Every draft cycle has a number of polarizing prospects. This past draft provided Deshaun Watson, Jabrill Peppers, and John Ross for example. Two years ago opinions were mixed on players such as Christian Hackenberg, Connor Cook, and Carson Wentz. In the draft year ahead, the clubhouse leader for the most polarizing prospect is the defending Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. While some see an explosive athlete with the raw tools to succeed in today’s NFL, others see a limited quarterback who might be best utilized at another position.
Working from the first hypothesis for a moment, I think anyone who has studied Jackson, or even watched him in passing, will agree that he is an upper-tier athlete at the quarterback position. From his ability to extend plays in the pocket to his explosiveness as a ball carrier, complete with upper-level vision and change of direction, Jackson checks off the athleticism box. So I’m going to focus here on other aspects of playing quarterback, specifically the thought process in the pocket. I’m going to look at two similar concepts in the Cardinals’ offense, over the course of two different games: A conference road victory against Boston College, and a home loss to in-state rival Kentucky in the final regular season game. By tracking how Jackson runs these schemes, and particularly how he reacts to defensive adjustments, we can start to build the picture of Jackson the quarterback.
The slant/swing combination is a two-receiver route concept that Louisville uses in their quick passing game. Similar to the slant/flat design – something the Cardinals also implement – this route structure is effective against either man or zone coverage. Typically, Louisville uses this on the single-receiver side of the field, with the WR running the quick slant route while a running back executes the swing route out of the backfield. The read structure is not terribly complicated: Against man coverage, provided the WR can get inside leverage on the CB, the slant route should come open as the play-side linebacker vacates his area to cover the swing route from the running back. Against zone coverage, the linebacker often drops into the slant route’s throwing lane, making the swing route the safer option. But as with any play structure, what looks good on paper might not always translate to the field.
This first example comes to us from Louisville’s game against Boston College. The Cardinals have the football on their own 22-yard line, and face a 1st and 10 early in the contest. The Eagles employ a 4-2-5 nickel defense, and they show Cover 6 presnap, with the boundary corner in press alignment while the field corner is in off coverage at the top of the image:
Louisville has two receivers to the left in a slot alignment, a single receiver to the right, and dual backs flanking Jackson, who stands in the shotgun. But prior to the snap, Jackson sends one of the running backs in motion to the left, creating a trips alignment. In response, the defense shifts one of the two linebackers out to follow the RB. This tells the quarterback that the defense is in man coverage, and he confirms this right at the snap when he sees this look:
Between the LB running with the motion man, and the free safety standing in the middle of the field, Jackson confirms the Eagles’ Cover 1 scheme. Now, he trains his eyes to the right side of the field and the slant/swing combination:
The play is working exactly as it is designed. The linebacker is racing to the flat to cover the RB out of the backfield, vacating the throwing lane for the slant route. Receiver Reggie Bonnafon (#7) has inside leverage and is accelerating away from cornerback Gabriel McClary (#14). This is an easy throw, and Jackson puts the football right on his receiver with good timing, placement and velocity, for an easy gain:
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Now let’s up the level of difficulty.
Early in the third quarter, the Cardinals face a 1st and 10 on the Boston College 40-yard line. Using 11 personnel, the offense lines up with three receivers to the left, including a wing tight end, and a single receiver to the left with the RB shaded to that side of the formation. The Eagles again use a 4-2-5 nickel defense, and they show a Cover 2 look presnap, with both safeties deep, although the strong safety does seem to be shading toward the line of scrimmage a touch:
Without presnap motion here, Jackson will not have a cue before the play as to BC’s true defensive scheme. He’ll need to read this one on the fly. As he takes the first step of his drop, the picture becomes clearer:
The free safety is rotating back to the middle of the field, which is the first indicator that the coverage is being rolled. The second is the playside linebacker, who is beginning to mirror the running back and is moving toward the flat. Again, we have a Cover 1 look from the defense. Jackson confirms this, and quickly makes his throw:
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Another on-time, well-placed throw with velocity on the slant route, this time to WR Seth Dawkins (#5) for an easy gain.
Now, this might seem like a fairly easy concept. But remember, this all happens in a very short period of time, which gets to the processing speed component of playing quarterback. From the snap of the football to the time Jackson starts his throwing motion, only 1.863 seconds elapse. That is not a ton of time to confirm the defensive coverage, spot your target, and begin the throw. We’re scouting the traits and not the scheme, and the processing speed on these plays is what you hope for from a quarterback.
Here’s one more example of this concept, with a few twists. Looking at how quarterbacks react to different looks from the defense is another way to dive into that critical aspect of processing speed. On this play, the Cardinals line up for another 1st and 10 using 11 offensive personnel, in a 2×2 formation with the running back shaded to the left side of the offense. Louisville has a slot alignment to the right, and a pro alignment to the left. The Eagles use a base 4-3 look and they show Cover 1 in the secondary. In addition, both outside linebackers are cheated down, in blitz posture:
Again, Louisville runs the slant/swing combination to the RB side of the formation. This time, with an extra receiver on that side of the formation (tight end Cole Hikituni #18) Jackson will have a third receiver in the progression, as the TE runs a shallow cross:
Jackson confirms the man coverage and, as you would expect, looks to throw the slant. One slight problem: The MLB, rotating over to cover the running back, finds himself in an advantageous position. Because of the presnap alignment (specifically the extra linebacker who is now covering Hikituni) the MLB has to take a deeper path toward the RB in the flat. This puts him right in the throwing lane for the slant route:
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The processing speed here, as well as the placement and velocity, add up to another solid gain. On each of these plays, the Cardinals picked up a first down.
