Lamar Jackson's kryptonite; Aaron Rodgers' resurgence

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

But first, a look at why the Chiefs have been so successful against a QB few teams have been able to stop …

Defensive coordinators around the league must have been eager to pop in the tape from the Ravens’ Monday night flop against the Chiefs to see what went wrong for the reigning MVP. Lamar Jackson was held to fewer than 100 passing yards (he finished the night with 97) for the first time in 25 career starts. Moreover, it was the third time in three tries that No. 8 has been on the losing end of a game against Kansas City after posting a 21-1 record against all other teams.

Considering the significant drop-off in Jackson’s performance as a passer against Andy Reid’s squad, it appears the Chiefs are the QB’s kryptonite at this stage of his career. Take a look at these numbers:

Jackson vs. the Chiefs: 0-3 record, 52.6 percent completion rate, 5.4 pass yards per attempt, 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 78.9 passer rating.

Jackson vs. all other NFL teams: 21-1 record, 66.5 percent completion rate, 8.0 pass yards per attempt, 43:9 TD-to-INT ratio, 110.3 passer rating.

With that massive disparity in mind, I decided to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to see why Jackson has performed so far below his usual standard against the Chiefs. After reviewing the tape, here are three reasons why Kansas City has been able to throw him off his game:

1) The Chiefs force the Ravens to chase points.

Patrick Mahomes and Co. are an offensive juggernaut with the ability to light up the scoreboard at any point of the game. The Chiefs have led by at least seven points at halftime in each of their last three meetings with Baltimore, and they’ve built a 17-point lead going into the break in each of their last two meetings. This forces the Ravens into a catch-up mode that puts more pressure on Jackson as a passer. The team has to shift from its usual run-heavy game plan to a pass-first approach, which exposes Jackson’s flaws as a dropback passer.

Jackson’s passing numbers when playing in a tie game or with a lead compared with those when Baltimore is behind tell the story. He posts a 59.3 percent completion rate, an average of 6.5 yards per attempt, a 6:2 TD-to INT ratio and an 88.0 passer rating when trailing at the snap since 2019, per NFL Media Research. He’s recorded a 69 percent completion rate, an average of 8.2 yards per attempt, a 35:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a 121.9 passer rating when the Ravens are tied or ahead at the snap.

Jackson’s struggles when trailing can be chalked up, in part, to defenders not having to pay as much attention to his ability to run the ball in those situations. Rather than their typical mode of eating up the clock with a dominant run game, the Ravens have to try to strike quickly through the air. Therefore, defensive coordinators no longer need to worry as much about the read-option concepts and designed QB runs that make No. 8 the most feared playmaker in the game. Defenders are able to sit back in traditional coverage and read the third-year pro’s eyes. This leads to quicker reactions to his throws and smaller windows for Jackson inside the numbers.

Remember, Jackson was still available to the Ravens at the end of the first round of the 2018 draft because he had displayed accuracy issues on throws outside of the numbers as a prospect. Errant throws to that area continue to show up when you study his game on tape. He struggles to string together pinpoint passes along the boundary on out-breaking routes. Defensive coordinators are aware of this and they force him to make those throws when they’re in control of the game.

2) The blitz changes how Jackson plays.

We all know Jackson is an explosive runner with the capacity to score from anywhere on the field on impromptu scrambles or designed QB runs/read-option plays that get him in space with the rock in his hands. The Ravens enhance his playmaking ability with a power-based option attack that puts defenders on their heels.

However, instead of playing a read-and-react defense against Jackson that instructs defenders to read keys before running to their assignments on option plays, the Chiefs dialed up the pressure and forced the young quarterback to react to the chaos in a split second on Monday night. The aggressiveness puts Jackson in a reactive mode that takes away from his spontaneity and playmaking ability inside and outside of the pocket.

The Chiefs blitzed Jackson on 50 percent of his dropbacks in Week 3, compared with a 34.5 percent blitz rate from the two other teams he’s faced this season, per Next Gen Stats. The blitz-heavy approach is similar to the tactics the Tennessee Titans employed in a win over Baltimore last season in the AFC Divisional Round.

