Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Lamar Jackson vs. the blitz: Why Ravens and QB have struggled against it, what to expect Week 12 vs. Browns

In week 10 against the Miami Dolphins, the Baltimore Ravens had arguably their worst offensive performance of the season. Baltimore managed just 10 points and 304 total yards, each of which marked a season-low to date. (They gained 299 yards last week against the Bears, though that came with Tyler Huntley under center.) There were other indicators of extreme struggle: the Ravens converted at only a 14 percent rate on third downs, gained zero or negative yards on 40 percent of their plays against the Dolphins, and created a gain of 10 or more yards on just 17 percent. 

It was all extremely ugly, and it largely came down to one issue: the team’s performance against the blitz. Miami sent at least five rushers at Lamar Jackson on more than half of his dropbacks, according to Tru Media; and while Jackson completed 15 of 21 passes against the blitz, they gained only 108 yards — an average of 5.1 per attempt. He was also sacked three times and escaped with just one scramble for a measly three-yard gain. 

The game was indicative of the Ravens’ struggles to beat the blitz so far this season — struggles that recent opponents seem intent on exploiting. Jackson has been blitzed at the NFL‘s fourth-highest rate this year, with opponents sending extra rushers on 31.3 percent of his dropbacks compared with a league average of 25.6 percent. The only quarterbacks seeing blitzes more often are Mac Jones, Jameis Winston (who is out for the year), and Justin Fields. That’s two rookies and a quarterback who is notoriously turnover-prone and spent the season saddled with one of the worst groups of wide receivers in the league. 

The reason teams are ramping up the pressure is quite obvious: It’s working. Against blitzes, Jackson is just 63 of 104 (60.6 percent) for 641 yards (6.2 per attempt), three touchdowns, and three interceptions. He’s also taken 13 sacks, giving him a sky-high sack rate in excess of 12 percent. (The league average is just south of 8 percent.) As such, he’s averaging -0.26 EPA per dropback against blitzes, a figure that ranks 29th out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks, ahead of only Trevor Lawrence, Trevor Siemian, Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, and Fields. Needless to say, that is not good company to be keeping. It’s especially damaging because when opponents do not send a blitz, Jackson is averaging 0.19 EPA per dropback — tied for first in the league alongside Aaron Rodgers

So, it’s worth asking what the issues are here. Why, exactly, are the Ravens struggling to deal with blitzes? A look at the tape reveals several interconnected issues. 

First, Baltimore’s offensive line is often not up to the task of picking up extra rushers. There’s been a lot of turnover up front in recent years, and the absence of left tackle Ronnie Stanley has caused the Ravens to shuffle things up even more. Missed assignments, protection-slides that don’t accomplish the desired goal, or just general not holding up for long enough to give Jackson time to get the ball out are all recurring issues. 

Those protection weaknesses inspire the Ravens to keep additional blockers in to help deal with the pressure, which results in fewer receivers going out on routes and thus Jackson having fewer places to go with the ball. The receivers going out on routes are having trouble getting open quickly; and even when they do, it is often on extremely low-ceiling routes like hitches or sprint-out throws to the flat that are designed to gain only a few yards. 

Their quick-game attack in general shows an extreme lack of rhythm. The best get-open-quickly guy is probably rookie wideout Rashod Bateman, but he also does not yet have top-notch chemistry with Jackson because he’s a rookie and missed so much time in training camp and early in the regular season due to injury. As a result, a lot of the quick passing game runs through wideouts more suited to other roles. 

When the Ravens turn to quick screens to try to get the ball outside the rush and take advantage of numbers on the outside, they often have to do so with poor perimeter blockers. Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay, for example, don’t have the physicality required to act as lead blockers for throws to the outside. Bateman and Sammy Watkins are better equipped for it due to their relative size, but only Watkins has shown the ability to actually do it well on a semi-consistent basis. 

Due to all of these combined problems, Jackson tends to speed up his process, retreating to poor mechanics and either sailing or otherwise missing on throws that should be completed. His 2.47 seconds to throw average is 11th-fastest in the NFL against blitzes, per Tru Media. When not blitz, his 3.34 seconds to throw ranks 32nd. That’s an extremely wide disparity.

Jackson has been a better passer throughout his career when taking longer to get rid of the ball. He’s just much better when given a chance to sit at the top of his drop, survey the defense, and unleash a throw downfield. This season, his Pro Football Focus grade on throws within 2.5 seconds of the snap is second-worst among qualified quarterbacks, ahead of only Mike White. His grade on longer-developing plays ranks fourth-best among the same group of players, behind only Dak Prescott, Tom Brady, and Justin Herbert

If he’s not rushing, Jackson too often holds the ball too long and either takes a sack or has to make a throw under too much duress to accurately get it where he wants it to go. As previously mentioned, he’s been sacked on more than 12 percent of his dropbacks against the blitz. Nearly 9 percent of his passes against the blitz have been batted down, thrown away, or thrown while being hit; and he has more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws against the rush, per Pro Football Focus. 

This Sunday night, it’ll be fascinating to see what type of plan the division rival Cleveland Browns come up with for Jackson. They have blitzed at one of the lowest rates in the league this season, sending at least one extra rusher after the opposing quarterback on only 20.4 percent of dropbacks. 

They have the luxury to do that due to the presence of players like Myles Garrett up front, but perhaps a change of tactics would do a better job of getting the Browns the results they desire in an important matchup with enormous postseason implications. 

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