Every season features a young, exciting player who bursts onto the scene and captures the hearts of analysts all over the country. 2016 had Dak Prescott, 2017 had Carson Wentz, and 2018 had Patrick Mahomes. The breakout star of 2019 is Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, without question.
Many analysts were worried about Jackson’s prospects not only out of Louisville, but after his rookie season. Jackson’s rookie year, while statistically impressive all things considered, featured a fair amount of misfires and was topped off with an embarrassing performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in the playoffs. A battle raged on all offseason about whether Jackson had been “figured out” and if he had the chops to be an NFL pocket passer.
Nine games into 2019, there should be no doubt that Jackson is an NFL passer. Jackson is eighth in adjusted net yards per attempt and ninth in passing DYAR, all while guiding the Ravens to a 7-2 record. Jackson has shored up some of the accuracy issues he showed as a rookie and has unlocked his ability to find explosive passes down the field, especially when wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has been healthy.
Despite the near-universal celebration of Jackson’s success, it still feels as though the young passer is not getting his due in all the areas he deserves. Nobody at this point would deny Jackson’s arm strength, baseline accuracy, or scrambling skills, but not enough is said of how well Jackson conducts himself with quick-game passing. Maybe it’s because quick-game passing can be mundane — which is a totally fair thing to believe — but it’s also entirely possible that Jackson’s initial reputation as an incomplete passer has caused some of his finer traits to be glossed over. At least with respect to having a consistent process, Jackson is one of the best quick-game passers in the league because of how timely and nuanced he is.
It’s worth starting with the simpler things Jackson does in the quick game to keep the Ravens offense humming. Quick-game passing, at its core, is about getting the ball out in as little time as possible to the correct target. That’s kind of a “no duh” statement, but the point is that there is no room for hesitation or wasted movement in the quick game. Proper timing is everything. Dating back to his days as the quarterback at Louisville, Jackson has been a sharp and timely quick-game passer.
As Jackson shifts Gus Edwards (35) into the backfield, he sees that the Kansas City defense gives him a four-over-four look in coverage. The congestion of four route stems all coming from the same small area should be enough to free at least one Ravens receiver, even if for a brief moment. In this instance, linebacker Anthony Hitchens (53) slides over to match Edwards’ shift and immediately books it outside the box to cover Edwards swinging out of the backfield. Hitchens was the only middle-of-field threat the Chiefs had within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, though, and Jackson realizes the area has been completely vacated with Hitchens’ absence. Jackson rips a pass to Mark Andrews (89), who was playing from a wing position as the innermost player in the tight bunch, well before Kansas City’s safety can close on the route. With the ball beating the safety, Andrews was afforded just enough time to turn up the field and muscle forward to convert on third down.
Jackson’s pacing and planning stand out in this play against Pittsburgh. At the snap of the ball, Jackson peeks to his right to check if Brown (15) is being matched in the flat. Jackson catches T.J. Watt (90) flex off the line of scrimmage to match Brown, so he turns to Andrews running a sit route over the middle and eyes him through the rest of his dropback. At no point does Andrews come open, though, which forces Jackson to a third option. Jackson hitches up once and checks it down to Hayden Hurst (81) on the shallow crosser for a nice gain. By progressing through his reads with certain, specific checkpoints (first step, end of drop, after first hitch), Jackson is able to keep up with the timing of the play with ease and find an open receiver with plenty of room to run after the catch. It doesn’t look special, but 22-year-old quarterbacks don’t typically operate that smoothly.
Jackson also shows a deep understanding of opposing coverages and how they are supposed to work against the route concept. Not only does this help Jackson identify what should be open pre-snap, but if things do get covered up, he understands where to go next and what should be open given the rules of the coverage. Jackson flashed that knowledge in his first meeting against the Bengals this season.
The Bengals look to be in a pattern-match Cover-3 look on this play. In short, match coverages have certain rules/landmarks that designate a specific defender to either pass off a route or pick it up in man coverage, as opposed to vintage “you cover this area and this area only” spot-drop coverage. During his dropback, Jackson notices the weak flat and weak hook player both come off of Baltimore’s slot receiver on the right side of the play. Both look to be calling for the strong hook player to pick up the slot player crossing across the middle, which is a standard call for the strong hook player against a lot of route concepts. However, the strong flat player has to match Baltimore’s middle receiver on the left side of the formation vertically. Therefore, the flat is vacated and should be pushed to a different defender. Jackson recognizes the strong flat player is matched vertically while the two weak-side defenders are forcing the strong hook player to come back for the crosser. The defensive confusion opens up Andrews, the innermost receiver on the left side, to run a quick out into the flat, and Jackson finds him wide open near the sideline.
Had Jackson not understood how match Cover-3 is supposed to work, he probably would not have moved his eyes and triggered on the throw to Andrews as quickly. Any more wasted time would have forced a catch right on the sideline and allowed the Bengals’ defenders to rally to the ball sooner. Maybe it earned the Ravens a few extra yards here, maybe it didn’t, but it’s impressive process from Jackson nonetheless.
The next layer to quick-game passing is setting up defenders to fail. With windows being so tight in the short area as is, any extra space that can be created is a major advantage. Even just one arm’s length worth of space can be the difference. If you watch any of the best quick-game passers — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, prime Tony Romo — you’ll notice how they manipulate defenders to hold them in place away from their intended target. Jackson’s ability to manipulate second-level defenders was one of his calling cards as a passer in college and has persisted through his NFL career to this point.
New England appears to be in some variation of Cover-3 on this play. Toward the bottom of the screen, the Patriots’ slot defender should be responsible for the flat area to that side of the field. The slot defender widens to cover the flat with his eyes on the quarterback and confirms to Jackson what the coverage is. Jackson, knowing he wants to hit fullback Patrick Ricard (42) in the flat on this spot concept, gives a glance and a drawback of his throwing arm to act as if he is going to throw the corner route over the top. The action gets the slot defender to turn up the field and vacate the flat because he is playing off of Jackson’s eyes. Jackson then turns back to Ricard and threads an easy throw in the flat for a first down. There is almost no chance the Ravens convert here if Jackson had not created space for Ricard in the flat.
Later in the game, Jackson manipulated the Patriots defense again. Rather than getting someone to move, however, Jackson manipulated someone to stay in place so that he could quickly turn away and fire in the opposite direction.
Jackson wants Brown running underneath from the bottom of the screen the whole way. Right at the snap, Jackson looks directly at Dont’a Hightower (54) to confirm he is covering the short middle of the field area. Jackson then turns to his left for a brief moment to buy time for Brown’s route to develop before turning back to the right to hit Brown wide open over the middle. If Jackson had opened down the middle then immediately turned right, Hightower may have been able to read the play and make a move to get in front of the ball. With Jackson’s subtle hold, however, Hightower didn’t stand a chance in making it over to defend this.
As Jackson gets a chance to grow in this league, he will only get better. He has proven at every step of his career that he has a rare ability to learn and develop. When Jackson was at Louisville, he admitted he knew nothing about the playbook as a freshman and was wildly inaccurate in the handful of games in which he played. Jackson then went on to win the Heisman Trophy the following season, and followed that up by improving his processing and accuracy as a junior before declaring for the draft. He also made all of that progress at Louisville with a supporting cast that even Jackson’s detractors would have called a dumpster fire.
That kind of development did not happen by accident then and it is not by accident now. Jackson is not a gimmicky player having a fortunate season. There is no “figuring out” what Jackson is, at least not to any different degree from any other NFL quarterback. Jackson is every bit as meticulous and nuanced as he is exciting and daring. It’s only a matter of time before Jackson is cemented into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.