Analyzing the Ravens’ Usage of Lamar Jackson

Ravens Colts Football
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Since being drafted in April, all eyes in Baltimore have been on Lamar Jackson, and for good reason. The rookie quarterback was electric in college, garnering high praise and comparisons to the likes of Michael Vick. Jackson has the athletic potential to be a superstar in the league down the line, but aside from overly-optimistic post-draft hype, it was pretty evident he wouldn’t be starting in year one. He’ll get a chance to learn behind veterans Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin III for at least one season, but he’s far too gifted to sit on the sideline all year. The Ravens have made it a point to get creative so Lamar can see the field during his rookie season, and through the first two games they’ve given him a variety of looks.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and head coach John Harbaugh have been adamant about viewing Lamar Jackson strictly as a quarterback, but he’s already lined up as more than that early into the season. While he hasn’t yet run a route, Jackson has lined up as a slot receiver on multiple occasions. In fact, if you take away the second half of the Bills game when the starters were pulled, Jackson has lined up as a receiver more often than as a QB. On top of that, when he has lined up as a QB, it has been to execute option runs rather than throwing the football. He’s only attempted four passes to this point, and three of those were after Flacco was benched in week one. I think it’s relatively safe to say that we’ll see him airing the ball out more often, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was done as part of a trick play. Against the Bills there was a play where Jackson was lined up in the slot and received an end around from Joe Flacco on what appeared to be a play designed to be a throw to the left side of the field. Unfortunately, a blitz broke through and disrupted the timing, forcing Jackson back to the right side and into a low percentage throw. More attempts like that should be expected, but won’t be successful unless the line steps up their game and creates more time for the play to develop.
The season is still young and we definitely have yet to see the full extent of Jackson’s usage, but it’s clear that defenses have to adjust when he’s on the field. Prior to week one a report came out that the Bills were “preparing extensively” for Lamar Jackson, and that was before it was known he’d even see the field. He’s got game-breaking speed and quickness that terrifies a defense, which was evident on the play highlighted below. As weird as it is to say, this may be the play that excites me the most so far this season. It’s just a 10 or so yard run that was actually called back for holding, but it shows the potential of what Jackson can do without even touching the ball.
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On this play, Alex Collins is actually initially lined up as wide receiver, but early pre-snap motion brings him over to his single back role in the shotgun. The move from being split out wide to being in a more conventional position doesn’t necessarily affect the play and probably isn’t worth mentioning. As you can see from the picture above, the Bills have loaded the box with seven potential players committed to the run. Simple math tells you seven rushers vs five linemen isn’t a good matchup for the team, and a designed run up the middle is more than likely getting stuffed at the line.
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But the Ravens change the look with more pre-snap movement, Lamar Jackson leaves his wide receiver spot to run back to the line as a potential handoff target. Ideologically, this is a nightmare scenario for the defense. Jackson obviously has terrific speed, so if he gets the ball in space he can absolutely burn you; then on top of that he still has the ability to throw. The Bills don’t have the time to change their play or look as the ball is snapped.
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Lamar gets to the ball just after the snap and we execute a fake handoff to him as Alex Collins gets set to take the real handoff with space the other way. The reason I remembered this play specifically 2 weeks later is because of the reaction the Bills had on defense. In the picture above you can see at least 5 players with their body’s turned and momentum heading towards the side of the play the fake is being executed. A handoff to Jackson is believable, and like I said earlier, if he gets out into space he could break off some huge yardage. You can also see two of our linemen pulling towards the Bills linebacker keeping contain on his side of the play.
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Finally, this screenshot is from the moment Alex Collins receives the handoff. What was once an overly loaded box is now all blocked up, and once the pulling lineman gets to the second level for the last block Collins will have a ton of space. He doesn’t do anything overly special here, but he takes what the blockers give him and picks up a nice gain pretty easily. Of course, the play is negated by a hold and doesn’t actually count, but seeing something like this is promising for the team.
Just the general idea of using Jackson as a decoy as often as actually getting him the ball is pivotal. With no balance, it’d be easy for opposing defenses to see him on the field and know the play is going his way. Thus far, our usage has kept defenses honest. If you commit to Jackson you leave running lanes like this open, but if you start to discredit the idea of him getting the ball he’ll take that end around and burn you deep. Movement like we used in the play analyzed here works for the run game like play action does for the pass, and makes executing on offense a lot easier.
That said, we’re two weeks into the season and haven’t seen anything yet. We were dominant against the Bills and benched most of the team early, the playbook went extremely vanilla and we just grinded the clock out rather than showing any more of our tricks. Week two against Cincinnati we went down early and needed to fight to get back in the game, we didn’t truly get an opportunity to run the offense how we’d like and Lamar didn’t see the field much because we didn’t have the time. Week three will hopefully give us our first look at a full four quarters of the gameplan we actually want to use.
Moving forward, I’d like to see Jackson get a chance to use his arm more often or get the ball in space. Obviously having him run a slant over the middle isn’t smart, but if we could find a way to work a screen pass his way that could have the potential to be a huge play without too big of a chance of him taking a big hit. In general though, I’ve personally liked what I’ve seen and am interested to see how they continue to use Lamar going forward. The offense will have to continue to be creative in designing plays for him, but just the sheer fact that they’ve put a focus on getting him on the field is a good indication for our season.
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Photo credit: InsiderLouisville.com

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