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, the Chiefs utilized a variety of five-, six- and seven-man pressures to overload the Ravens’ offensive line and move Jackson off of his spot in the pocket. In addition, the heavy pressure disrupted some of the Baltimore’s pet running plays in the backfield. Although Jackson and the Ravens certainly enjoyed some success on the ground (158 yards rushing on 21 attempts; 7.5 yards per carry), the combination of facing a blitz-heavy attack while playing from behind made the MVP and his teammates uncomfortable for most of the game.

3) The Ravens lose sight of their identity under pressure.

The Ravens’ regular-season success (back-to-back AFC North titles) with Jackson should be celebrated, but the team continues to come up short in high-stakes situations. John Harbaugh’s squad is not only one-and-done in each of its playoff appearances in the Jackson era but its winless mark against the Chiefs since 2018 is another blemish on its resume against title contenders.

Part of the Ravens’ failures should be attributed to the offense deviating from its run-centric strategies in these contests. Sure, the early deficits in those contests suggest scrapping the game plan to catch up utilizing the passing game, but the Ravens are built to run and offensive coordinator Greg Roman must keep that in mind.

After averaging 34.2 rushes per game during the 2018 regular season, the Ravens ran the ball just 23 times in their playoff loss to the Chargers, with just eight of those rushes coming in the second half of the game. They ran it 29 times in the playoff loss to the Titans last season, well off their average of 37.3 rushes per game from the regular season. After running 30 or more times in each of first two outings of this season, Baltimore rushed just 21 times against Kansas City on Monday night.

From the quarterback to the skill-position players to the offensive linemen, the Ravens are built to ground and pound their opponents into submission. When the Ravens stick to the script and pummel opponents with the running game, they’ve been nearly unbeatable since Jackson became their starter. The power-option game from a variety of heavy formations with multiple tight ends on the field overwhelms and overpowers opponents at every turn.

Given the Ravens’ success with a dominant rush offense and complementary play-action passing attack, Roman should stubbornly stick with the approach despite facing deficits of 10-plus points in some games. I know the naysayers will suggest that Jackson should be able to rally his team from behind as a franchise quarterback by going to the air, but the pieces around him are not built to play in a pass-centric offense, particularly the offensive line, and exposing them to more pass-rush attempts is a recipe for disaster.

The lack of a traditional passing game narrows the Ravens’ championship path, but I believe trying to be something that they’re not on offense will continue to keep them from winning heavyweight fights in the Jackson era.

DINK AND DUNK

What’s the key to Aaron Rodgers’ resurgence? Don’t look now, but Rodgers is playing like an MVP again. A two-time winner of the award (2011, 2014), he’s directing the NFL’s hottest offense while posting the kind of numbers that made the football world anoint him the ultimate QB1 not too long ago. Rodgers is one of only four passers to post a 100-plus passer rating in all three games this season (Russell Wilson, Derek Carr and Josh Allen are the others) and his current passer rating of 121.1 is on par with the record rating (122.5) he posted during his 2011 MVP campaign. In fact, when you study the Packers and Rodgers’ numbers through the first three weeks of that season and the current one, you could argue that he’s performing a bit better than he did early in that award-winning campaign:

2011: 3-0 record, 33.0 points per game, 305.7 pass yards per game, 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 120.9 passer rating

2020: 3-0 record, 40.7 points per game, 295.7 pass yards per game, 9:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 121.1 passer rating

Those statistics are certainly eye-popping for a 16th-year quarterback who appeared to be on the decline in 2019. Part of Rodgers’ success should be attributed to his improvement as a play-action passer this season. He’s posted a better completion percentage (72.7%, up from 63.2% in 2019), yards-per-attempt average (7.9, up from 7.3), touchdown-to-interception ratio (4:0 through three games in 2020; 3:1 through 16 games in 2019) and passer rating (135.4, up from 89.6) on play-action passes.

It seems head coach Matt LaFleur has noticed his quarterback’s improvement in this area: Rodgers has used play-action on 30.6 percent of his dropbacks in 2020, up from 24 percent in 2019.

