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Ravens film study: Five takeaways from Lamar Jackson’s MVP-caliber season

In his first full season as the Ravens’ starting quarterback, Lamar Jackson dropped back to pass close to 500 times. He does not like to run, as he’ll tell you, and so he scrambled when he had to, just as he carried out designed runs when he had to. He finished with 176 rushes in 2019. Whatever it took to win.

There had always been questions about whether Jackson could be a viable NFL passer. He heard them, his teammates heard them, his coaches heard them. Perhaps the most unlikely feat of Jackson’s Most Valuable Player-worthy season was that his passing acumen in many ways surpassed his running ability — and he averaged 6.9 yards per carry for a team that set the NFL’s single-season rushing record. Running backs don’t lead the NFL in passing touchdowns.

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Jackson has won or probably will win everything but the one title he wanted this season: league champion. The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will meet Sunday in Miami Gardens, Florida, in a Super Bowl that, had a ball or two bounced their way a few weeks ago, might have just as easily featured the Ravens. They were the NFL’s best team for so long, until, suddenly, they weren’t.

Jackson’s refined quarterback skills were essential to that greatness. A review of every pass from his record-breaking season will find flaws in his game, certainly, but it also reaffirms his talent and this passing offense’s potential. Here are five takeaways from a memorable, record-breaking year.

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1. Jackson can be almost impossible to sack.

When you put one of the sport’s most electric athletes at quarterback, edge rushers and linebackers giving chase will inevitably end up grasping at air. Most never even got that close this season; with three Pro Bowl selections in tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. and guard Marshal Yanda, the Ravens had one of the NFL’s sturdiest offensive lines.

Jackson was sacked 23 times in 15 regular-season starts, and according to analytics website Football Outsiders, the Ravens’ adjusted sack rate of 8% — the team’s share of sacks and intentional-grounding penalties per pass attempt — ranked eighth in the NFL. Take out backup Robert Griffin III’s three sacks in limited duty, and the protection is even more impressive.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme helps. The Ravens were not shy about rolling out two or three tight ends at a time, with Pro Bowl fullback Pat Ricard often thrown in for good measure. Beating a Pro Bowl offensive tackle is hard enough; just imagine trying to do it when Nick Boyle helps out with a chip block.

The Ravens finished last in the NFL in pass attempts, but that can only stymie a pass rush so much. The Tennessee Titans, for instance, threw just eight more passes in 2019 but finished with twice as many sacks allowed. The Ravens’ rushing success normally kept them out of obvious passing downs, and their reliance on presnap motion and play-action helped deter overeager pass rushers.

Jackson’s scrambling ability seemed to warp defensive game plans, too. Given Stanley’s light feet and Brown’s long arms, it would be foolish to ascribe the paths that edge rushers took entirely to Jackson’s outside-the-pocket potential. But speed rushes, in which defenders try to sprint past tackles and into the backfield, were rare in 2019. When outside linebackers and defensive ends took on the Ravens’ tackles, it was usually with bull rushes and hand-to-hand combat.

The risks of getting too far upfield were generally not worth it. Late in the third quarter of the Ravens’ Week 12 demolition of the Los Angeles Rams, outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. tried to zip past Brown on a wide rush. Almost as soon as Fowler got past parallel with Jackson, the quarterback coasted through the hole he’d left for a 10-yard gain.

2. Even some of Jackson’s biggest mistakes were excusable.

Over a seven-game stretch this season, Jackson threw 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. Until his 2019 season, only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had finished a year with at least 36 touchdowns and six or fewer interceptions. Since 1970, only three quarterbacks had equaled or tied Jackson’s 9% touchdown rate: Peyton Manning in 2004 (9.9%), Ken Stabler in 1976 (9.3%) and Rodgers in 2011 (also 9.0%).

Even more flabbergasting is that Jackson’s already good interception rate (1.5%, 10th overall in the NFL) might have been hurt by rotten luck. Jackson rarely gifted turnovers to teams this season. Of his six interceptions, three were passes that Ravens players got to first.

In Week 5, the Pittsburgh Steelers picked off three Jackson passes. On the second one, Jackson was to blame: He didn’t look off cornerback Mike Hilton well enough to keep him from stepping in front of a bad sideline throw.

But Jackson was not directly responsible for the other two interceptions. Safety Kameron Kelly’s snag of a ball that caromed off tight end Mark Andrews’ bicep came after safety Minkah Fitzpatrick appeared to interfere with Andrews before the pass arrived. No flag was thrown.

Later, Jackson had a well-thrown deep ball to a diving Nick Boyle bounce off the tight end’s hands and fall into the mitts of Devin Bush, who’d dived blindly toward Boyle. Pittsburgh’s rookie linebacker somehow squeezed the ball between his biceps as he fell, and his crash landing somehow did not jar it loose.

Jackson didn’t throw another interception until Week 14, against the Buffalo Bills. But even that pick was weird. As wide receiver Willie Snead IV reached for an off-target throw from Jackson, he got a hand on the ball — twice. His last touch batted the ball to inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who’d started the play feigning a pass rush.

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Jackson’s two other giveaways came in the Week 4 loss to the Cleveland Browns. On one, Andrews lost a jump ball to safety Jermaine Whitehead on a deep throw into double coverage late in the game. On another, Whitehead hit Jackson as he was stepping into a pass. The ball fluttered to defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence, who tipped it to himself before securing his first career pick.

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3. Jackson was at his best when targeting the middle of the field.

For all of Jackson’s improvements as a passer, the Ravens still ran the ball more than they threw it, one of two NFL teams to finish the season with such an old-school ratio. (The NFC champion 49ers were the other.)

