Sports

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Proved Their Concept and Created an Offensive Juggernaut

Before Sunday’s game against the Ravens, Patrick Mahomes had been 10-0 against quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2018 draft. He’d beaten Baker Mayfield three times, Josh Allen twice, and Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen once apiece. Then there was Lamar Jackson. Mahomes was Jackson’s personal boogeyman, beating the Ravens QB in all three of their head-to-head matchups. No matter how well Baltimore played, or how well Jackson performed, the discussion surrounding this team inevitably came back to the same question: Can they—can he—beat Kansas City?

Then they finally did. Sunday’s 36-35 win was a cathartic moment for the entire Ravens team. You could see it in the way they celebrated after Jackson’s fourth-and-1 conversion sealed the victory. But this was Lamar’s win. Prior to Sunday night, Jackson had worn his inability to beat Kansas City like an albatross. Sure, his 30-8 career record proved that he was capable of winning, but his struggles against the Chiefs were used to question his ability to win in a certain way. Mahomes and his offense just had too much firepower for a team built to run the football—a team built around a quarterback like Lamar—to keep pace. And Jackson’s repeated failure showed that he wasn’t capable of leading his team to a championship.

Sunday’s win won’t make believers out of Lamar’s biggest skeptics. They made up their minds a long time ago. But the way in which Baltimore pulled off the come-from-behind victory should validate what the team has been building around its 24-year-old superstar. This win wasn’t proof that the passing game is good enough or that the front office’s offseason investment in the receiving corps was a success. It was proof that the Lamar-led run game can function with the efficiency and explosiveness of the NFL’s most dangerous passing attack.

The first part of Sunday’s game looked a lot like previous contests between Mahomes and Jackson. The Ravens offense sputtered early, the defense was helpless to slow down Mahomes, and the Chiefs had built a double-digit lead by the third quarter. In the teams’ two previous games, Baltimore had tried to pass its way back from deficits, ending the 2019 contest with a 59 percent pass rate and the 2020 game at 60 percent. This time around, though, Baltimore stuck with the run game.

Despite falling behind early and not taking its first lead until the final three minutes of the fourth quarter, the Ravens ended the night with a 39 percent pass rate. That’s 17 percent lower than the league average when accounting for situational factors like down and distance, score, and time remaining, according to RBSDM.com’s expected pass rate model. In just about every situation, the Ravens ran the ball significantly more than other teams would have:

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Proved Their Concept and Created an Offensive Juggernaut

This could be held up as evidence that the Baltimore coaching staff doesn’t have faith in Lamar’s passing ability, but that’s not why they did it. John Harbaugh and Co. realized they didn’t have to put the ball in the air to get back in the game because the Lamar-centric rushing attack was explosive enough to get the job done. The Ravens averaged 0.25 expected points added per run on Sunday night, and Lamar’s runs averaged 0.55 EPA. If you’re unfamiliar with the expected points model, here’s some context: Aaron Rodgers led the NFL in EPA last year at 0.37 per play. The Ravens aren’t your typical 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust run team.

That’s the Lamar Jackson Effect. His preternatural ability with the ball in his hands breaks our modern (analytics-based) conceptions of the game—the ones that tell us passing the ball is inherently good and running the ball is not. The fact that the Ravens, a team that has welcomed the analytics movement as much as any other NFL franchise, have embraced this particular style speaks to Lamar’s ability to change the math.

Since 2020, Jackson has kept the ball on 89 option-style runs and averaged 0.31 EPA on those plays. And that’s not at the expense of big plays, either. In order to quantify big-play ability—which is one of the primary advantages pass plays have over runs—we can use Sports Info Solutions’ “boom” and “bust” rate metrics. A “boom” play is one that creates at least 1.0 expected points added. A “bust” play is any that results in -1.0 expected points or fewer. Since the start of last season, Lamar’s option runs have produced boom plays 20.6 percent of the time, with a bust rate of 5.6 percent. Some context: The Browns led all teams in 2020 with a boom rate of 26.9 percent on passing plays, and the Chiefs led all teams with a bust rate of 12.1 percent. In other words, Lamar’s runs are producing the big plays you get in the passing game while avoiding the inherent risks of putting the ball in the air.

Baltimore’s run game has been effective whether the ball ends up in Lamar’s hands or not. The team’s running backs are averaging 5.3 yards per attempt, which ranks second behind the Browns this season, per Sports Info Solutions. But the Ravens coaches have made a concerted effort to get no. 8 in the mix. That started after the team’s Week 7 bye last season.

Lamar Jackson’s Usage in the Ravens’ Option Run Game

Attempts 2020: Weeks 1-6 2020: Weeks 8-17 2021 Season
Attempts 2020: Weeks 1-6 2020: Weeks 8-17 2021 Season
Total 21 54 14
Per Game 3.5 6 7

Data via Sports Info Solutions

When it comes to option plays, defenses can often dictate who ends up with the ball. On a basic zone read, the quarterback identifies an unblocked defender—typically a defensive end. If that defender heads straight for the running back, the QB keeps the ball; if he doesn’t, the QB hands it off. So theoretically, if a defense wanted to keep the ball out of Lamar’s hands (smart!), it could have the defensive end just hold his position and force the handoff every time.

