The party line in Baltimore goes something like this –
Hey, Lamar Jackson is a very young man (which is true, he turned 23 four days before his Divisional Playoff game). Just look – they will say – how much he improved from his first year (again, true. Both the eye test and the statistics bear that out).
They will then extrapolate that year-over-year improvement to project Lamar to be about the passing equivalent of Tom Brady in his prime by, say, next year. In the aftermath of another humbling playoff defeat, I think we should tap the brakes a little on the “Lamar Jackson as Superhero” talk, and take a clear look at where Lamar Jackson, the quarterback, is now and what we can reasonably expect him to become.
The first – and, I think – most illuminating question to ask is, “what did Tennessee do to make this Baltimore game so different from the previous twelve Baltimore games?” The answer is simply this:
They played with a lead.
While the world has been busy writing Lamar’s Hall of Fame induction speech, the most remarkable story to come out of Baltimore this season has been Don Martindale’s defense that has simply refused to let the Ravens fall behind. Blitzing at a rate that most teams would call insane, Martindale’s defense – especially over the last eleven games of the regular season – was football’s most dominant unit.
Over that 11 game stretch – that included contests against Seattle, New England, Houston, the Rams and San Francisco – Baltimore allowed just 14.5 points and 268.9 total yards per contest. They allowed just 14 offensive touchdowns over those eleven games – most of those coming late after the game had already been decided – while taking the ball away 19 times. Opposing running games averaged just 94.8 yards per game, and opposing passers rated just 70.7.
Their foundational approach – which is to consistently send more rushers than you have people to block them – doesn’t seem on its surface to be rocket science. But over the last three-quarters of the season, no one could crack this unit. Not until the Tennessee Titans rolled into Baltimore with an idea of which blitzes they could take advantage of.
Both of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s touchdown passes came against Baltimore blitzes – and suddenly the Ravens were down 14-0.
With the first quarter over, and down two scores, the Ravens – who ran the ball at a historical rate this year – began to slide away from the running game and began to lean on the arm and passing skills of young Mr. Jackson.
With three quarters of football left, wasn’t it too early to leave behind the running game? I would say, yes. But 14 points is a significant deficit, and there are some reasons why I can understand Baltimore’s decision to air the ball out – and in so doing, exposed the weaknesses still extant in Lamar’s passing game.
One factor, I will call the Derrick Henry factor. The Raven’s running offense isn’t usually a quick-strike offense. Over the course of the season, they averaged first in average time of possession and average plays run per drive (3:22 and 6.61 plays per). Realizing that Tennessee would be grinding the clock with handoffs to Henry every time they possessed the ball, Baltimore may have felt that there wouldn’t be enough time for them to methodically drive down the field and chip away.
The second possible factor might simply be that Baltimore – for some reason – believed that Jackson was fully capable of bringing his team from behind using his arm as his primary weapon.
Coach John Harbaugh is one of the very best coaches in the NFL. But if that is what he thought, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
By game’s end, Jackson would have thrown for a stunning 365 yards. But that would be the result of an eye-popping 59 passing attempts – the results of which would also include 2 interceptions and 4 sacks – including a strip sack that set up Tennessee’s last touchdown of the game. The soon-to-be-named MVP wrapped up a season in which he finished third in passer rating at 113.3 with a sobering 63.2 rating and – on the heels of his second consecutive playoff struggle – more than a few questions to answer.
In this story found at ESPN.com, coach Harbaugh references a meeting he has already had with Jackson regarding the improvements we should all be expecting next season from Lamar Jackson 3.0. He, of course, didn’t share any details. But here are a few things that I noticed from last Saturday’s game that might be on that list. We’ll start with some of the more fixable things.
Staring down receivers: No, Lamar doesn’t do this as often as he did as a rookie, but it is something that happened on more than one occasion last Saturday. The most damaging of these resulted in the Kenny Vaccaro interception – a play where he followed intended receiver Miles Boykin all the way to the flat. The Titans were in zone on that particular play. When you stare down a receiver against man coverage, usually only the deep safety can notice and adjust. In zone, everyone is reading the quarterback’s eyes.
