regression.

There are all kinds of reasons the Ravens’ passing offense doesn’t work as well as it should at times. Let’s put the bad receivers, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and the patchwork offensive line on hold for a second and focus on what caused Jackson the most problems in 2021.

This is an easy one. For whatever reason, Jackson was too hesitant to deliver the ball when it should have been delivered. Far too often, this put him in a position to throw his receivers closed and not open. Most of his interceptions last season, especially in that bad later stretch, were because of some variant of this.

Let’s start with the Week 12 game against the Browns. Jackson completed 20 of 32 passes for just 165 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 46.5. This was the worst statistical game of his NFL career, and delayed reactions were a major problem.

On this interception by safety Grant Delpit, Jackson had tight end Mark Andrews on an intermediate stop route, and receiver Sammy Watkins open underneath that on a cross/stop. If Jackson throws this when he should, he has all kinds of open and opening options. But he waits a beat too long, which allows Delpit to close on the ball.

“Yes, that’s me. That’s me. I should’ve thrown it right to him,” Jackson said after the game, when asked if there was some miscommunication on that one.

This interception to Chargers safety Kyzir White in Week 6 was especially maddening. Jackson threw White two gifts in this game, and here, Jackson had receiver Marquise Brown clearing the intermediate coverage with the vertical stuff from the slot, leaving receiver Rashod Bateman free underneath. Jackson had a clean pocket, and the opening was easy to see and time. Why he waited on this one? I have no idea.

Jackson said after the game that he didn’t see White, and he wouldn’t have thrown that ball if he had seen him. I would opine that had Jackson simply thrown the ball with anticipation, it wouldn’t matter where White was on the field.

“I mean, it’s one game that it happened,” Jackson said after the Browns game. “They just made great plays on those interceptions. It wasn’t like I was throwing it right to them; they were making diving interceptions. One of them I underthrew Mark — that could have been a better ball, for sure. They just made great plays.”

Problem is, it’s not just one game, and Jackson will need to get in rhythm with the down more often in 2022.

Remove the randomness.

(Syndication: The Enquirer)

While Jackson can be an exceptional second-reaction thrower, his scrambles went south too often in 2021. Yes, that was in part because the Ravens’ injury-depleted line didn’t protect as well as one would have liked, but Jackson also created pressure for himself at the end of the down. There were times when this worked out well. Last season, Jackson threw six of his touchdowns and just four of his interceptions while under pressure. But when you look at the substance of what needs to be cleaned up in this department, the randomness of Jackson’s decision-making under pressure can be detrimental to the health of the offense.

Here, in Week 13 against the Steelers, Jackson has third-and-6 from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line, and T.J. Watt right in his face after the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was left open to the pocket. That’s not how you want to draw it up, and things devolved from there. Jackson had Brown open over the middle on a crosser, and Brown might have been able to take it into the end zone. But Jackson instead kept rolling back and back, throwing into a less favorable coverage situation that had safety Minkah Fitzpatrick jumping up for the easy pick.

Know which club to hit.

(Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)

Recently, I returned to golf after an eight-year hiatus. Beyond all the skull shots and worm-burners you’d expect after such a layoff, there was the small matter of me forgetting how far each of my clubs was good for from a yardage perspective. What happens then? You under-club, and you’re disappointed even when you hit a great shot, because the ball didn’t go where it was supposed to. Or, you over-club, and the ball flies right over the green.

There were times last season where Jackson took the wrong club out of the bag, and he paid for it more often than not. Back to the Browns game, and this John Johnson interception. Jackson has Andrews on this deep over if he puts more oomph into the throw, as Andrews has Johnson beaten to the end zone. But Jackson makes more of a touch throw, which allows Johnson to get the jump on Jackson’s target.

Jackson is perfectly capable of making any throw you’d like, but he needs to be more consistent with his velocity. This is another important part of throwing your guys open, especially on deep stuff.

Stop fixating.

(Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Jackson isn’t a one-read quarterback per se, but he does miss a lot of open targets when they’re not the receiver upon which he is fixated after the snap. Generally, Jackson chose to fixate on Andrews last season, and given the extent to which Andrews was superior to Jackson’s other targets, that makes all the sense in the world.

The problem is, of course, that every defense the Ravens face know exactly who Priority One is. On this pick against the Vikings in Week 9, Minnesota’s defense is all over Andrews on the deep seam route, and Jackson throws it there anyway. He had Brown outside to the right with room to move, but it was what it was, as they say.

You can’t make throws like this, obviously. And based on his best work through his NFL career, Jackson knows better.

Where do we go from here?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There are reasons to be encouraged about Jackson’s ability to turn things around in 2022. There are also disconcerting indicators. The 2021 Ravens suffered injuries to their starters at a rate not seen for any other team in this entire millennium, and the likelihood of that happening again is pretty slim. The organization has had an entire offseason to adjust to two bad things that happened to their offensive line last season: Orlando Brown’s trade demands, and Ronnie Stanley’s injuries. That horrible injury luck really affected Baltimore’s running backs, and Jackson really felt the lack of the NFL’s most complex run game in 2021. Jackson has been working with quarterback mechanics expert Adam Dedeaux, and hopefully, that will bear fruit in the new season.

However… the Ravens’ decision to trade Marquise Brown to the Cardinals for the 23rd overall pick in the 2021 draft leaves the receiver rotation even lighter than it was before. You can point to the crushing win of a deal this was for the Ravens (which it was) and Brown’s inconsistencies that make him a fungible cog (which he has been), but there’s still a receiver group led by Bateman, Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, and James Proche. The Ravens didn’t select a single receiver in the 2022 draft, though they did triple down on the tight end depth already led by Andrews with the additions of Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar and Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely, both in the fourth round. What that does for Jackson’s outside targets, and his trust in those targets, remains to be seen.

Jackson was also blitzed at the highest rate seen last season by any legitimate starting quarterback — his 33% blitz rate was exceeded by only Andy Dalton. And Jackson fell apart against the blitz. Last season, Jackson was good for 7.6 yards per play and 35.5% DVOA with four pass-rushers, 5.7 yards per play and -21.9% DVOA against five pass-rushers, and 3.2 yards per play with -67.5% DVOA against six or more. Which means that opposing defensive coordinators will be more than happy to put Jackson right back in that ice cream factory.

“I can’t even emphasize enough how determined he is to improve and get our offense where it needs to be,” head coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson at his end-of-season press conference in January. “As a coaching staff and as a scouting staff, we want to do our part. We have to trust and rely on Lamar and all the players, and I mean all the players to do their part and to go to work. Like I said, he has a plan to do that, just like all the guys do and go to work and come back here in April better than you were when you left. So, all the things that happened this year, you look at the numbers and stuff like that that were a step back in terms of our offense, and you were talking about Lamar, those are all things that you can look at and you can understand why. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean… There’s no excuse – that’s how he looks at it. So, let’s go to work and let’s get better at the things we need to get better at, and let’s let that talent shine.”

There are no excuses, and the end of Jackson’s rookie contract beckons. If he is to make the moves to vault himself into the Quarterback Pantheon, the time is now.

And the list is long.