How the New York Jets defense should alter its strategy to stop Lamar Jackson
The New York Jets have a troublesome task on their hands with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson coming to town. As one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL, Jackson is a unique challenge for any defense. Slowing him down typically requires teams to make some significant adjustments to their typical tendencies.
Putting on my game-planning cap, I studied Jackson’s passing splits in the 2021 season to identify some adjustments that Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich can make to try and limit Baltimore’s star passer.
Here are three things I would like to see Ulbrich do on Sunday. All statistics below are via NFL Next Gen Stats.
Rely on the blitz more frequently
Jackson saw a stark difference in his passing efficiency based on whether he was blitzed or not. His numbers were poor against the blitz but fantastic otherwise.
When facing five rushers or more, Jackson ranked 31st out of 42 qualified quarterbacks in yards per attempt (5.8) and 35th in passer rating (70.0). He completed 75 of 126 passes for 734 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.
When facing four rushers or fewer, Jackson ranked 2nd out of 42 qualified quarterbacks in yards per attempt (8.4) and 12th in passer rating (95.3). He completed 171 of 256 passes for 2,148 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions.
The Jets are typically not a blitz-heavy team. They like to send the house on third downs, but on first and second down, they rarely blitz, instead opting to rely on their four-man rush.
New York might be wise to change things up against Baltimore. Early in the game, they should throw some first and second-down blitzes at Jackson and see how he responds to the unexpected onslaughts.
If Jackson punishes those looks – particularly as a runner, since the blitz can leave you vulnerable to scrambles – the Jets can quickly switch back to their bread-and-butter. But last year’s evidence shows that blitzing Jackson will likely yield great results. I want to see Ulbrich gamble and make some aggressive calls in the first quarter.
Utilize 2-high safety looks in obvious passing situations
Jackson is known as a passer who does a better job of throwing to the middle of the field than outside of the numbers.
While that is generally true, the 2021 season actually produced a different conclusion when looking at the interception column. Jackson was a turnover machine against 2-high safety shells (which leave the middle of the field open) while he took far better care of the football against single-high safety shells (which leave the middle of the field closed).
In 2021, Jackson threw 11 interceptions over 224 pass attempts against 2-high safety looks. That’s an interception rate of 4.91%, which ranked second-worst out of 42 qualified quarterbacks – ahead of only rookie QB Justin Fields.
But when facing single-high safety looks, Jackson only threw 2 interceptions over 151 pass attempts (1.32% rate).
Jackson’s overall passing efficiency did not change drastically based on the safety alignment (7.5 Y/A vs. 2-high and 7.9 Y/A vs. single-high). Regardless, the stark difference in his turnover frequency makes this an enticing split to try and take advantage of.
The Jets tended to favor single-high looks in passing situations last year. They ran 322 single-high looks on passing plays (9th-most) versus 266 two-high looks on passing plays (25th).
On Sunday, Ulbrich is going to want his strong safety, Jordan Whitehead, to be in the box whenever a run play is possible. Whitehead is an aggressive run defender who will be valuable in stopping Jackson and the Ravens’ run game. Plus, it simply doesn’t make sense to play 2-high in possible run situations against a run-heavy team.
However, in obvious passing situations, perhaps Ulbrich should consider playing Whitehead in 2-high shells with Lamarcus Joyner more frequently than he would against other teams, seeing if it can help bait Jackson into some dangerous throws.
Force throws to slot receivers and running backs
Jackson threw the ball at an elite level last season when targeting his tight ends and outside receivers. He was abysmal when targeting his slot receivers and running backs.
Here is a look at Jackson’s passer rating based on the pre-snap alignment of the player he targeted (ranks out of 42 QBs):
- Tight: 116.6 (6th)
- Wide: 107.6 (3rd)
- Backfield: 71.1 (41st)
- Slot: 69.9 (39th)
Keep in mind this is based on alignment, not position. For instance, if tight end Mark Andrews is targeted on a play where he lined up in the slot, he counts as a “slot” in this statistic.
Altogether, Jackson was one of the best quarterbacks in football when targeting someone who lined up either tight or wide, while he was one of the worst quarterbacks when targeting someone who lined up in the slot or in the backfield.
When throwing to wide or tight:
- 131/183 for 1,490 yards, 10 TD, 2 INT
- 10th of 42 in Y/A (8.1)
- 3rd of 42 in QB rating (109.3)
- 2nd of 42 in Completion Percentage Over Expectation (+6.5%)
When throwing to slot or backfield:
- 115/188 for 1,392 yards, 6 TD, 11 INT
- 11th of 42 in Y/A (7.4)
- 40th of 42 in QB rating (70.2)
- 40th of 42 in Completion Percentage Over Expectation (-9.5%)
Jackson’s efficiency from a yardage perspective did not see a major difference, but you surely noticed enormous differences in two categories: interceptions and CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expectation).
CPOE is a metric calculated by NFL Next Gen Stats that aims to evaluate accuracy. It compares a player’s actual completion percentage to the completion percentage they would be expected to get based on the difficulty of their throws (calculated using tracking data; it accounts for depth, window tightness, pressure, angle, and more).
Jackson’s accuracy was marvelous when throwing to players aligned wide or tight. He completed 6.5% more passes than expected, ranking second-best in the league behind only Joe Burrow (+8.2%).
When throwing to players aligned in the slot or backfield, Jackson completed 9.5% fewer passes than expected, beating only Cam Newton (-11.1%) and Zach Wilson (-13.7%).
Certainly, the difference in accuracy contributed to the difference in interceptions. Jackson threw a league-leading 11 interceptions to slot or backfield targets (10 of those were to slot targets); these coming at a catastrophic rate of 5.85%. He only threw 2 picks to wide or tight targets (1.09% rate).
Baltimore’s passing game figures to revolve around tight end Mark Andrews and outside receiver Rashod Bateman – perfectly complementing Jackson’s strengths. Outside of these two players, the Ravens’ receiving weaponry is lackluster.
However Ulbrich gets it done, he needs to make sure Jackson cannot make a living on throws to Andrews and Bateman.
Yes, this is a fairly obvious point considering they are the Ravens’ two best pass-catchers, but it is a point that is greatly emphasized by the data behind Jackson’s accuracy when targeting those positions. The Jets must exploit his shaky accuracy on throws to the players that come out of the slot and backfield.
If the Jets can make Jackson focus his attempts on slot and backfield weapons, good things should happen. Not only do the Ravens have much less talent at those spots than they do on the outside and at tight end, but Jackson’s accuracy is far worse when throwing there, which means he should bail the Jets out with some misfires and interception-worthy throws.
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