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the Packers’ Week 3 win over the Saints, the veteran repeatedly hurt New Orleans by utilizing an assortment of stretch-bootleg combinations with the slide route concept (QB fake to one side with a front-side tight end or wide receiver sliding behind the line of scrimmage into the flat on the backside). The marriage between the team’s top running play (outside zone) and a complementary play-action pass exploited the Saints’ overaggressive defenders, leading to easy completions for Rodgers, who completed 13-of-17 attempts for 160 yards with three touchdowns on play-action passes.

LaFleur watched his old boss Sean McVay utilize a play-action-heavy script to help Jared Goff find his game with the Rams. He’s taking elements from that blueprint to help Rodgers rediscover his MVP game.

The Browns find their identity with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way. Credit Kevin Stefanski for turning to his two-headed monster at running back to help the Browns create an identity. The first-year head coach has taken the ball out of Baker Mayfield’s hands and given it to Chubb and Hunt to help this franchise climb above the .500 mark for the first time since 2014.

The Browns are the only team in the league boasting two players with 200-plus rushing yards in 2020. The transformation to a run-heavy squad has resulted in the Browns churning out 170.3 rush yards per game (tied for third-most) with a 52.7 percent run play rate (second-highest in the league).

Chubb is the lead back with a rugged running style that sets the tone of the offense. The third-year pro ranks second in ground yards since 2019 with 1,786 on 349 carries for 5.1 yards per attempt. He leads the NFL with nine 100-yard games during that span.

Hunt is the perfect complement as a former RB1 with an NFL rushing title (2017) on his resume. As a big, shifty runner with power, pop and wiggle, he can pick up the dirty yards between the tackles or create on the perimeter on outside runs. In addition, he is a credible route runner from the backfield or out wide in empty formations.

The Browns entered the season hoping to tie their identity to their young quarterback, but they’ve quickly discovered Chubb and Hunt are the key components to their winning DNA.

Is DeAndre Hopkins the best wide receiver in football? The annual summertime debate regarding the ultimate WR in the game always includes the three-time All-Pro, but Hopkins is making a strong bid to become the undisputed champion at the position. The Cardinals’ new WR1 leads the NFL in receptions (32), receiving yards (356) and first downs (21) while learning a new offense and acclimating to a second-year quarterback. With Hopkins putting up those numbers while sharing the stage with future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald, it is hard to argue against Hopkins being top dog on the WR charts.

Now, I know supporters from the Michael Thomas’ and Julio Jones’ camps would suggest otherwise, but Arizona’s WR1 has taken his game up a notch and separated from the competition. Hopkins is showing a more diverse game in an offense that’s fully maximizing his talents on the perimeter. He’s running more routes on the route tree and showing crafty running skills with the ball in his hands. Most important, Hopkins is catching everything thrown in his direction, evidenced by his catch percentage (86.5%).

With the Cardinals featuring him more prominently (averaging 12.3 targets, 10.7 receptions and 118.7 receiving yards in Arizona compared with 10.6 targets, 6.8 receptions and 89.5 receiving yards with the Texans last season), Hopkins is making a bigger impact as a playmaker in the desert.

Hopkins’ herky-jerky style isn’t textbook, but he is the NFL’s version of the Houston Rockets’ James Harden as an unorthodox scorer with the capacity to get a bucket at any time.

COVER 2

1) Simpler is better for Colts’ D. Credit Matt Eberflus for directing the league’s top-ranked defense by utilizing a game plan that would make most high school coordinators smirk. Featuring a simplistic scheme with straightforward coverage tactics (man free and Tampa 2 with a hint of blitzing), the Indianapolis Colts lead the league in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense and yards per play. In addition, the unit has surrendered the second-fewest big plays and is tied for third in takeaways.

Part of the Colts’ defensive success has been fueled by their veteran player acquisitions, particularly DeForest Buckner and Xavier Rhodes, but the simplicity of the defensive schemes has really keyed the unit’s success. The Colts have few miscommunication errors or blown coverages due to confusion or uncertainty. Defenders appear to have a clear understanding of their respective roles and how they fit into the defensive puzzle. Moreover, the scheme enables defenders to focus on pursuit, tackling and takeaways.

