All Lamar, All the Time

I’m not sure that I have ever seen this before.

There is 10:47 left in the second quarter of a still scoreless game.  Baltimore is driving toward its first score – it is first-and-ten at the Houston 31-yard line.

The Ravens had only one wide receiver on the field – Seth Roberts – who was split wide to the left.  He and Houston’s Lonnie Johnson were the only players on the field that were left of the left hashmark.  The other 20 players were all bunched between that hash and the numbers on the right. (Parenthetically, both of the Ravens’ longest runs of the day would come from this same look.)

Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson was in his beloved pistol with Mark Ingram directly behind him as the tailback, and Patrick Ricard just to his right as the fullback.  Tight ends Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle were tight to the formation on the right.

The left side of the line (Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman and Matt Skura) singled up on outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, defensive end Charles Omenihu and inside linebacker Zach Cunningham (who spent much of his afternoon trying to spy on Jackson), respectively.

With defensive lineman D.J. Reader lined up over right tackle Orlando Brown, he was double-teamed by both Brown and Marshal Yanda, the right guard.  Hurst took care of linebacker Brennan Scarlett, and Ricard went through to take the middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney (who had a very long afternoon) out of the play.  And let me point out here that throughout the game the Houston linemen made very little effort to tie up the Raven offensive linemen.  McKinney was under siege the entire game.

All of this left Houston’s other defensive lineman, Brandon Dunn – listed at 310 pounds – standing for a brief second unblocked at the point of attack.  Until tight end Boyle came through the hole and drove him out.  Ingram – the ballcarrier on this play – scooted in right behind Boyle.

The gain was a modest 4 yards, but the design was a novelty.  Boyle didn’t accidentally end up on Dunn because the design of the play went awry.  The design was for Boyle to single up on the nose tackle and beat him.

Football’s tight end is a hybrid position.  He is an eligible receiver, so catching passes is an important part of his function.  He is also a sixth offensive lineman, of sorts.  They are frequently called on to pass block and even more frequently to block for the running game.  Obviously, throughout the league, some are better at one assignment than the other.

When the tight end blocks, it is usually against outside linebackers – players who are quicker than they are big – or undersized defensive ends.  It is not uncommon to see them join with a tackle in double-teaming some end.  Their most important contribution to the running game usually is pinning the end inside, setting the corner for an outside run.

Until Sunday, though, I don’t think I have ever seen a tight end asked to blow a nose tackle off of the point of attack.  And there was no chicken fighting going on here.  Boyle wasn’t just getting in his way.  Nick lowered his left shoulder and buried himself into Dunn, driving him a good three yards off the line and wedging open the hole for Ingram.

Always, these days, when the Baltimore highlights are played it is all Lamar all the time.  It’s like he turns every play into a punt return, and his faster-than-the-speed-of-thought changes of direction and his almost super-human acceleration do make for electrifying viewing.  But the revolution in Baltimore is about more than just re-prioritizing the role of the quarterback.  A lot of what’s going on in Baltimore involves the evolving function of the tight end.

The Ravens have three who get significant playing time.  Boyle (66% of the offensive snaps), Hurst (40%) and Mark Andrews (47%).  They are frequently all on the field at the same time.  In the on-going chess match that is the NFL, coach John Harbaugh is using his tight ends like knights.  They do unexpected things and have to be accounted for on every play.

While Boyle is the best, all of them block – and, apparently Harbaugh isn’t afraid to let Boyle, at least, take on anyone on the field.  They transition seamlessly when they play changes suddenly from a passing play to a run.

And they have become Lamar’s primary weapons in the passing game.  Together, the Baltimore tight ends have 44% of the targets in the passing game (125 of 284), 46.2% of the completions (91 of 197), 45.2% of the passing yards (1060 of 2346), and 40% of the passing touchdowns (8 of 12).  The tight ends have caught 72.8% of their targets (91 of 125).

They are all particularly adept at elevating above defenders and all have excellent hands.  Of the three, only Andrews has dropped passes this season (he has 5 drops).

All of this adds to the reasons why defenses that rely on man coverage should rethink this strategy when opposing Baltimore.  In their 41-7 drubbing at the hands of the Ravens (gamebook) (summary), Houston played a lot of man coverage – and was hurt in all of the following ways.

First, man coverage easily allows Baltimore to move defenders out of half of the field they intend to run to.  On several occasions, Willie Snead’s crossing routes served only to pull Justin Reid from one side of the field to another.  On the first play of the second quarter, both Snead and Boyle went in motion (at separate times, of course) to pull Reid and Tashaun Gipson from the offensive right side to the offensive left.  Ingram ran to the right side for 11 yards.

Man coverage, of course, also forces defenders to turn their back to the quarterback.  With many quarterbacks, this is not much of an issue.  With Lamar Jackson it is a dangerous approach.  During the game against Houston, Jackson had three scrambles out of passing formation that went for 12 or more yards.  All of them came against man coverage schemes.

If you are going to spy on Jackson – and Houston tried what looked like a double-spy system, with Cunningham and a linebacker (Martin or McKinney) – then that strips the other defenders of their help over the top.  Spying on Jackson is a mostly unworkable concept, as few linebackers – or even defensive backs, for that matter – can keep up with Lamar in the open field.

