Lamar Jackson Could Revolutionize the Ravens Offense, If Only They'd Let HimNovember 1, 2018
It's time to begin the next phase of Lamar Jackson's evolution.
That doesn't mean the Ravens should immediately name Jackson their starter. Not yet. The Joe Flacco-led offense is performing reasonably well, especially by Ravens standards, and Jackson demonstrated throughout the offseason that he needs extra time to work on his fundamentals.
Plus, one look at the other rookie starters around the NFL proves that tossing a youngster into the lineup is no cure-all.
But the Ravens offense is lukewarm oatmeal on even its best days: dull, predictable and getting a little soggier every week. Meanwhile, Jackson's cameos—he jogs on the field to execute randomly spaced Wildcat-type plays that even tipsy tailgaters can see coming, while Flacco cosplays as a wide receiver like he's waiting for an Uber—aren't having nearly as much impact as they could.
With the playoffs probably on the line against the Steelers on Sunday, it's time for the Ravens to find more effective ways to get Jackson involved. Not only can it save the season, but it could also accelerate Jackson's development into a starter.
If head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg need inspiration for better, bolder ways to use Jackson, they just have to look to the Saints team that defeated them two weeks ago.
The Taysom-ification of Lamar Jackson
If you've watched the Saints this year, you've noticed that backup quarterback/kick returner/slot receiver Taysom Hill often replaces Drew Brees at quarterback, executes a variety of options, Wildcats and misdirection plays, and gives defenders already stressed by a Hall of Fame quarterback and weapons like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas one more darn thing to cope with.
The Ravens need to use Jackson the same way the Saints use Hill on offense.
Superficially, Hill's stats are similar to Jackson's. Hill has rushed 21 times for 123 yards (5.9 yards per carry) with one touchdown, while Jackson has rushed 23 times for 129 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and one touchdown. Both see a lot of short-yardage and red-zone action, which makes sense, as designed quarterback runs are useful in close quarters. Both have been targeted a few times as receivers.
But a closer look at the stats and tape reveals that Hill plays a much more dynamic and diverse role in the Saints offense than Jackson plays for the Ravens.
Unleashing Lamar Jackson 2.0 means making Jackson more like Hill. Here's what that entails:
Jackson has played 73 offensive snaps this season, according to Football Outsiders. That sounds like a substantial workload for a package quarterback; after all, Hill has played 79 offensive snaps.
But the Saints have played seven games to the Ravens' eight. And Jackson served as the mop-up man in the Bills win and the Panthers loss, earning 25 snaps as a garbage-time quarterback.
Long reliever duties are good for Jackson's development. But take out the relief duties and Jackson averages only 5.1 snaps per game. Hill, who is never used as a mop-up quarterback, averages 11.3 offensive snaps per game.
Think about that for a moment: The Saints find more room in an offense led by Drew freakin' Brees for their slash player than the Ravens can find in their milquetoast attack for their versatile first-round pick.
Hill often plays multiple snaps in a row. Jackson rarely does more than run onto the field for one play at a time. Hill is part of the natural flow of the Saints game plan. The Ravens offense sometimes skips like a record when it shifts from conventional mode to Jackson mode.
Jackson and the Ravens will establish better rhythm by getting him more snaps. But that cannot mean marooning Flacco at wide receiver and running the same old option plays over and over.
The Jackson Experience hasn't exclusively been limited to predictable options and 3rd-and-short keepers.
The Ravens have scored touchdowns with Jackson handing off to Alex Collins and acting as a decoy to lure the offense away from the flow of red-zone plays. And those short-yardage keepers have been effective: Jackson has converted 4-of-5 first-down opportunities on 3rd- or 4th-and-1.
But too many of Jackson's opportunities are predictable or telegraphed. Mornhinweg needs to design more diverse ways to use him.
Here's a diagram of one of Mornhinweg's more creative creations: a full-house backfield concept which netted the Ravens 16 yards early in the Panthers game.
Tight ends Nick Boyle (86) and Hayden Hurst (81) both motion from the right side of the formation into the full-house alignment shown (Hurst's motion is omitted from the diagram to keep things from getting cluttered). The sudden formation shift confuses the Panthers defense, forcing linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) to bark adjustments right up until the snap to get his teammates in the positions shown.
