The Jets face a stiff task in Week 1: a premier rushing team and a former MVP quarterback who shreds standard defenses
The quarterback is the most important position in sports. Bold, underline, and highlight that for Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens.
The 2019 NFL MVP rushed for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and was well on his way to a third season of 1,000 rushing yards in 2021 before injuries cut his season short.
Still, the Ravens went from a 14-2 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2019, to an 11-5 record and a wild card berth in 2020, to missing the playoffs altogether in 2021. Although Jackson’s absence was largely responsible for the 2021 outcome, the Ravens’ slide had begun before their QB went on the shelf.
In Week 1 of the 2022 season, Jackson is scheduled to take on the New York Jets in his return game. What weaknesses in Jackson and the Ravens offense can the Jets exploit to contain this potentially explosive offense?
Jackson’s biggest weaknesses: by the numbers
Looking at the breakdown of Jackson’s numbers, it’s hard to find clear trends to delineate his struggles. However, when comparing his 2019, 2020, and 2021 seasons, there are a few patterns that explain his comparative difficulties last season.
First of all, Jackson’s big-time throw (BTT) rate when under pressure plummeted last season, via Pro Football Focus. He went from leading the NFL with a 9.0% BTT rate when pressured in his MVP campaign, to a sixth-rated 8.2% in 2020, all the way down to 20th at 5.0% in 2021.
Interestingly, Jackson did not face pressure on a larger percentage of his dropbacks than he did in the previous season. Jackson took pressure on 30.9% of his dropbacks in 2019 before seeing that number rise to 37.0% in 2020, but he stayed at the exact same 37.0% rate in 2021.
Furthermore, Jackson’s passing statistics against the blitz were poor across the board in 2021: 32nd in overall PFF grade among qualified QBs, 35th in PFF’s passing grade, 31st in passer rating, and 29th in expected points added (EPA). Jackson’s fourth-ranked PFF rushing grade vs. the blitz seemed to be a fair tradeoff for many teams, especially in third-and-long situations.
These numbers indicate the latest scouting on Jackson is that he struggles against pressure, particularly when blitzed.
Another area in which Jackson’s numbers became significantly poorer from his MVP year to the seasons after was in turnover-worthy play (TWP) rate when kept clean. This number gives a good idea about the quarterback’s reads of the defense and decision-making.
In 2019, Jackson was 13th-best among qualified QBs with a 2.1% TWP rate when kept clean. That number rose to 2.7% in 2020, which ranked 22nd among qualifiers, and then further climbed to 2.9% in 2021, which ranked 26th.
This may indicate that teams learned how to confuse Jackson with coverage when they did keep him in the pocket. However, it was still not easy for any team to actually keep Jackson from running, especially without pressure.
Mitigating factor: injuries
No discussion of the Ravens’ 2021 season can exclude discussion of the major injuries the team sustained.
On the offensive side of the ball, the team lost its two top running backs, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, to season-ending injuries. The two backs combined for over 1,500 yards rushing at 5.5 yards per carry in 2020.
The Ravens were forced to rely on the likes of Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell at running back. This allowed teams to key on Jackson in the run game.
Star left tackle Ronnie Stanley was injured for all but one game. Jackson himself was out for the last four games of the season due to an ankle injury.
This team was decimated by injuries, which makes some of last year’s tape moot.
Despite the injuries, Jackson did seem to leave a blueprint of how to beat him. A few teams followed it successfully.
Cover zero: all-out blitzing
The league as a whole has begun to blitz Jackson more frequently than before. Teams used to be afraid to blitz the dynamic QB, knowing that it could spell disaster if Jackson evaded pressure.
However, as stated earlier, Jackson’s numbers against the blitz seem to be noticeably weaker than when not under pressure. On the other hand, his numbers against pressure are not uniformly bad. In his first two full seasons, Jackson had an elite BTT rate under pressure. He showed that he can beat the heat.
So why the difficulties with the blitz? Why the plummeting big play rates in 2021?
Greg Roman, the Ravens offensive coordinator, has taken heat for his vanilla offensive scheme. For example, the Dolphins ran the same cover-zero blitz an overwhelming 31 times in their Week 10 matchup against Jackson. The Dolphins beat the Ravens, 22-10, and Roman had no answers for the same scheme thrown at him.
The Dolphins used zone-like coverages over the top of their zero blitz, and the Ravens struggled mightily. Miami’s defensive backs had their eyes on Jackson, and they passed off coverages at times. Even when Jackson completed a pass, the defensive backs converged to the ball quickly.
According to film breakdown by Kurt Warner and others from the Miami-Baltimore game, Roman’s play calling, coupled with his coaching of Jackson, doomed the Ravens. Each time Roman got something right, such as running motion to leave the extra blitzer a step behind, he’d botch up something else, such as the route combinations he used.