In the second half of last season, though, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman started calling more run concepts that flipped the quarterback’s reads, therefore putting the ball in the quarterback’s hands when the unblocked defender held his position. “Inverted Veer” is one of those designs, which makes the running back the perimeter option and the quarterback the downhill option.

Counter Bash is the other play the Ravens have leaned on heavily since the 2020 bye week. They absolutely blitzed the league with it last year and seem to be running it even more in 2021. On this play, the quarterback reads the movement of the backside defensive end. If the defender charges toward the quarterback, the ball goes to the running back. If the unblocked defender stays put, as he usually would when trying to force the ball out of the quarterback’s hands, the quarterback keeps it and follows two pulling linemen to the point of attack. With Lamar under center, the play is as explosive as any pass.

Combine those concepts with the traditional option plays the Ravens employ, PLUS all the other shit they do—the jet sweeps, pre-snap shifts, unbalanced lines, etc.—and you can start to understand why it’s so hard to defend against this offense.

“Not only are they really good at edge runs with the option part of football, but they’re downhill, come at you and hit you in the mouth,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo explained in the run-up to Sunday’s game. “Now if you only had one of those, you can go in there and say ‘This is what we gotta take away.’ But when you’ve got both of them, then you’ve got to plan for both, and I think that’s what makes it the toughest.”

That’s how things played out last week. Spagnuolo exhausted all of his tactical options to slow down the Ravens run game, but he was going up against so much that it had to feel like an impossible game of whack-a-mole. Solve one issue, and another pops up—only instead of a plastic mole, it’s one of the most electric quarterbacks this league has ever seen.

Roman deserves credit for designing this ever-expanding scheme, and the front office has built a roster loaded with offensive linemen, fullbacks, and tight ends who can block it all up. But none of this works without no. 8 behind center.

“The offensive line, obviously, is very important—wide receivers, like we talked about, tight ends,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s a group effort, but in the end, it revolves around the quarterback. Lamar is the thing that gives you the opportunity to do the things that we do and make the thing really go the way it does.”

Baltimore isn’t the only team that wins with a run-heavy approach, of course. After Sunday’s game, Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu compared playing against the Ravens to playing against Cleveland or Tennessee. “Every play isn’t going to be a pass when you play against these kinds of teams: the Ravens, the Titans, the Browns,” Mathieu said. “You have to be ready to stop the run. You have to be committed to that. And that’s not just the D-line. It’s the other guys behind them as well.”

It’s true that those offenses do have a somewhat similar ethos. But there’s one big obvious difference. For the Browns and Titans, running backs like Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry make the ground game go. For the Ravens, it’s Lamar.

How do you quantify the value that adds to an offense—or how valuable it makes Lamar individually? You can’t explain it using traditional measures, though Lamar comes out looking plenty good even if you do try to do it that way. Since 2019, he ranks third in passing EPA per dropback and tied for ninth in adjusted net yards per pass. Even in obvious passing situations, Jackson has performed like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Only Mahomes has been better on those plays.

Not bad for a guy who can’t throw.

Lamar has done all this with a receiving corps made up of spare parts. After Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown, the receivers he’s targeted most throughout his career are Willie Snead, Nick Boyle, and Miles Boykin. The Ravens front office did its best to provide him with more weapons this offseason, signing Sammy Watkins and drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round, but injuries have impacted their onboarding. Watkins missed a decent chunk of camp, cutting down on his time to build up chemistry with his new QB, and Bateman has been on injured reserve for three weeks and will miss at least two more games. Bateman’s return could mark a turning point for this offense. He’s a true threat on the perimeter, which would allow Brown to move inside to the slot where his 180-pound body won’t be as much of a liability. If the pieces all fall into place, that should lead to even better passing results. And if that happens, Baltimore should be considered a Super Bowl contender.

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, and the Ravens’ 2021 season ends the same way the past two have, this win over the Chiefs should alleviate some of the concerns the front office may have about giving Jackson a monster extension. The offensive line has devolved into a disjointed mess. The running back room seems to be caught up in a real-life version of a Final Destination movie. The receiving corps remains incomplete. And none of that stopped Lamar from outscoring the NFL’s most explosive offense and doing it in a way that only he can.

Lamar finally getting over the Chiefs-Mahomes hump may quiet the critics for now, but the bar will always be impossibly high for the 2019 MVP. Throw in one tough game, or a few lackluster performances, and he’ll be right back where he started in the minds of his doubters. But maybe the rest of us shouldn’t stress out about it so much. It doesn’t sound like Lamar is paying it any mind.

“The noise will go away, then it will come back somehow,” he said after Sunday’s win. “It’s going to always be like that as long as I’m playing—I feel—so I don’t really care about it.

“I’m just going to keep playing.”


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