The Strategy for Success in the Lamar Jackson Era
In Robert Mays seminal piece on play action passing titled, “What is the NFL’s ‘Corner 3’?” from 2014, he aimed to find the NFL equivalent of the second most efficient shooting zone on the court at 1.16 points per shot, only trailing lay-ups and dunks at 1.20 PPS.
Mays discovered the play that increased an offense’s Expected Points Added (EPA) the most is the play-action pass. The average running play has a -0.04 EPA, passing has an EPA of 0.04, but play-action passes have an EPA of 0.17, making it the most efficient offensive play in the sport.
He came to the conclusion following the Seahawks Super Bowl win behind quarterback Russell Wilson utilizing play action on a higher percentage of drop-backs than any other team in the NFL. It was also when the 49ers were having great success with Colin Kaepernick by utilizing the play action pass with current Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman calling the shots.
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With the help of designed quarterback runs, play action was the main mechanism that made Kaepernick a successful quarterback under his leadership in conjunction with the team’s overall strategy that included a top five defense and rushing attack.
In 2012, the 49ers were sixth in play action percentage, using it on 27% of drop backs. San Francisco’s 59.8% DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) per Football Outsiders on all play action. Alex Smith and Kaepernick split the season and were behind only Robert Griffin III in his Rookie of the Year season under Mike Shanahan, illustrating what a sound decision the acquisition and retention of RG3 is for the Ravens. In 2013, the 49ers were fifth by using play action 28% of the time and their 56.9% DVOA ranked behind just Denver during a historic offensive season, Seattle during a Super Bowl season, and Phillip Rivers’ Chargers.
The 49ers abandoned the play action strategy a bit in 2014 with the team using play action on 20% of drop backs, which ranked 19th and the DVOA dropped all the way to -1.4%, which was 27th. After the season, Jim Harbaugh and the staff were fired.
In 2015, Roman’s first year in Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor, he helped generate an 8-8 season with a pretty talentless roster via a running game that ranked first in the NFL. They may have been a playoff team though if he increased his play action percentage up from 17% towards the 27% he used in 2012 with Kaepernick as the Bills were #1 in the NFL in DVOA on the play. They averaged 9.9 yards per play on all play action plays and 10.2 on play action passes. He was then fired two games into the 2016 season in favor of Anthony Lynn.
This is essentially how you make a Lamar Jackson type of quarterback, a better runner than thrower, successful. It’s how good coaching can give him the space to be successful as he develops into a solid passer, which is what he ultimately may become.
Jackson’s high school offense was basically a “go out and be an athlete” type of offense without any real traditional system, then he steadily improved as a passer each year at Louisville and again in his first year in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He both continued to learn how to read defenses and improved his technique as a passer.
In 2018, Jackson used play action on an astounding 42.9% of, albeit a limited sample size, 203 drop backs. Right behind him were Jared Goff (35.8%), Carson Wentz (32.1%), and Tom Brady (31.4%), three quarterbacks paired with three of the best offensive coordinators in the league. On play action passes versus non-play action passes, Jackson’s completion percentage was 2.4% higher (59.7% vs. 57.3%), his yards per attempt 2.9 yards higher (8.8 vs. 5.9), and his NFL rating was 97.4 versus 76.1, which is the difference between Aaron Rodgers and Cody Kessler.
Mays wrote that the main targets of the play-action fake are linebackers as their natural reaction of stepping forward to defend the run, the main focus of their job, tends to open up the area behind them for tight ends and slot receivers to take advantage of. In the late-1940s, Greasy Neale created the 5-2 Eagle, which had the traditional two cornerbacks and two safeties behind it. It was an upgrade over previous defenses that were more designed to stop the run with six man fronts, but it’s issue was a hole in the middle of the defense that the opponent could take advantage of passing the football. Tom Landry then came along to create the 4-3 defense to fix that issue and the 1956 Giants earned a championship with it.
Part of what Bill Walsh must have realized when he leaned so heavily into the strategy as a principle of his West Coast philosophy was that play action created that hole via the natural reaction of these linebackers. So while Landry had solved the issue with Neale’s innovative defense, Walsh made the chess move in response to Landry’s innovation.
Mark Andrews will be the main beneficiary of this hole in the middle of the defense as he’s already shown signs of becoming an elite tight end, but Hayden Hurst and Willie Snead will be helpful contributors via this strategy. Hurst wasn’t elite, but tight ends not named Mark Andrews take time to develop.
