Ravens film study: Limiting Lamar Jackson's carries would limit the offense

Technically, Lamar Jackson rushed 27 times for 117 yards Sunday. Realistically, the numbers were marginally less bonkers.

As Ravens coach John Harbaugh pointed out Monday, his rookie quarterback’s last three rushing attempts in his first NFL start were kneel-downs, the Ravens needing only to milk clock to secure a 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

That did not diminish the irregularity of the feat. Or the impracticality of repeating it. Tim Tebow is the only other NFL quarterback with at least 20 rushing attempts in a game since 1970, the period known as the NFL's modern era. Michael Vick and Cam Newton are the only two others with at least 15 carries. Each did so exactly once.

On Monday, Harbaugh declined to say what an appropriate workload for Jackson might be. He said it was only “obvious” that 27 carries are too many. “You don’t want your quarterback getting hit that much,” he said. “It’s not going to last that way, so I think that’s pretty self-evident.”

After the crucial win, which ended a three-game losing streak, Harbaugh partly attributed the run-pass imbalance (Jackson attempted just 19 throws) to his quarterback’s decision-making, saying, “I think that’s what Lamar felt that it took today.” But a review of Jackson’s busy game reveals that both the play-calling and Bengals defense gave Jackson little option but to carry the ball as a bell-cow back might.

Of the 73 offensive plays the Ravens ran Sunday, an unofficial total excluding those called back by penalties and their end-of-game kneel-downs, 27 were zone-read or read-option plays, in which Jackson reads a defender before deciding whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself. Of the 10 run-pass-option plays the Ravens ran — in which receivers make themselves available on short, simple routes — seven ended with rushing attempts. There were another seven quarterback draws or sneaks.

And those plays don’t even account for the three times Jackson scrambled for gains.

“That’s something that we have to look at going forward,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “It’s not going to be the goal to average 22 carries a game, that’s for sure.”

As the Ravens look to hold on to the sixth and final AFC playoff spot with a win Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, it will be incumbent upon their coaching staff and Jackson to determine what works and what doesn’t, to decide, perhaps more importantly, what’s sustainable for their first-round draft pick and what’s too dangerous.

There was more good than bad Sunday, but that outcome was always likely against a defense as woeful as Cincinnati’s. The Bengals now rank last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and second last in passing yards allowed per game. After being held to just 66 rushing yards in their first meeting this season with Joe Flacco under center, the Ravens made their bones on the ground Sunday.

On two of the team’s biggest gains, Jackson and rookie running back Gus Edwards capitalized on baffling defensive play calls and alignments. During the Ravens’ opening 11-play, 11-run drive, they faced a third-and-4 near midfield. Tight end Mark Andrews lined up in the slot, and Edwards was split out wide. There was no one in the backfield next to Jackson.

The five-wide formation twisted Cincinnati into a pretzel; rather than have a safety or linebacker spy Jackson, the Bengals dropped both safeties into a Cover 2 zone as their five defenders underneath played man-to-man coverage. Every Ravens route was toward the sideline, which meant that when Jackson and center Matt Skura left the pocket on a quarterback draw, there was no one to block or elude for a good three seconds. Jackson gained 21 yards, just the Ravens’ second carry of at least 20 yards this season.

Early in the fourth quarter, on the touchdown drive that would tie the game at 21, Cincinnati overloaded the left side of the Ravens’ offensive line. Jackson seemed to have the option of throwing a bubble screen to his left, but there was no mistaking the huge hole in the Bengals’ defensive alignment.

On a zone read, Jackson handed the ball off to Edwards, who burst through a Hummer-wide hole sealed by center Matt Skura and right guard Marshal Yanda for 15 yards.

It was not always so easy, even if Jackson often made it look that way. On the Ravens’ second play from scrimmage, Cincinnati linebacker Hardy Nickerson took just one false step inside on a zone-read look for running back Alex Collins.

It was a small overcommitment, but enough of one for Jackson to zoom by for 12 yards and the game’s initial first down.

Jackson’s zone-read decisions were not flawless, but the fear he instilled on the plays put Bengals defenders in a constant bind.

Later in the Ravens’ opening drive, another zone read — and another misstep by a Cincinnati linebacker. When Jackson faked a keeper, Vontaze Burfict followed him outside, leaving one less Bengal in the hole Edwards plowed through for a 6-yard gain on first down.

The Ravens scored two plays later on another zone read. Again, Jackson’s movement preoccupied Cincinnati linebackers, who were less concerned with Collins bouncing outside for his 7-yard score.

The Bengals’ best hopes for stopping the Ravens’ running game rested, surprisingly, on their secondary. Jackson was never tackled for a loss or no gain on his many zone-read keepers, but a Cincinnati defensive back came closest.

In the second quarter, Darqueze Dennard never let Jackson reach his breakneck open-field speed. A perfectly timed blitz by the Bengals’ slot cornerback got him into to the backfield easily, and Jackson was being dragged own before he’d even crossed the line of scrimmage.

That Ravens drive ended after a dream Bengals scenario: third-and-17, too far a distance for Jackson’s legs to carry the offense.

For as long as Jackson plays this regular season, whether as a starter or a substitute run threat, he will not have to worry about facing an elite defense. Following the Raiders and their No. 26-ranked defense are the Atlanta Falcons (No. 29) and Kansas City Chiefs (No. 30). But the Ravens still must weigh the prospect of more third-and-long situations against the health of their quarterback of the future.

The Ravens won Sunday largely because their quarterback’s legs gave them every advantage they asked for. Afterward, Harbaugh and Jackson seemed to recognize that it might have been too much of a good thing.

“I didn’t think I would run the ball that much,” Jackson said, “but whatever it takes to win.”

Note: NFL Game Pass owns all footage shown in the above clips.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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