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There’s A Blueprint For Stopping Lamar Jackson, But Teams Aren’t Using It

Stopping Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens is a chore. The second-year quarterback is on pace to throw for 3,626 yards and rush for 1,274 more for an offense that’s leading the NFL in points per game and rushing efficiency. That rushing total would crush the all-time quarterback record of 1,039 yards, set by Michael Vick in 2006.

While a New England assistant described Jackson as “a running back who can throw,” that running ability “opens up (throwing) avenues everywhere,” according to a league exec. That was the case in Week 1 when Jackson had a perfect passer rating against the Dolphins, tossing five touchdowns on just 20 attempts.

There is a cheat code for stopping Jackson, both as a runner and a passer. But teams are refusing to use it, choosing instead to defend Baltimore’s offense conventionally.

The code was unlocked by the Los Angeles Chargers in two games at the end of last season. If you key on stopping Jackson’s running, you risk overplaying him and opening up running lanes for the Ravens running backs — and that’s exactly what happened to the Chargers last year in Week 16. So it was assumed that Los Angeles would have little chance of doing better in a postseason rematch two weeks later.

But spurred in part by an injury to starting outside linebacker Jatavis Brown, the Chargers opted to defend the Ravens with seven defensive backs on 58 of 59 snaps. The plan caught Jackson and the Ravens flat-footed, and Baltimore averaged just 3.9 yards per play in the 23-17 wild-card round loss, well under the NFL average of 5.6.

When you’re more concerned with stopping the run, putting smaller, faster defenders on the field seems counterintuitive; adding defensive backs to the defensive huddle is typically a strategy for stopping the pass. But the Chargers approached the problem of Jackson with speed. “Lamar Jackson ran a 4.3,” L.A. safety Rayshawn Jenkins told Sports Illustrated. “We needed some fast guys, right? We needed guys who could run sideline to sideline and still help in the passing game if they got fooled. Not saying our linebackers couldn’t do it, but let’s be honest, DBs are faster than linebackers.”

It was widely assumed that this unicorn defense was the blueprint for stopping Jackson’s unicorn offense, in which the quarterback is the top rushing threat. And this particular defense also functions naturally as an optimal pass defense. In retrospect, it was clear that the more defensive backs were on the field, the lower Jackson’s play success rate was. The Chargers just took a strategy typically used on passing downs and applied it to every down.

Yet here we are at the halfway point of the 2019 season in a copycat league, and no team has fully attempted to replicate the Chargers’ winning defensive strategy against Baltimore.

Three other teams have tried L.A.’s play against the Ravens

Games in which the Baltimore Ravens ran plays against seven defensive backs since the start of the 2018-19 playoffs

Yards Gained
Opponent date Snaps Per play Per Pass Att. Per Rush result
Chargers 1/6/19 58 3.9 6.7 4.0 L
Dolphins 9/8/19 1 6.0 6.0 W
Chiefs 9/22/19 2 10.5 18.0 3.0 L
Patriots 11/3/19 1 6.0 6.0 W

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Ravens have faced seven (or more) defensive backs on just four plays all season, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.1 And none of those plays came on first or second down.

Bill Belichick is famous for leaving no stone unturned in film study. And a Belichick trademark is taking away the team’s best player, which obviously for the Ravens is Jackson, a leading MVP candidate. But though the Patriots dressed seven defensive backs on Sunday night, they were all on the field on only one play, according to ESPN, while at least three linebackers were on the field for 64 of Baltimore’s 65 plays. Belichick deployed five or fewer defensive backs on 58 snaps. This more conventional approach proved unsuccessful. The Ravens’ offense scored 30 points against New England in the 37-20 waxing, including two scores on Jackson jaunts. Baltimore rolled up 26 first downs, nearly three times as many as the Patriots’ previously dominant defense had yielded per game in 2019.

Clues to why teams haven’t copied the Los Angeles playoff strategy perhaps can be gleaned from the Chargers’ postgame comments then. “It was a great job by our whole defense to buy into it, and that’s what (we) did,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “Nobody was selfish. … They just said, ‘Hey, this is the best chance we have to win.’ The coaches felt like this was the best chance we had to win, and we went with it.”

Maybe it’s one thing to do that in a do-or-die game on the heels of your standard starting defensive unit failing against the same offense. But it’s another thing entirely to bench your starting linebackers for a mere regular-season game.

So Jackson rolls on, into Week 10 against the winless Bengals, a team with nothing to lose except their ninth game of the season. They’ve even had a bye week to prepare for Jackson — not that a team needs extra time to find a way to stop him. The blueprint is an open secret, just waiting to be followed again.