And, finally, man coverage means – in this case – covering the tight ends.  Mostly, you play man coverage because you have several talented cornerbacks who can match up well with the wide receivers on the other side.  Baltimore has a talented core of defensive backs and they play a lot of man coverage.  Not too many teams can man up against a talented tight end.  Against Baltimore, you would have to be able to play man coverage against three talented tight ends.  They hurt Houston to the tune of 8 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown.

Zone defense comes with its own set of issues.  Play-action can cause widened gaps in between the zones.  Also, Lamar has gotten very adept at dumping short passes to running backs underneath the zone.  Still, given the choice between keeping Lamar in the pocket with all eyes on him, or having your defenders trying to play man while keeping an eye on Jackson, the choice should be pretty clear.

Make them crawl.  Short runs, short passes, 14-play drives, and see if they will make a mistake along the way.

And, if that mistake should be a holding call, it would be nice if the officials would flag them.

Are the Officials Mesmerized by Jackson?

Something that I’ve been noticing recently is that among all the things going right for the Ravens right now, the officials seem to be on their side as well.  Yes, of course, I’m referring to the missed pass interference penalties – offensive and defensive – that cost Houston one touchdown and gift-wrapped another for the Ravens.  But this team (Baltimore) doesn’t even get called for the occasional holding penalty.  It’s not that they don’t commit them. They just don’t get flagged for them.

The most egregious missed holding call that I noticed came on a 9-yard run from Ingram with 4:44 left in the third quarter.  Yanda (who looks like he’s borderline on the holding call on almost every snap) put hands on both of Reader’s shoulders and pulled him away from the play.  But there were a half-dozen or so other incidents that are sometimes flagged that just never are with Baltimore.

On a 12-yard scramble by Jackson with 5:15 left in the second quarter, Lamar darted through a small gap between his left guard Bozeman (who had his arms completely around Angelo Blackson) and center Skura (who had two fists full of Brandon Dunn’s jersey).  On his (Jackson’s) 39-yard scramble in the third, Skura did briefly grab Reader’s arm and prevent him for just a second from pursuing the play.  I’ve seen less than that called before.

A lot of these events are the marginal kinds of activity that don’t always draw flags, but do sometimes.  Except when Baltimore is doing the holding.  They finished the Houston game with 36 running plays and no holding penalties.  They ran the ball 23 times against Cincinnati the week before, and 41 times against New England the week before that – again with no holding calls.

I didn’t go back further than that, but I did notice that over the last three games Baltimore hasn’t even drawn a holding penalty on any of their passing plays.  Now, I get that these guys are a talented bunch, and that they are exceptionally well coached.  But still that is at least 175 consecutive snaps – 100 of them runs – with no holding penalties?  Really?

About That Pass Interference Challenge

Toward the end of the first period, Raven defensive back Marlon Humphrey began tackling DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone before the ball arrived.  The penalty, of course, was missed by the officials, and coach Bill O’Brien – with unwarranted faith in the system – threw his challenge flag.  Sometime thereafter, Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone watched Indianapolis corner Rock Ya-Sin grab the back of receiver DJ Chark’s jersey.  The officials missed this one as well, and the trusting Mr. Marrone threw his challenge flag too.  In spite of the fact that the pass interference was clear on both of these plays, both coaches lost their challenge.

But just at the point where you are ready to write the new pass interference challenge rule off as a scam, San Francisco’s Richard Sherman pulls Arizona’s Christian Kirk down in the end zone in one of the late games – a penalty again missed by the on field officials.  Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury threw his challenge flag.

Sherman’s penalty was no more flagrant than Humphrey’s or Ya-Sin’s.  In fact, you could probably say that it was less obvious than the penalty committed by Humphrey on Hopkins.  But Kingsbury won his challenge and got the penalty.

It’s almost enough to drive a coach bats.  How can the same person look at all of these challenged penalties and reverse only this one?  The answer, I believe, is that it is not the same person reviewing all of these plays.

For every game, the NFL assigns a replay official.  They don’t make a big deal about this individual’s identity, but it can be discovered.  I have, in fact, looked up the names of all three replay officials, and am ready to name names.

The replay official for the Arizona-San Francisco game is a man named Brian Matoren.  As opposed to most of the New York replay officials, Brian gave a good faith review of the play.  He actually watched the play to see if pass interference had occurred, and ruled on the play accordingly – giving this challenge the same respect that he would give to any other challenge.

But Michael Chase (who had the Houston-Baltimore game) and Carl Madsen (who had the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game) betrayed the good faith of the coaches and fans of the NFL.  Instead of actually reviewing the play (they may not have even watched it) they ignored the fact that both of the receivers in question were interfered with and dismissed the challenge.

Pass interference is missed all the time in the NFL.  Occasionally, it is also called when no interference occurs.  This year, the NFL offices have given the coaches the gift of asking for a second look at some of the potential pass interference penalties that eluded the on field officials.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of replay officials (including Madsen and Chase) are fundamentally dishonest in regards to their responsibility to the NFL fans and coaches.  I don’t fully understand the reason behind their unwillingness to fairly review pass interference challenges, but their failure to do so compromises the integrity of the NFL and its policies.

As the season progresses, I will continue to name names and keep a list – a naughty or nice list, if you will.  It will be interesting to see if a consistent pattern emerges.

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