Ravens film study: How Lamar Jackson can improve as a passer in 2021 — and how Greg Roman can help

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Lamar Jackson is not a perfect quarterback, but who is? Study a superstar passer long enough and, sure enough, you’ll find a weakness somewhere. On his way to a seventh Super Bowl title last season, Tom Brady struggled against the blitz. Patrick Mahomes is a generational talent who becomes just an average passer when throwing off play-action. Aaron Rodgers’ Most Valuable Player-worthy 2020 followed a mediocre 2019. There’s always something to improve.

When Jackson reports to Ravens training camp Thursday, his work will resume once more. Two years ago, he led the NFL in passing touchdowns and set the league’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback, only to falter in the playoffs. Last year, he broke through for his first postseason win after an up-and-down, coronavirus-marred regular season. This offseason, the Ravens front office bolstered their receiving corps and worked to patch up their offensive line, green-lighting expectations for a resurgent 2021 offense.

Even as the Ravens work toward a potentially record-breaking contract extension, Jackson has said his focus remains on delivering an NFL championship to Baltimore. But the path to glory starts with a step forward. If this is the season the Ravens return to the Super Bowl, they’ll need more from their quarterback as a passer.

According to data from Sports Info Solutions, here are three areas where Jackson can improve in 2021, and a fourth where the Ravens can help him. As a better means of comparison, the statistics reflect only plays in which the quarterback was not pressured, unless otherwise noted.

Deep shots

2019: 11-for-33 (33.3%), 420 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, 96.3 passer rating, 12.7 yards per attempt, 38.7% on-target

2020: 7-for-31 (22.6%), 223 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, 50.7 passer rating, 7.4 yards per attempt, 50% on-target

Ever since he opened his 2019 training camp with a handful of wounded-duck throws, Jackson hasn’t changed the narrative around his deep-passing ability. He is not a bad downfield thrower, nor is he an especially good one, either. He has the arm strength to pump balls 30, 40, 50 yards through the air, but his mechanics are prone to breakdowns, and his receivers have rarely bailed him out.

The strangest quirk of Jackson’s downfield efficiency is that, in his two seasons as a full-time starter, he has been significantly better when pressured than when not. In 2019, he finished first in the NFL in passer rating on throws of at least 20 air yards when pressured (123.7), and 15th when not pressured (96.3). Last season, he was again No. 1 on pressured drop-backs (151.4) and 33rd otherwise (50.7) on deep throws.

It is not a large sample size of pressured attempts — just 26 over the two seasons, compared with 64 on unbothered deep throws — nor does it reflect the sacks Jackson took or check-downs he made before he could gun it long. But in both years, Jackson has improbably been more accurate when under fire. Last season was especially aberrant: When attempting throws of 20-plus air yards, he was 7-for-31 (22.6%) on pressure-free drop-backs and 9-for-13 (69.2%) on pressured drop-backs. His throws were also more regularly on-target.

Even with Jackson’s improvisational ability, those numbers should stabilize over time. Twenty-three quarterbacks finished with a passer rating over 100 on unpressured deep passes last season, while just 11 had a rating over 100 on pressured deep passes. (In both samples, qualifying passers had at least five such attempts.) In Jackson’s case, it’s still unclear where his downfield equilibrium will land.

Man-to-man coverage

2019: 54-for-76 (71.1%), 671 yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions, 137.7 passer rating, 8.8 yards per attempt, 74.3% on-target

2020: 41-for-58 (70.7%), 414 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions, 105.1 passer rating, 7.1 yards per attempt, 78.9% on-target

The Ravens’ passing offense faced the lowest rate of man-to-man coverage in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders. Jackson’s speed is a powerful deterrent against Cover 0 (man coverage with no deep defenders), Cover 1 (one deep safety) and Cover 2 (two deep safeties). He’s a quarterback no defender wants to turn their back to. Too risky, even for defensive backs.