This play is almost certainly an option in which Jackson can give the ball to Gus Edwards (35) up the gut or sweep left behind the blocks of Hurst and Boyle. With the Panthers linebackers and safeties all bunched up and Boyle available to block the right end, Jackson keeps the ball and sprints to daylight after a fake handoff so convincing that it tricks both the television cameras and the announcers, not to mention Panthers defenders.
This isn't a concept to run once every two months. It could be used three or four times per game, with some passes (that bunched-up defensive alignment leaves plenty of room for slants to the receivers) mixed in with the options.
Mornhinweg must reach deeper into his bag of tricks. Or, more appropriately, he must stop thinking of it as a bag of tricks. The Ravens need to incorporate concepts like this full-house play into their overall philosophy instead of dealing from a separate deck every time they want to get Jackson involved.
More two-QB combos
A review of the game film reveals that Jackson lined up only once in a non-quarterback position (as a slot receiver) in the last three games. By contrast, Hill has taken 33 non-quarterback offensive snaps in the last two Saints games, lining up everywhere from the backfield to the middle of bunch formations.
With Jackson used almost exclusively as a Wildcat quarterback, not only can opponents anticipate an option play when he trots onto the field, but they can essentially ignore both Flacco and his side of the field.
The Saints often send Brees off to loiter at the far sideline on Hill's plays as well, but they do so many things with Hill that opponents cannot automatically think "here comes Wildcat stuff" as soon as he is in the huddle.
The next diagram shows a play the Saints used against the Ravens in Week 7.
When Kamara (41) goes in motion before the snap, a Ravens defensive back travels with him, and other defenders brace for a jet sweep or some other Kamara-centric misdirection. But Brees simply pitches left to Hill (7), who gains 11 yards behind a pulling tackle and a pair of wide receivers blocking defenders who aren't sure which way to flow.
A play like this one can easily become part of a sequence which also includes an actual jet sweep and a variety of passing plays. Because Hill is so often in the game as just another skill-position player, the personnel grouping doesn't tip anything off. The Ravens lack a Kamara, but the newly acquired Ty Montgomery could easily be the motion man in this sequence. Or Montgomery could be the back and Jackson the motion man.
Concepts and packages like these can increase Jackson's workload from five snaps per game to a dozen and allow him and Flacco to stay on the field at the same time for several plays in succession. That will both make the Jackson plays less predictable and more organic.
A more fully integrated set of Jackson packages will also help the Ravens offense evolve toward what it must eventually become: Jackson's offense.
I was skeptical of the Wildcat experiment after the draft, because there's always a risk that a gadgets-and-gimmicks role will stunt a quarterback's development as a traditional dropback passer.
But the Ravens never limited Jackson's quarterback reps or tried to stealth-transfer him to wide receiver. And why would they want to do something silly like develop Jackson into a traditional dropback passer when he is capable of becoming so much more?
Jackson has the potential to be a Cam Newton or a Patrick Mahomes. If either of them look like old-fashioned pocket passers, then you aren't looking carefully. Newton is quietly having a career year in a kitchen-sink offense. Mahomes is an MVP candidate in an offense that looks like it was dreamed up by three Big 12 coordinators on tequila night.
As for Jackson, he could be the hard-throwing, hard-rushing trigger man of a spread-influenced, option-laced modern NFL offense. The ideal future Ravens offense is one where plays tailored to Jackson's talents are the fabric, not the wrinkle.
We aren't quite there yet. Jackson's touchdown pass to Hurst last week showed what he's capable of as a passer: late-game prevent defense or not, it was a pinpoint, perfectly timed pass into a hole in the zone defense. But Jackson also bounced a throw on the run five yards in front of his target, a sign that his footwork and mechanics are still in the works.
Letting Jackson do more than run five options per game will only get him more comfortable with what he can do while helping the Ravens befuddle the Steelers and get back into the playoff conversation.
And if that doesn't work, the Ravens should fast-forward to seeing what Jackson can do as the starting quarterback of the not-too-distant future.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.