The big question is, can other teams replicate this success? More specifically, is this a viable game plan for the Jets – to run Cover 0 blitz all the time?
For a few reasons, this may not be the wisest course of action against Jackson.
- WR Rashod Bateman is healthy and expected to break out this season. If all-out blitzing fails, it fails with an exclamation point. Jackson would have had a long TD against the Dolphins if Sammy Watkins had turned his head around. Though the Jets have a strong cornerback group, their safeties may struggle in coverage. Relying on one-on-one coverage deep may be an issue.
- Furthermore, if the Jets choose to play cover zero read with the underneath defenders dropping if they’re blocked, that can lead to other issues. The team’s linebacking corps is bound to struggle in coverage. Mark Andrews is one of the best tight ends in football. Enough said.
- The Ravens running backs should be back, despite Ian Rapoport’s report that Gus Edwards may not be ready for Week 1. If the Jets run an all-out blitz and overpursue, Jackson or the backs could be gone. The Jets run defense is not stout enough to be relied upon.
That being said, blitzing Jackson in general, without necessarily running an all-out blitz, seems to be a good idea. Jackson will face extra pressure until he proves that he can beat it.
Stay in a 4-3 set on earlier/running downs
Although the Jets play a 4-3, the 4-2-5 nickel set is closer to their base due to the NFL’s tendency towards 11 personnel (one RB, one TE). On most downs, C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams will be the team’s linebackers, with Michael Carter II joining D.J. Reed and Sauce Gardner at cornerback.
Even though the Ravens employed 11 personnel more than any other set in 2021, they still used it only 43% of the time, the third-least in the league (per Sharp Football Analysis). In Jackson’s three full seasons in the NFL, the Ravens have been in the bottom six of the NFL in 11 personnel usage. The Ravens passed 75% of the time out of 11 personnel, a pretty strong tendency.
The Ravens ran 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) 22% of the time in 2021, the third-most in the NFL. Their run-pass splits out of 21 personnel were only slightly tilted toward the run, at 53-47%. However, in 2020, the Ravens ran 21 personnel fourth-most in the NFL (18%), but they were far more skewed towards the run in that set at 66-34%.
With their dynamic backs returning and a healthy Lamar Jackson at the helm, there is reason to believe the Ravens will return to their previous splits.
In other sets (used around 10-15% of the time each), the Ravens had similarly defined splits: 61% passing out of 12 personnel; 73% running out of 22; and 67% running out of 20.
Although it’s a new season, the Jets can look at those trends and match personnel. If the Ravens present with two running backs, there is a strong chance they’re running the ball. Going light with those sets risks a mismatch against a potent running team.
The 2020 playoff game in which the Bills beat the Ravens, 17-3, gives a good blueprint about how to match personnel to beat the Ravens.
According to a film review by Billy Stephens, the Bills went with nickel personnel every single time the Ravens came out in 11 or 12 sets. When the Ravens turned to two-back sets, the Bills sent out the base 4-3 defense every time.
Using those sets, the key to stopping the run came down to the Buffalo linebackers. Their goal was to maintain outside leverage and turn all plays back inside. The outside linebackers had a very specific job to set the edge and force a cutback inside, while the MIKE linebacker’s responsibility was to play the ball.
Unfortunately, the linebackers are one of their biggest weak links on the Jets defense. However, whatever game plan they put in place, the middle level of the defense will be critical in stopping the Ravens run attack.
Therefore, discipline and maintaining responsibilities will be key. Quincy Williams, in particular, will need to stay in his lane and stop sacrificing containment for the hope of a big hit.
Quarters coverage together with the blitz
Jackson loves to throw the deep ball. His passing success has relied primarily on chunk plays down the field. The Bills beat the Ravens in the 2020 playoffs by a two-high shell, often Cover 4, to take away those deep shots. This forced Jackson to throw underneath, something he does not do as well.
The film has indicated that Jackson hates throwing to the flat. Therefore, the Bills often left the flat open or partially open for longer, forcing Jackson to either force the ball in coverage or throw where he is not comfortable.
With the blitz forcing the ball out quickly and quarters coverage taking away deeper looks, Jackson struggled. He took 38 sacks in 2021, the most of his career, despite not playing a full season. According to PFF, 18.1% of those sacks were at least somewhat his fault, the seventh-highest rate among qualified QBs.
Additionally, Jackson struggled with getting the ball out quickly in structure. His PFF grade on throws with under 2.5 seconds in the pocket was 58.3, the worst among 33 qualified QBs last season. His 2.2% TWP rate on such throws was tied for seventh-worst.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens require a specific, well-executed game-plan to beat them defensively. Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich will have their work cut out for them out of the gate in the 2022 season.