Film study: Time to ride Lamar Jackson?
Football coaches are notoriously tightlipped. But they will tell you how they feel about players in the way they use them.
Cagey and evasive last week, John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive staff spoke clearly with Sunday’s game plan against the Cincinnati Bengals: Right now, they trust Lamar Jackson the runner far more than Lamar Jackson the passer.
The Ravens totaled 54 rushes — 27 by Jackson, most by a quarterback in a game since 1950 — on 75 plays, despite being tied or trailing for 37 of 60 minutes. Marty Mornhinweg didn’t call a pass play until the team’s 13th offensive snap, and Jackson didn’t attempt a throw until the 14th. The rookie finished with 19 attempts, two sacks and four or five pass plays that turned into scrambles.
Not surprisingly, Jackson’s unique mobility became the fulcrum of an extremely diverse collection of run designs.
Baltimore already had a widely expansive run scheme, featuring man- and zone-blocking and many wrinkles stemming from the creative use of tight ends. On Sunday, it blended in a slew of different formations — most from shotgun or pistol — and added myriad concepts to highlight Jackson’s legs: zone-read, jet sweep, option, QB draw, QB sweep, inverted veer and more.
The Ravens split their offensive tackles wide on one play, ran a funky delayed reverse flip to John Brown off play-action on another, and even used Robert Griffin III as a jet-sweep decoy in short yardage. There were four QB draws, including two in a row at one point, and a total of nine runs on third down, six when needing at least 4 yards to convert.
Baltimore’s exceedingly run-heavy approach was understandable for a QB making his first NFL start, and the number of designs tailored specifically to Jackson’s skill set showed the Ravens are prepared to someday build the offense around him. But the plan still stood as an indictment of Jackson’s development as a passer, especially against an awfully exploitable Bengals defense.
When the Ravens did throw, they simplified reads with play-action — including a number of bootlegs — about half of the time and mostly relied on quick, short routes between the numbers.
Jackson’s mechanics as a passer were encouraging, especially his wider base — he threw with his feet far too close together in college — promoting a more consistent and accurate delivery. His ball placement often set receivers up for yards after the catch, including on a few sidearm flicks. He also made a pair of outstanding off-schedule plays while scrambling right: A 23-yarder to Brown set up a long field goal just before halftime, and a 19-yard bullet to Mark Andrews (Jackson’s best play of the day) converted a third-and-7 early in the fourth quarter.
But the double-edged sword cut both ways, justifying the tepid game plan. Jackson went sidearm unnecessarily several times, doinking guard Alex Lewis in the back of the helmet on one such attempt. More concerning, he threw carelessly into coverage twice while scrambling, once on his second attempt of the game — linebacker Jordan Evans dropped it — and again early in the third quarter, when safety Shawn Williams picked him off from an underneath zone.
Despite improved mechanics, Jackson often played unsettled in the pocket, holding the ball too long on straight dropbacks and juking wildly to escape pressure rather than sliding or stepping up to throw. The 32nd overall pick was comfortable processing pro-style, downfield route combinations under Bobby Petrino at Louisville, but he rarely processed anything quickly enough on Sunday to turn it loose on-time beyond 10 yards.
Such issues are normal for rookies, as was the Ravens’ approach to hide them on Sunday. But the exceedingly short leash on Jackson also suggests — assuming nothing changes this week or next — that Joe Flacco will reclaim the starting job when he’s healthy.
You can make a compelling case to roll the dice and stick with the rookie. Jackson helped the Ravens snap a three-game losing streak. He needs live reps to develop, and the team could lean on his legs to mitigate growing pains in the meantime. An extremely juicy slate of defenses — Raiders, Falcons, Chiefs, Bucs — awaits over the next four weeks.
But Harbaugh knows he won’t be able to run 50 times a game. Jackson will face a double-digit deficit at some point and be forced into obvious passing situations. With more tape on the youngster, defenses will dial in on Baltimore’s schematic wrinkles and unveil several of their own.
Right or wrong, the Ravens played Sunday’s game like they were forced to start Jackson, not like they wanted to. That’s reasonable — the same is true anytime a backup quarterback takes the field — and Jackson doesn’t need to take the reins full-time right now. When he does, it will come with a complete philosophical shift on offense from which there will be no turning back.
For now, Harbaugh appears set on sticking with what he knows. Still in the thick of the AFC wild-card race, he’ll go with the veteran Flacco, rather than a quarterback whom he doesn’t yet trust to run the full playbook.
–Jalen Ramsey reminds everyone he’s unique
Whether he was assuring the Jacksonville Jaguars they should never trade him, or trying to catch the eye of suitors for his services, Ramsey was showing off on Sunday.
Hours after reports (which the team refuted) that the Jaguars could eventually trade him, Ramsey shadowed Antonio Brown for most of the day and all but locked him up. Brown made just one (very) meaningful grab versus Ramsey’s coverage: a 25-yarder on third-and-10 in the final minute. To be fair, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger failed to see Brown after he beat Ramsey on a double move in the second quarter, but Brown’s 78-yard touchdown was purely on free safety Tashaun Gipson. Otherwise, there were a few short completions and a slew of misses.
Most impressively, Ramsey created three interceptions on throws targeting Brown — one where his tight coverage forced a high throw to safety Barry Church, and a pair that Ramsey snagged himself for two of the best picks you’ll see.
