Doug Farrar November 22, 2019 2:06 pm ET
Through the first 12 weeks of the 2019 NFL season, there appears to be no way to stop Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Not only is the current NFL MVP favorite running the ball at a historic rate — 781 yards and six touchdowns on 116 carries, and on pace to break Michael Vick’s 2006 record of 1,036 yards for a quarterback — but he’s also improved exponentially as a passer from his first to his second season. The same guy Hall of Fame executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian said should switch to receiver when he came to the NFL ( an opinion Polian has since recanted ) has completed 66.3% of his passes for 2,258 yards, 19 touchdowns, and five interceptions. Jackson hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 5, when he threw three against the Steelers one week after firing two against the Browns.
It’s been all sunshine and rainbows for the Ravens since then — they haven’t lost a game since Cleveland’s Week 4 upset, and people all over the league are trying to figure out how to at least slow Jackson down, as a runner or as a passer.
Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman recently spoke with two NFL assistant coaches this week, who threw five counters out as possibilities: Tricking him with shifting coverages, a less-aggressive form of pressure called a “mush rush.” focusing on his running backs, using as much defensive speed as possible against him, and keeping him off the field. Both coaches agreed that the final of those five options is the only one guaranteed to work.
So, when you aren’t keeping Jackson off the field, what do you do? One interesting wrinkle in Baltimore’s 2019 offense is how heavily dependent it is on tight ends. Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, and Hayden Hurst have combined for 44% of Baltimore’s 284 targets, 46.2% of the team’s 197 receptions, 45.1% of the team’s 2,346 yards, and eight of the team’s 20 passing touchdowns. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
With that in mind, let’s look at how teams are covering the Ravens, and how well it goes. Per Sports Info Solutions, when facing Cover-0 (a man-to-man blitz-heavy coverage with no deep defenders), Jackson has completed 13 of 18 passes for 128 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. When facing Cover-1 (man coverage with one deep defender), he’s completed 43 of 69 attempts for 598 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. Against Cover-2 (zone coverage with two deep defenders) and 2-Man (man coverage with two deep defenders), he’s completed 33 of 40 passes for 373 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
If you’re an NFL defensive coordinator and you’re reading this, you’re probably developing a small headache right about now.
But, there are small shards of hope. Against Cover-3 (zone defense with one deep safety), Jackson has completed 61 of 98 passes for 757 yards, five touchdowns… and three interceptions. Jackson’s two other picks this season? One came against Cover-4 (a zone defense that breaks deep coverage into quarters and gives safeties the option to bracket deep receivers), and the other came against Tampa-2 (a variant of Cover-2 in which the inside linebacker can drop into intermediate or deep middle coverage).
Tampa-2 is the coverage we’ll discuss for our purposes. Ostensibly a Cover-2 scheme, it give the quarterback more of a Cover-3 look with the linebacker dropping. The Browns used this coverage to nab a Jackson pass to Andrews in Week 4, and safety Jermaine Whitehead (No. 35) picks it off in the end zone. But watch linebacker Joe Schobert (No. 53) as he trails Andrews down the middle of the field, enforcing the middle coverage and making Jackson’s throw far more difficult.
So, the combination of Cover-3 and Tampa-2 would seem to be the one heady brew that might counter Jackson enough to at least make things tougher for him. Throwing a linebacker into coverage against a heavy-tight end offense is generally a good matchup, especially if it’s an athletic linebacker like Schobert. Neither Cover-3 nor Tampa-2 are man coverages, which is good — you absolutely do not want to run man coverage against Jackson, because man coverage forces your cornerbacks to turn their backs to Jackson when trailing receivers, and at that point, you’re just giving Jackson another free lane to run.
In these zone schemes, you still have to have your other linebackers read run as much as possible against Baltimore’s complex and highly effective rushing attack, but at this point, defensive coordinators are going to have to take whatever they can get. Jackson has two passing attempts, no completions to his teammates, and that one interception against Tampa-2, so why not run it more often? Tampa-2 can be vulnerable to the run if your linebackers aren’t reading their keys correctly, but it’s also worth remembering that the Buccaneers of the Warren Sapp/Derrick Brooks era played a ton of Tampa-2 (hence the name), and Brooks was one of the few linebackers who could also successfully spy Vick in his prime.
We’ll see if opposing defenses alter their strategies through the last six games of the season. If not, expect Jackson and the rest of Baltimore’s offense to keep running and throwing all over the rest of the league.
Touchdown Wire editor Doug Farrar has also covered football for Yahoo! Sports, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, the Washington Post, and Football Outsiders. His first book, “ The Genius of Desperation ,” a schematic history of professional football, was published by Triumph Books in 2018 and won the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Nelson Ross Award for “Outstanding recent achievement in pro football research and historiography.” Share this article
Doug Farrar November 22, 2019 2:06 pm ET