A final look at this concept as we transition into Louisville’s regular season finale against the Kentucky Wildcats. On the final example of this combination, the Cardinals face a 1st and 10 early in the game, on the visitors’ 42-yard line and the football on the left hashmark. Louisville has Jackson in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel, with three receivers to the right and a single WR to the left, and again the RB shaded to the single-receiver side. Kentucky uses a 3-3-5 defense:
This gives us another example to test the processing speed from Jackson. At the snap, he sees the blitz and immediately checks to see if Hikituni will be open on his quick out route, but the safety does a very good job of rotating down on the TE, taking away this option:
What this has also done is frozen the linebacker in the underneath hole. With the OLB dropping off the edge to cover the RB on the swing, a perfect throwing lane is created for Jackson to come back to the left side of the formation and throw the swing, which is exactly what he does:
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Similar to the slant/swing design, the Cardinals offense employs a number of flood concepts. They ran a few of them against the Wildcats, and again these designs give us a chance to climb into Jackson’s head and uncover his thought process from the pocket. The first example comes from early in the second quarter, with Louisville facing a 3rd and 6 just outside the red zone. The Cardinals have Jackson in the gun using an upback and 11 personnel, with a pro alignment to the right and a slot look to the left. Kentucky uses a speed front, with linebackers on the edges, and have five defensive backs in the game:
Louisville runs a sail concept to the right, with the WR running a vertical route, the tight end running a deep out, and the upback releasing to the flat. The defense sends pressure, blitzing one of the linebackers as well as a safety, and dropping into a man look behind it:
With the CB starting with off coverage, the chance to hit a deep throw is quickly erased. So Jackson finishes his drop knowing that in this coverage scheme the vertical route on the outside will occupy the playside CB, and open up the field for the TE on the out route. In addition, the coverage means that the safety will be responsible for Hikituni on the out, which gives the TE the advantage. Jackson waits for that route and delivers another good throw:
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The safety breaks on the TE, but he can’t prevent another big gain for Louisville.
Now we’ll close this out with three identical plays, with three different results. This is a very similar flood concept to the similar play, although it is unclear if all four are variants of Y-Option, with the tight end having the choice between sitting down versus zone or breaking to the outside versus a man coverage look.
After throwing an interception, Jackson returns to the field and Louisville faces a 2nd and 11 on their own 40-yard line. They line up with the QB in the pistol and 12 personnel, with a wing tight end look to the left and slot formation to the right:
Here’s the route concept. On the weakside, the offense uses a go route from the outside WR and a curl from the slot receiver. To the strongside, the in-line tight end releases vertically while the wing Y receiver runs a deep curl (again, if this is Y-Option he will sit down against zone, as he does here, or break to the outside on an out against man). The running back runs a swing route, setting up the flood look:
Jackson will peek at the vertical route on the weakside before coming to the playside and reading this from high to low, looking at the other vertical route, then the Y on his route, and finally down to the swing route. Similar to the previous play, the coverage takes away the vertical route on both sides of the field, so the quarterback comes down to Y on the curl:
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Again, this is a fairly quick read here, and what stands out to me watching this throw is not only the processing, but also the placement. Jackson puts this throw just to the outside, allowing the receiver to catch the ball while turning back upfield. The timing on the pass is good as well, and this all allows Hikituni the chance to gain additional yardage after the catch, leading to another first down. Also, I want to share this still from the moment the ball comes out, as we’ll return to this in a bit:
Two more plays, each with the same design. Later on this drive Louisville returns to this design, but Jackson throws an interception as his pass sails high and Hikituni cannot pull in the throw:
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I include this because it’s the same look and read, and Jackson makes the right decision and makes it quickly. But the throw is high, tipped, and picked off. Accuracy is one area to watch with Jackson, and he does miss this throw. But this play also gives us a chance to illustrate how he peeks at that backside vertical route right at the snap.
We’ll close this out with a look at this play. Again, the same concept, with a different result. This time, Jackson throws the swing route:
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Watch Jackson’s eyes move from right to left:
Why does he throw the swing? Let’s look at the moment he releases the pass to his running back, and compare it to the image from two plays ago:
Barely visible is the playside cornerback, nearly 20 yards away from the running back. Contrast that with the previous two plays, particularly the first example, where the defender responsible for the swing route was on the line of scrimmage and in better position to cover the running back. Here, we see the defense starting to adjust to this concept and close down coverage on Y, and Jackson making the right read – quickly – and getting the ball to his running back for a big gain.
The defending Heisman Trophy winner will likely remain a polarizing prospect this draft season, but there is plenty of time for him to demonstrate that he can play quarterback at the next level. On these and other plays, Jackson demonstrates that he has the processing speed to make plays from the pocket. His collegiate story remains to be finalized, but right now, I’m firmly in the first of two camps identified at the outset: Lamar Jackson is an explosive athlete with the raw tools to succeed in the modern offenses of today’s NFL.