Ramsey made both look remarkably easy. The first came despite Brown being his secondary assignment, as his primary job in Cover-3 was to play any vertical route by Ryan Switzer, who aligned outside as Brown moved inside to the slot. But when Switzer ran a 1-yard hitch, Ramsey went inside looking for work and undercut Brown’s seam route.
Roethlisberger never expected Ramsey to factor on the play because most cornerbacks wouldn’t come close — he was playing off-coverage several yards outside of Brown, who peeled to the inside. But Ramsey used every bit of his elite speed and length to close 5 yards of separation in a blink and snare the throw, hanging on for a fabulous grab as he tumbled to the turf.
On the second interception, Ramsey matched Brown in press coverage out of Cover-3 and mirrored him beautifully on a slant to the end zone. But Brown still had inside leverage, and Roethlisberger put a laser on Brown’s upfield shoulder so the wideout could shield with his body.
No matter for Ramsey, who leapt early, reached his hands up and around Brown’s helmet and got both paws on the ball. After it hit Brown’s helmet and squirted out of Ramsey’s hands, the corner managed to corral the ball with his right as he and Brown fell, stifling a Steelers scoring chance.
Yes, Roethlisberger ultimately wormed his way into the lead, handing the Jaguars a brutal loss, but that shouldn’t take the shine off of Ramsey’s performance. The brash 24-year-old had already said enough through his play.
Just one question, Jalen: Why the heck did you need a balaclava on a 75-degree day in Jacksonville?
–James Bradberry and the fickle nature of NFL cornerbacking
You probably don’t know a ton about Bradberry.
A second-round pick from Samford in 2016, he might be best known as the guy the Carolina Panthers reached for because they desperately needed cornerbacks after removing the franchise tag on Josh Norman. He has an unremarkable four interceptions in 39 games and plays in a zone-heavy scheme that has survived with unheralded cornerbacks for years.
But Bradberry has had a terrific season opposite plucky rookie Donte Jackson. The 6-foot-1, 212-pounder is long and physical, but he also moves extremely easily for his size, with a buttery backpedal and lightning-quick transitions to break forward or sideways. He reads routes shrewdly, often winning at the stem, and he’s comfortable playing either side and occasionally in the slot, often matching opponents’ top receivers.
In Week 9, Bradberry erased top Bucs wideout Mike Evans, limiting him to one catch for 16 yards. But in the two weeks since, the pendulum has swung the other way, and not through any major fault of Bradberry’s.
The Steelers burst the cornerback’s bubble on their first play from scrimmage in Week 10, baiting him with a route combination specifically designed to exploit Carolina’s coverage rules. James Washington ran a curl route outside at 8 yards, just far enough vertically to make Bradberry, assigned the deep third of the field in Cover-3, match him. As Roethlisberger pump-faked, JuJu Smith-Schuster — who came from a nasty split (tight to the formation) far away from Bradberry — snuck by on a slot fade for a 75-yard touchdown.
Bradberry could have handled that play better, but most corners would have done the same. His luck worsened Sunday against the Lions, as Kenny Golladay wound up the hero in Detroit despite getting mostly the same treatment Bradberry gave Evans.
The Panthers had Bradberry shadow Golladay all day, except in the slot out of zone coverage, and he blanketed him throughout. Golladay tallied gains of 9, 5 and 11 yards underneath Bradberry’s cushion, and he had two grabs for 20 yards in other defenders’ coverage against zone, but the corner gave him major issues in press coverage.
Bradberry routinely jammed Golladay at the line and threw off the route’s timing. That was the case on four incompletions from Matthew Stafford that had little chance, including a pair of fade routes on which Bradberry squeezed Golladay perfectly to the sideline. He also mirrored well from off-coverage, rarely giving Stafford much of a window.
But that wasn’t enough against the 6-foot-4, 213-pound wideout.
The Lions’ first touchdown drive should have ended in an interception, or at least an incompletion. On third-and-7, Bradberry disrupted Golladay’s release and broke perfectly on his out route, undercutting Stafford’s throw. Caught cleanly, it was likely a pick-six, but Golladay’s mitts reached over and wrenched it away. The leaping, contested catch was so mesmerizing that two officials (and Ron Rivera, on his own sideline) failed to notice Golladay’s right toe came down out of bounds.
Golladay struck twice more when it mattered most, on the Lions’ game-winning drive. On third-and-15, Bradberry was all over Golladay’s curl route at the sticks, but Stafford broke contain for a sandlot-style 36-yard throw to Golladay, who had ad-libbed and drawn a holding flag on Bradberry before making the grab.
Two plays later, the cornerback blanketed Golladay’s deep out to force a wide throw, but Detroit ran a nearly identical play the next snap on third-and-10. This time, Stafford compensated for Bradberry’s airtight coverage by lofting a tear-drop — delivered perfectly despite pressure in his face — where only Golladay could get it. The wideout somehow snagged it with his fingertips while leaping backwards at full extension, and with Bradberry raking at the ball on the way down, for the game-winning 19-yard score.
That’s just life as an NFL cornerback.
The rules are stacked against you, and the quarterbacks and receivers are good enough to beat perfect coverage. Even at the top of your game, something will eventually go wrong.
For Bradberry’s sake, let’s hope the pendulum swings back.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media