If there is a defensive approach that can stop Lamar Jackson, the Ravens quarterback has not seen it this season. Line up in man-to-man coverage, and he’ll find a tight end against an overmatched defender or find a hole to scramble through. Test him with zone coverage, and he’ll scan the secondary behind a sturdy offensive line until he sees an opening.
There’s also a third way to not stop Jackson. It is probably the worst way to not stop Jackson: Blitz him with everything you’ve got.
Over 12 games this season, Jackson has faced more Cover 0 defenses (21) — a blitz-heavy, man-to-man coverage scheme with zero deep defenders — than any NFL quarterback. The pressure packages are rare enough, and with Jackson’s play of late, they might as well be off-limits for defensive coordinators.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Jackson is 15-for-20 for 210 yards and six touchdowns this season against Cover 0, all NFL-best marks. He’s also been sacked just once. The other quarterbacks in the top 10 of Cover 0 drop-backs, including stars like the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, have a combined passer rating of 85.0; Jackson’s is a close-to-perfect 147.9.
“Well, he's good,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday of Jackson. “He sees the field real well. I always have said from the beginning ... he's got really good vision. He's got good awareness of what's going on on the field — really, kind of every aspect of it. ...
“I mean, he's just good. All of the stats are pretty good so far.”
Against heavy pressure, the burden is largely on Jackson to get the ball out on time and with accuracy. But he’s gotten help, too, from teammates and opposing defenses alike.
Time and space
On Jackson’s six touchdown passes against Cover 0, he hasn’t hit been hit once. Defenders have got within touching distance but haven’t put him on his backside. He has a sturdy and quick-thinking offensive line to thank.
Against Cincinnati in Week 10, after a pair of runs, the Ravens ran a play-action bootleg on third-and-goal from the Bengals’ 2. As tight end Mark Andrews faked a run block before sprinting out to the right flat, linebacker Jordan Evans looped around Andrews, unblocked.
Guard Marshal Yanda’s pull around right tackle sold the run fake, but it also made him responsible for any outside blitzers. Yanda identified Evans immediately, beat him to the spot — about 8 yards from where he’d lined up — and gave Jackson the time and space he needed to deliver an accurate pass for the game’s opening touchdown.
On Monday night, in another goal-to-go situation, the Los Angeles Rams blitzed six against the Ravens’ five-man line. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley had a call to make: He could take on outside linebacker Samson Ebukam, the edge rusher, or safety Taylor Rapp, who was threatening to blitz next to him. At the snap of the ball, Stanley slid to Ebukam. But when Rapp joined the pass rush, he swung back, because the least dangerous pass rusher is the widest one.
Stanley’s slide forced Rapp to redirect, and Ebukam never got close enough to Jackson to bother him. When wide receiver Willie Snead IV got open across the middle, Jackson found him for an easy 7-yard touchdown and 28-6 lead.
The risk of bringing the house is obvious: With six or more players blitzing, there are fewer defenders in space to take down receivers. Of Jackson’s 210 passing yards against Cover 0, more than a third have come after the catch, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Two plays account for most, if not all, of that total. In the Ravens’ season opener, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called for a run-pass option. As Jackson held the ball out for running back Mark Ingram II, all but two Miami Dolphins defenders broke toward them — all but the two cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage.
Unfortunately for Miami, one of those corners, Eric Rowe, was across from Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Running a slant route out of the slot, Brown got a step on Rowe and was gone, catching the pass at the Dolphins’ 38 and gliding to the end zone for his first touchdown of the season.
Three weeks later, with the Cleveland Browns up 22 points late in their stunning road win, they blitzed Jackson on first-and-15. Jackson waited for Snead to run his hitch route against soft coverage. But an easy completion became a 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown after cornerback T.J. Carrie missed a tackle in coverage and wide receiver Miles Boykin stepped in to help clear a path down the sideline.
The Ravens have the NFL’s most efficient offense. With Jackson, they scored six touchdowns in six possessions against a talented Rams defense Monday. They do not need much help to get going.
Sometimes a defense lends a helping hand, though. On Snead’s first touchdown against the Rams, he lined up in the slot, across from safety Marqui Christian. The Ravens’ four other receivers — tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews and wide receivers Seth Roberts and Brown — had wider splits.
Their defenders were also in smarter positions; with inside leverage, the Rams were daring Jackson to target receivers running out-breaking routes or fades. He didn’t need to do that. Christian lined up on Snead’s outside shoulder. As soon as he planted with his left foot and cut inside, he was open. And Snead knew that Jackson knew he’d be open, too.
“I think it's just the confidence to know where to put the ball and where guys are going to be,” he said Wednesday. “We've seen every type of [Cover] 0 this year, so for him to just be able to put in the spot and trust me that I'm going to be there, that's all connection and the week of preparation with the coaches. ...
“At the end of the day, it’s on Lamar seeing it and just being on the same page.”