Their ground game dominance made life easy for Jackson on drop-backs, and his open-field ability in scramble situations made man coverage difficult for defenses. Every opposing coach faced the same kind of dilemma against the Ravens: They could hope their man-to-man defense held up in the secondary and controlled Jackson in the pocket, or they could hope their zone coverage would discourage scrambles and test Jackson’s decision-making.

There was never a right answer, in large part because of the Ravens’ tight ends. When Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Boyle were in their wheelhouse, Jackson thrived. According to a mid-December Pro Football Focus analysis, of Jackson’s completions targeting a player 10 or more yards downfield, 69% were thrown over the middle. He was 24-for-42 on passes of 10 to 19 yards between the numbers, and 12-for-24 on passes of 20 yards or longer in the same vicinity.

No Ravens receiver had chemistry with Jackson quite like Andrews. On play-action passes, he streaked behind occupied linebackers for easy connections before defensive backs could arrive. Against Cover 2 or Cover 3 looks, he found holes in the zone and gave Jackson an easy target. In man coverage, his acceleration and physicality helped him win one-on-one-battles against defenders. It seemed that whenever a linebacker or safety had his head turned in coverage against Andrews, Jackson felt comfortable throwing his way.

Jackson was less accurate when throwing to the sideline than over the middle, but it was still a step forward from his rookie year. And the vertical routes of speedy outside receivers like Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin were important, even when they weren’t being targeted. The deep sideline patterns kept safeties and cornerbacks honest, clearing the middle of the field for the Ravens’ crossing patterns, comebacks and curls.

4. The offseason will shape the passing attack’s next iteration.

Coach John Harbaugh said in November that there’s no play that’s not in the team’s playbook, and that point seemed to bear out over the season’s four-plus months. Every couple of weeks, there would be a new wrinkle: a shovel pass to Brown; a “Heisman Package” with Jackson, Griffin and running back Mark Ingram II; a new screen for a wide receiver or tight end.

Just as interesting, though, were the plays that got left behind. Jackson’s first touchdown of the season came on a run-pass option against the Miami Dolphins, in which he faked a handoff to Ingram out of the pistol formation before nailing Brown on a slant for a 47-yard catch-and-run score. With the play’s success, it projected as a staple of the offense. Instead, the Ravens returned to it only sparingly.

In the coming months, Harbaugh and his offensive staff will scrutinize everything they did this season. At the very least, they established a solid foundation for 2020. After an offseason in which the Ravens rebuilt their attack from the ground up for Jackson, both their rushing and passing offense finished first in the NFL in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. If Yanda returns, the Ravens will bring back seven Pro Bowl players on offense, plus a more healthy Brown at wide receiver.

After the draft ends and free agency wraps up, they’ll have a better sense of how to proceed. With another deep threat at wide receiver, whether it’s a much-improved Boykin, a first-round pick or a free-agent signing, Brown could step into the kind of role Tyreek Hill has adopted in Kansas City, stretching defenses not only vertically but horizontally as well — reverses, shallow crosses, slants, plays where he can get the ball in space.

Harbaugh also is bullish on Hurst, the 2018 first-round pick with Velcro hands who finished the season with his second game of 50-plus receiving yards in just over a month. Andrews’ diminished health and Boyle’s injury in that playoff loss to the Titans underscored just how important the position is to the offense. The Ravens ask their tight ends to be downfield receiving threats, dependable run blockers and even decoys in the passing game for running backs.

Other contributors can add to their games this offseason, from left guard Bradley Bozeman (pass protection) to running back Gus Edwards (route running) to Andrews (ball security). It’s easy — in theory, at least — to see how a lethal Ravens offense could get even more dangerous.

5. Jackson is not a perfect quarterback, but he is a uniquely gifted one.

Jackson became the NFL’s most impressive quarterback this season by taking what the defense gave him, week after week, down after down.

On zone-read plays, Jackson was trusted to make the right call on whether to keep the ball himself and zoom around a linebacker or hand it off to a hard-charging running back. When he faced third-and-long, he weaponized his dual-threat talents, often finding the necessary yardage on a scramble or a pass against a defense just as concerned about both.

When normal measures failed him, Jackson improvised. He threw sidearm to bend passes around approaching pass rushers and flipped the ball to other targets when his preferred windup just wouldn’t work. In the open field, he juked defensive ends out of their socks and pirouetted past linebackers and safeties. The only limit on a play’s possibilities was his imagination.

As the Ravens’ season-ending defeat showed, Jackson is far from flawless. For stretches this season, he struggled to throw when he rolled out to his right. When he missed receivers deep, it was almost always on overthrows. Sometimes he locked in on Andrews, to the play’s detriment. Sometimes his strange arm angles compromised his accuracy unnecessarily.

But after a rather unconvincing debut season, Jackson looked the part of a confident and competent quarterback. According to PFF, he worked to his “next” read 18% of the time on drop-backs, five percentage points higher than the NFL average, a testament to his field vision. He stood in the pocket and absorbed big blows on touchdown throws, knowing he’d already put on the muscle in the offseason to get back up afterward.

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Any number of plays since his rookie-year training camp could be packaged together and presented as evidence of his immense growth, but two from this season stick out. They are similar in their design, but they differ in their execution.

In Week 5, late in the fourth quarter at Heinz Field, Jackson took a shotgun snap on third-and-10 and looked for wide receiver Seth Roberts, running a corner route to the soft spot in Pittsburgh’s zone coverage. His potential go-ahead pass sailed out of bounds, just past Roberts’ reach in the end zone, and the Ravens settled for a field goal.

Two months later, leading the New York Jets by 21, the Ravens faced second-and-20. Again, Jackson took a shotgun snap. Again, he had five receivers looking to get open. Again, he focused on Roberts, running a corner route from the slot. This time, Jackson didn’t miss: Roberts caught the ball in stride in the end zone.

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