As a passer, though, Jackson was not the assassin he’d been in 2019. His passer rating fell from 137.7 (third among quarterbacks with 50-plus attempts) to 105.1 (17th). His yards per attempt dropped by nearly 2 yards (to 7.1, 24th overall) despite comparable accuracy. And he threw two interceptions on 58 attempts after avoiding them completely on his 76 attempts the year before.

Bad luck accounted for some of Jackson’s regression. His throws were far more often on-target in 2020 (78.9%, 11th overall) than during his MVP-caliber 2019 (74.3%). Wide receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin and tight end Mark Andrews combined to drop seven of Jackson’s 58 passes against man coverage last season, for a dreadful 12.1% team-wide rate. His lower touchdown rate (13.2% to 8.6%), meanwhile, was largely inevitable.

For as long as Jackson is a home run threat in the open field, defensive coordinators will be content to play it safe, devising game plans heavy on zone looks. Odds are that Jackson’s 2020 struggles against man coverage were an anomaly. With more talent out wide, Jackson should bounce back in a big way.

Out and corner routes

2019: 28-for-41 (68.3%), 307 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, 114.6 passer rating, 7.5 yards per attempt, 72.5% on-target

2020: 23-for-40 (57.5%), 270 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions, 63.5 passer rating, 6.8 yards per attempt, 66.7% on-target

Last season was not a showcase for Jackson’s outside-the-numbers throws. On out routes and corner routes, both patterns that take wide receivers to the sideline, Jackson had a 63.5 passer rating (33rd among quarterbacks with 20-plus attempts) and more interceptions than touchdowns.

By every metric, Jackson’s 2020 was a step down from his 2019, when he was both accurate (68.3%) and turnover-averse (no interceptions). He completed only 57.5% of his attempted out and corner routes last season — though three drops by Brown didn’t help — and his on-target rate was 33rd in the NFL.

Two of Jackson’s three interceptions were glaring for the Ravens’ lack of polish. Against the Washington Football Team in Week 4, wide receiver Miles Boykin had only just turned around before the doomed ball sailed past him. Against the Tennessee Titans in Week 11, rookie wideout Devin Duvernay ran as if he expected Jackson’s deep shot to lead him closer to the sideline, instead of carrying him vertically.

With the signing of Sammy Watkins, a big, physical target, and the arrival of top pick Rashod Bateman, who had 19 catches for 464 yards outside the numbers at Minnesota two years ago, the Ravens have their most talented group of outside receivers since Jackson was drafted. Together, they’ll need to expand the passing game’s reach, not just to keep defenses honest, but also to help their two-minute offense, which depends on sideline shots.

Run-pass options

2019 (all throws): 9-for-10, 44 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, 118.3 passer rating, 4.4 yards per attempt, 100% on-target

2020 (all throws): 17-for-27, 169 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions, 80.6 rating, 6.3 yards per attempt, 76% on-target

For an offense so reliant on Jackson’s control of the zone-read option, the Ravens seem to call surprisingly few RPOs, which give quarterbacks the choice of a run play or a quick-strike throw. Eight quarterbacks passed out of RPOs more often than Jackson did last season, notably the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, an immobile runner with a poor rushing offense.

Jackson hasn’t been especially productive as an RPO quarterback, but the Ravens could be building toward a greater usage this fall. In 2019, Jackson went 9-for-10 overall, including two pressured RPO throws, for 44 yards and a touchdown. Last season, he was 17-for-27 for 169 yards, including five pressured throws.

While offenses can’t subsist on a diet of RPOs, they can be effective in moderation. Mitchell Trubisky, who, like Jackson, has struggled with his accuracy in his Chicago Bears career, was never better than when throwing out of the play design (139.4 passer rating on 18 attempts last season). By now, offensive coordinator Greg Roman knows what to expect from defenses. If opponents continue to crowd the box this season, or get overaggressive in their run pursuit, the Ravens could be well served to counter with RPOs that exploit open throwing lanes.

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