With 1:55 left in the first half (Baltimore trailing 14-3 at this point) Jackson had Marquise Brown tight to the end of the line on the right. In this man coverage scheme, Adoree’ Jackson would have Brown, and had given him about nine yards of cushion.
At the snap, Jackson continued to retreat as Brown began his vertical stem, and Jackson was still about seven yards away from Brown when Marquise turned his route back over the middle. At one point, Brown camped all alone in the middle of the field right in front of Lamar with Adoree’ still a good five yards behind him.
But Lamar was clearly watching only tight end Mark Andrews, who was having significant trouble shaking free of Kevin Byard. Jackson looked nowhere else, until the pressure made him uncomfortable – at which time, he just threw the ball out of bounds. Which brings me to the next issue.
Missing Open Receivers: Let’s be honest. No quarterback, regardless of skill or experience, finds every open receiver. They all miss them, sometime. With Jackson, it still happens with too much frequency. And there are times where he still seems very uncomfortable in sorting out zone defenses.
The most glaring of these occurred at the 6:47 mark of the second quarter. As Logan Ryan was drawn in by the play fake, Hayden Hurst blew right by him and found himself all alone down the middle of the field. Lamar didn’t see him.
Two plays later, Tennessee was in cover-two, with Vaccaro responsible for deep routes to the right sideline. Adoree’ Jackson had the flat to that side. As Marquise Brown flew up that sideline past A Jackson for a should-have-been walk-in touchdown, Vaccaro – eyes on L Jackson – never looked behind him. Lamar never looked at him, either.
With 13:39 left in the third, the Titans were in cover-three. The Ravens had four vertical routes called, two up each sideline. The two outermost receivers – Brown to the right and Boykin to the left – were all but abandoned by the defense, but Jackson threw to one of the receivers (Nick Boyle) that the secondary did settle around.
Lack of Anticipation: There was a play that I can’t find now, so I’ll ask you to trust me on this one. It was Hayden Hurst running a deep cross that Lamar gave up on even though it was clear that he would be open as soon as he made his break.
These are things I expect that Jackson can work on. The problem is that to get better in these areas, you have to throw the ball more than 15 times a game. Especially in a system that doesn’t rely much on the quarterback anticipating a route – or even reading a zone defense. The Baltimore system is based on getting the defender to drop his coverage reacting to some flavor of play-action, and having Lamar throw the ball to the abandoned receiver. These are things that can be practiced, but if not employed in games . . .
And then there are some things that I’m not sure can be improved with practice. Things like . . .
Composure: Viewed honestly, Jackson didn’t sustain his focus as he tried to bring his team back from behind. I often think this is the hardest part of quarterback play in the NFL. Here are a couple of examples – both from the fourth quarter with the Ravens down by 22 points.
It’s first-and-ten from the Ravens’ 23. Baltimore had four vertical routes called, with Tennessee in man, but backpedaling to keep the play in front of them – so there was lots of opportunity for a comeback route. Lamar doesn’t even give the deep routes a chance to develop as he immediately dumps the ball off to outlet receiver Justice Hill for a 3-yard gain.
About a minute later Baltimore is first-and-ten on the Titan 42. A similar story. Four vertical routes running against man coverage – remember, we are trailing by 22 with 13:07 left – and Jackson immediately dumps the pass to Mark Andrews for no gain.
If Lamar were under siege, then, of course you check the pass down. On both of these plays, Jackson had plenty of time in the pocket and could easily have waited two or three seconds to see if one of his verticals could shake free.
Accuracy: Even a bigger problem. Far too many of Lamar’s passes are just off target. His receivers in this game were charged with 7 drops – and, in the NFL, if you get your hands on the pass, you are expected to pull it in. But, Good Lord at least half of the drops were on passes behind the receiver, or over his head, or some other poor location that adds unnecessary difficulty to the play.
The best example of this is the first interception – the one that slid through Andrews’ fingertips. Andrews has been making that catch – elevating above his defender – all season. I have thought all along that he is one of the most consistent I have ever seen in coming down with the hard-thrown pass just over his head. He didn’t make it high enough for this one – and his sore ankle may have had much to do with that – so it could be construed as bad luck.