Looking Ahead: Week 10

Best matchup:2 No. 5 Minnesota at No. 9 Dallas (-1), 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday

Two of the NFL’s best teams collide Sunday, when the Vikings visit the Cowboys for the marquee game of the week. Dallas appears to have recovered from its back-to-back-to-back losses of a month ago, coming off a bye to shellack the Giants on Monday night and bring its record to 5-3 on the season. Dak Prescott remains one of the league’s elite QBs in our Elo ratings, and the Cowboys have the most efficient offense in the league according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. We give them a slim edge (54 percent) against a Minnesota team whose recent four-game winning streak was interrupted by an upset loss to the Matt Moore-led Chiefs last week. Most conversations around the Vikings usually focus on whether QB Kirk Cousins can play well — and how much his team even needs that — but the bigger question in this matchup might be on the other side of the ball. Minnesota has a solid defense, ranking seventh in defensive DVOA, including ninth against both the pass and the run. But Dallas’s offense ranks among the top five in each category, with Ezekiel Elliott running well and the offensive line re-emerging as one of the most dominant in the league. Anything Minnesota can do to slow down the Cowboy offense will go a long way toward determining if the Vikings can pull off the crucial road win here.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 10

NFL matchups for Week 10, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
9 Cowboys vs 5 Vikings 54.3% 2 4 1 1
22 Raiders vs 14 Chargers 50.8 7 2 3 4
3 49ers vs 11 Seahawks 68.0 1 9 6 3
16 Bills at 23 Browns 50.1 9 1 5 8
7 Rams at 18 Steelers 59.6 3 5 2 10
17 Bears vs 21 Lions 62.1 8 6 9 5
12 Chiefs at 20 Titans 51.3 5 3 7 7
8 Packers vs 19 Panthers 70.9 4 10 4 13
1 Saints vs 28 Falcons 90.4 6 13 11 2
13 Colts vs 29 Dolphins 80.6 10 11 8 9
24 Buccaneers vs 25 Cardinals 64.4 12 8 12 6
27 Jets vs 30 Giants 63.0 13 7 13 12
4 Ravens at 32 Bengals 86.2 11 12 10 11

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: Vikings at Cowboys

Potential shift in playoff odds: 30.6 total percentage points

The best game of Week 10 is also the most important one. Both Minnesota (67 percent) and Dallas (59 percent) are currently in solid enough playoff shape, but they can’t feel too comfortable because of pressure from tough division rivals in Green Bay and Philadelphia, respectively. A loss for the Vikings would still leave them with a 53 percent chance to make the postseason, but it would drop their division odds to a remote 17 percent. (A win, meanwhile, would bolster Minnesota’s playoff chances all the way up to 84 percent.) As for the Cowboys, they have even more to lose with a defeat here, as their playoff probability would fall to just 42 percent if they don’t beat Minnesota. This isn’t quite a “must-win” for either team, but the NFC is looking pretty cutthroat at the moment — with eight teams carrying at least a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs and, obviously, only six slots to go around. Whoever loses this one, whether it be Vikes or Cowboys, could end up looking back on it with regret.

Best QB duels: No. 6 Dak Prescott (DAL) vs. No. 10 Kirk Cousins (MIN); No. 4 Matt Ryan* (ATL) vs. No. 5 Drew Brees (NO); No. 3 Russell Wilson (SEA) vs. No. 17 Jimmy Garoppolo (SF)

* Ryan may not play because of injury.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 9

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 9 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
MIN 61% MIN 52% KC 26, MIN 23 +7.5
CAR 54 CAR 59 CAR 30, TEN 20 +2.4
CLE 59 CLE 56 DEN 24, CLE 19 +1.1
SF 75 SF 82 SF 28, ARI 25 +1.0
SEA 76 SEA 77 SEA 40, TB 34 -1.1
DAL 75 DAL 76 DAL 37, NYG 18 -1.6
BUF 80 BUF 80 BUF 24, WSH 9 -1.7
PHI 64 PHI 64 PHI 22, CHI 14 -1.9
HOU 65 HOU 62 HOU 26, JAX 3 -4.4
OAK 54 DET 52 OAK 31, DET 24 -7.6
NYJ 53 NYJ 59 MIA 26, NYJ 18 -8.2
IND 53 IND 59 PIT 26, IND 24 -9.0
NE 57 NE 63 BAL 37, NE 20 -10.0
GB 62 GB 70 LAC 26, GB 11 -12.4

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

In Week 9, the readers claimed a nice victory when they banked on Moore’s Chiefs to give the Vikings more of a fight than expected. But mostly it was the algorithm’s time to shine. The week was highlighted by Elo’s outright pick of Oakland over Detroit — defying the prognosticators — and a variety of hedges toward potential upsets by the Dolphins, Steelers, Ravens and Chargers (all of which happened). By the end of play Monday night, the computer had crushed the typical reader by an average margin of 45.9 points, the most lopsided win of the entire season. Elo now has a 7-2 record against the field so far in 2019 and has won in each of the past five weeks.

Congratulations are in order, though, for Coleen C, who led all readers in Week 9 with 187.1 points, and for Aaron DiGenova, who took the full-season contest lead with 759.0 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 9.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Seven or more defensive backs have been used against all teams just 1.6 times per game on average this season.

  2. Based on a combination of matchup evenness, or how close to 50-50 odds the game has; matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings; playoff impact; and the quality of the opposing starting QBs.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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