Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is hands-down the most devastating offensive weapon in the NFL. His running ability was electric from the moment he stepped onto the field, but last season Jackson made significant strides as a passer en route to becoming just the second player in history to win the MVP award via unanimous vote.
Yet for as good as Jackson is, the Ravens have failed to find postseason success, having been stomped by the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans in back-to-back years. There is an interesting trend that has followed Jackson to this point, and one he will have to overcome if Baltimore is to advance in the playoffs.
Jackson's elite athletic ability is a nightmare for defenses to match up against. There may not be another player in the NFL as quick and shifty as Jackson is; calling him a gifted runner is an understatement. But as a rookie, Jackson's passing left much to be desired.
In seven games, he threw for 1,201 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions and completed just 58.2 percent of his passes. In the Wild Card round against the Chargers, Jackson went 14-29 for 194 yards, 2 touchdowns and one pick. The numbers look better than what his actual performance was; the game was essentially over for much of the second half, as Baltimore's offense couldn't move the ball, and Jackson ended up getting some garbage time stats-padding.
The 2019 season was different. In just 15 outings, Jackson was 265-401 for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns and only six interceptions, to go along with his 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. But against the Titans, Jackson was again neutralized, as he went 31-59 for 365 yards, one score and two picks.
Young players struggling in their first few postseason bouts is nothing new. However, both of these games share similarities in how defenses went about defending Jackson, and their success provides a blueprint for the rest of the NFL to attempt to counter Jackson.
According to data collected by Pro Football Focus, Los Angeles used 6.95 defensive backs per play in the Wild Card game. A typical 4-3 or 3-4 base defense features four defensive backs — two cornerbacks and two safeties. A nickel corner is often added at the expense of a linebacker in order to improve pass defense. But using nearly seven per play is almost unheard of, and it worked.
The heavy use of defensive backs may not have been by design. Starting linebacker Denzel Perryman missed the game due to injury, and the Chargers were forced to compensate. Not only did the extra defensive backs affect Jackson through the air, but the added speed and range limited him to just 54 rushing yards on nine carries.
But one game is far too small a sample size to base a defensive strategy on, especially when Jackson made such significant strides as a passer the following year. Let's take a look at the 2019 campaign. Last season, Baltimore lost only two games, both coming in consecutive weeks early on, one to the Kansas City Chiefs and then to the Cleveland Browns.
In Jackson's other 13 outings, he faced an average of 4.45 defensive backs per play. Against Kansas City and Cleveland, that number jumped to 4.97. A difference of 0.52 defenders per play may seem rather small, but over the course of a full game, it makes a large impact.
In the game against Cleveland, Baltimore was soundly beaten. It was a stunning result, especially when considering how completely different the rest of the teams' seasons went. When the rivals faced off again in Week 16, the Ravens won 31-15, although the Browns again defended Jackson well for the first half before Cleveland's injury situation took its toll.
When the Ravens faced off against the Titans in the Divisional round, Jackson again faced a higher-than-normal number of defensive backs, an average of 5.39. Jackson and the Ravens offense were once again slowed to a crawl, and they exited the playoffs winless for the second year in a row.
Of course, correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and there are problems with going DB-heavy against Baltimore. But the strategy does have merit, and it will be interesting to see which teams employ it in 2020, and how much success they find. Our sample size is now four games, which is better than one, but still not great. Replacing linebackers with defensive backs weakens a team's run defense, and with Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins in the Baltimore backfield, that could be an issue.
However, NFL defenses are playing more and more nickel, opting to use a slot corner over (usually) a SAM linebacker. With the passing game at an all-time high, it makes sense that defenses should be prioritizing slowing down aerial attacks, even at the expense of their run defense. Jackson's speed is the key to the Ravens' offense. When defenders are able to make contact with Jackson, he's not too difficult to bring down.
The problem is making contact with him. He is electric with the ball in his hands, and far too quick for most linebackers. Defensive backs are still at a disadvantage most of the time, but not at the level of an linebacker. Countering speed with speed is a better bet than countering speed with power.
Teams with specific personnel will be able to tailor their strategy against Jackson better than others. The Chargers' Derwin James plays safety, but he has plenty of linebacker traits as well, and actually lined up as a defensive end quite often in college. Players like him and Arizona's Isaiah Simmons aren't one-man Jackson counters (there is no such thing), but they allow their coaching staff to be more creative with the rest of the defense. If a team has a do-it-all linebacker like Bobby Wagner, then they can afford to take off the other linebackers in favor of extra defensive backs.
Is this a foolproof strategy to stopping Jackson? Of course not. The Los Angeles Rams used 4.78 defensive backs per play in Week 12, and were still pounded 45-6. But there is definitely something there.
As defenses have more film to watch of Jackson and more time to game plan for him, he will need to adapt. But if he's proven anything thus far in his NFL career, it's that doubting Jackson isn't a good idea.