But here’s the thing. There was no one in front of him. With Logan Ryan trailing him, the next closest Titan was Vaccaro who was almost 8 yards away with his back turned to Andrews as he was busy chasing Boykin up the sideline. This wasn’t a tight window that he was throwing into. If Jackson had just led him, it’s likely that instead of the interception, Jackson and Andrews could have a sizeable gain.
With 13:47 left in the game, Hurst got in behind Tennessee’s Amani Hooker despite a cover-four defense, but could only watch as the pass sailed over his head. With 1:58 left in the game, Brown and Boykin are both running deep crossing routes and end up colliding with each other. It doesn’t matter as the pass was way over both of their heads. On the final play of their season – fourth-and-eleven from Tennessee’s 21 yard line – Miles Boykin beats Tramaine Brock cleanly on a crossing route and is wide open at the sticks – but the throw is too far in front and Miles can only feel it slide through his fingertips.
There are about a half-dozen more examples I could cite. Additionally, his accuracy falls off sharply the farther up-field he tries to throw. Saturday night, Jackson was only 5 of 15 on passes more than 15 yards up-field (just 4 for 11 at more than 20 yards). Comparing to other quarterbacks in the divisional round who trailed by double-digits at some point during their game, Patrick Mahomes was 5-9 at 15 yards or more, and 1-2 over 20 yards. Deshaun Watson was 10-14 with a TD over 15 yards, including 7-11 at 20 yards or more. Russell Wilson was also 5-9 at more than 15 yards – including 2-3 at more than 20 yards.
And Lamar’s problems with accuracy are even more pronounced when he tries to make . . .
Passes Deep Outside: This was actually part of Tennessee’s game plan. I won’t go back and cite chapter and verse here – Dan Fouts did a fine job pointing these out during the broadcast. Some of these throws sailed out of bounds, some were short – all were late.
These are areas that I’m not sure how much better Lamar can get. Some of these are arm-strength issues. I don’t know if there is anything you can do to get more arm strength. I mean, if there were exercises that could improve that, then everyone would be throwing 70-yard lasers down the field.
If he can improve his anticipation, he could throw those deep routes earlier. That would make some difference. But that is problematical, too – if for no other reason than it allows more time for bad things to happen (receivers falling down, defenders baiting the throw, etc).
Who Lamar Jackson is right now is a gifted, gifted runner with about average passing skills who is cocooned in a brilliant system that – as much as is humanly possible – features his skills while masking his deficiencies. Harbaugh may eventually do this well enough that he might get Jackson that Super Bowl ring someday. But at this point I rather doubt that Lamar will ever be a great passer.
He will certainly never be as great throwing the ball as he is running with it. I don’t know that it’s possible for anyone to ever be that good at throwing the ball.
For those of you thinking the results of this game were just rust, the critical understanding that needs to come out of this is that the Titans expected this to happen. They weren’t just hoping Lamar would have a rusty game. They knew that if they could get ahead and force the Ravens to pass that Baltimore would be in for a struggle.
Oh, And By The Way
So, Tennessee won this battle of Neanderthal football teams, and I have spent the entire post writing about Baltimore. The Titans, it seems, are headed to Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game. How will they do?
Considering that this team has just gone into New England and Baltimore and authored huge upsets, it’s getting harder and harder to pick against them.
But the challenge they will face in Kansas City is different than any they have faced so far. The Chiefs are the most proficient and diversified offense in football. Where the Titans could game-plan around Jackson’s weaknesses, they won’t find any in Mahomes’ game. Patrick can make all of the throws and read all of the defenses. And he can come from behind, too.
If Tennessee can keep it close through the first half, their chances increase. The second half is almost always when Henry takes off. Keeping the game close enough through the first half, though, will be a significant challenge. The Titans are not an elite defense. They were twenty-first overall and twenty-fourth against the pass. Facing an elite offense that is currently firing on all cylinders may be too much to ask of this courageous Tennessee squad.
The more I think about the upcoming Super Bowl, the more it shapes up as a contest between the irresistible force (the KC offense) against the immovable object (the SF defense). The Packers and Titans will be greatly challenged to re-write the script.