Andrews’ had the highest passer rating when targeted for tight ends last season, his 75.7 PFF rating was fourth best among rookie tight ends over the last five seasons and he had the 10th highest grade among tight ends in the NFL last year. His 552 yards came on just 274 snaps in route, which came to 2.01 yards per route run, the fifth best average amount all tight ends and third among rookie tight ends since the 2012 ahead of Hunter Henry and Zach Ertz. His 2.91 yards per route run lining up at the end of the line ranked second behind only George Kittle.
Snead wasn’t elite as a slot receiver at 1.52 yards per route run, which was 34th in the NFL, but all three of these players, with rookies Marquise Brown, who is made headlines with his speed in his first day on the field, and Miles Boykin, who has been making headlines with his play all camp, will make up a passing attack that should be an upgrade over the 2018 season.
As someone who plays in a fantasy football dynasty league, I’ve found myself excited about almost every new piece on this roster, including Justice Hill. The weapons Jackson will have growing alongside him are serious.
Drafting two tight ends in 2018 with Jackson had the benefit of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) being a more efficient passing personnel than 11 (one, one, and three).
In 2018, Sports Info Solutions found that “teams averaged 8.08 yards per attempt, 0.15 Expected Points Added per attempt, and had a positive play rate (the percentage of plays with positive EPA) of 54%. From 11, those averages were 7.16 yards per attempt, 0.03 EPA per attempt, and a positive play rate of 49.5%.” Dan Pizzuta writes, “there is a sample discrepancy there because there were significantly more pass attempts from 11, but that’s kind of the point. Teams really should throw more from 12.”
The reason for increased passing efficiency out of 12 is that regardless of the strengths of the tight ends, defenses naturally go to their traditional base 4-3 or 3-4 defense, rather than the nickel defense that has five defensive backs on the field, which recently became the NFL’s current base defense as it is the reaction to 11-personnel, the NFL’s base personnel. Defenses can decide to go small with nickel in response to 12 to try to combat this passing efficiency, but the offense can go with a rushing play and target the fifth defense back who replaced the linebacker.
The offense is now stacked at running back with Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Hill, so the team is in a position where they can execute on a run-based offensive strategy that uses play action to amplify their young quarterback’s efficiency with a defense that will likely be elite in 2019 after finishing second in points allowed last season.
With three more full seasons with Jackson on his rookie deal, the team can lean into this strategy in the short term, then building the offense around the running game and the tight ends will allow the Ravens to maintain the low costs to continue to develop this defensive focus into his second contract. Considering Jackson may never be a truly elite passer, it’s possible the Ravens could retain him for a few million less than the top of the quarterback market when the time comes. Rather being at $40 million a year with a Patrick Mahomes in a few years, Jackson might be locked in closer to $30 million, especially if decision makers around the league continue to realize that the paradigm regarding quarterback pay has to shift on a player like Jackson if their team is going to be competitive. Regardless of the value he’ll bring as a runner, passing the ball is just much more valuable, so his market will be tempered unless he significantly improves as a passer.
His contracts could be similar to what Alex Smith has signed as a veteran. He made $12.6 million per year with the Chiefs from 2012 through 2017 as the market got into the twenties, then signed a deal worth $23.5 million per year as the market ballooned past $30 million. Since 2012, Alex Smith has a record of 62-32-1, while Aaron Rodgers has a record of 59-36-1. Paying Jackson in a similar way is possible and could lead to great success for the organization.
Currently, the Ravens are second to last in offensive spending per Over The Cap at $65.7 million, while ninth in defensive spending at $96.5 million. This is the kind of spending pattern that should follow the Ravens throughout the Jackson era with an increase of course coming as Jackson and the tight ends move into their second contracts. Offensively, the main place of investment must continue to be the offensive line to make this offense go.
Baltimore is in a sound position to take advantage of Jackson’s rookie contract, then move into his second contract with the strategy and pieces to continue to be successful. Success will be based around Greg Roman understanding how play action, 12-personnel, and how Jackson’s legs can be best utilized to create a competitive advantage, while from a salary cap, roster construction, and organizational culture standpoint, the team, and the young quarterback, will be able to lean on a great defense.
Zack Moore is a former college football player at the University of Rhode Island. He received his MBA from Rutgers Business School and has written for Over The Cap since 2014. He is the author of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, which offers insight into how teams use data and analytics to create sustainable, competitive teams through the salary cap that are capable of competing for championships. Zack’s research has appeared on various platforms including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and the NFL Network.