At its core, the Colts’ system is built on the Tampa 2 zone (two-deep, five-under coverage), but Eberflus has featured more man coverage (man free) with cornerbacks instructed to play with proper leverage and technique. The team’s emphasis on footwork and technique has helped a number of players perform at a high level, including the veteran corner Rhodes, who has rediscovered his Pro Bowl game.

Against the New York Jets, the three-time Pro Bowler came down with a pair of interceptions utilizing textbook footwork and fundamentals in man and zone coverage. The pick-six, in particular, highlighted Rhodes’ ability to maintain top-down positioning (defensive back stays on the upfield shoulder of the receiver to eliminate deep throws) on the island. After seemingly losing his way at the end of his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, Rhodes looks like the five-star playmaker who was once considered one of the premier cover corners in the game.

While the secondary deserves a ton of credit for its sticky coverage, the Colts’ front seven is controlling the game with its dominance in the trenches. Buckner has been as good as advertised as a disruptive interior defender with the size, length and power to push blockers into the backfield. He is the Colts’ second-leading tackler (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a safety) with a nasty game that requires extra attention from blockers at the point of attack. With Darius Leonard gobbling up ball-carriers like Pac-Man and Anthony Walker punishing runners in the hole, the Colts simply overwhelm opponents with their speed, energy and physicality.

But it’s more the hustle and grind that’s enabled the defense to rise to the top of the charts. The unit is showing more pre- and post-snap disguises to confuse quarterbacks. It’s also excelling in two critical areas: third-down efficiency and turnovers. The Colts rank third in third-down efficiency (32.3% conversion rate) and have swiped three of their NFL-best six interceptions on the money down.

With the defense flexing its muscle behind a straightforward approach, Indy’s beginning to look like a dark-horse contender in the AFC.

2) Patriots’ new-and-improved running game. It is not a coincidence New England’s running game has dramatically improved since the arrival of Cam Newton, but it’s the diversity of the attack that should keep defensive coordinators up at night. While most observers expected the Patriots to unveil some read-option concepts to take advantage of the former MVP’s athleticism, Josh McDaniels has cooked up a chowder with a smorgasbord of concepts and playmakers adding flavor to the running game.

The Patriots are averaging 178.0 rushing yards per game after topping the 200-yard mark in a pair of contests this season. Most impressive, they’ve done it with a committee approach that’s enabled them to have four players with 70-plus rush yards. Considering four Patriots have 15-plus carries and none have more than 35 attempts, the balanced attack tests the discipline and awareness of defenders.

Part of the challenge certainly stems from playing an offense with a big, physical dual-threat quarterback who possesses a rugged game. Newton’s potential to pull the rock on a read-option or power through the defense on a designed QB run creates issues for defenders expected to keep their eyes on No. 1 while also monitoring one of the many runners in the backfield. The Patriots exploited that conundrum the first two weeks of the season by featuring a diverse shotgun running game against the Dolphins and Seahawks. Newton logged 26 carries for 122 rushing yards with the bulk of his damage done on a mix of option runs and powers from the gun.

Against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3, the Patriots switched up their game and featured a traditional running game with Newton under center. The Patriots featured a run-heavy game plan with 81.6 percent of their runs from under center after logging just 44.8 percent of their runs from under center during their first two games, according to Next Gen Stats.

Perhaps David Andrews’ absence due to injury played a role in the change, but averaging 7.9 yards per carry (31 carries for 245 yards) could’ve prompted McDaniels to continue with the old-school game plan, particularly with Sony Michel spotting creases on an assortment of downhill runs. The former first-rounder is at his best running from the dot alignment (I-formation or single-back set), and his impact is enhanced with Newton capable of slipping out of the backdoor on bootlegs.

With Rex Burkhead excelling in the Patriots’ gun package and Michel thriving in their traditional sets, the Patriots have quickly assembled a dynamic running game with Newton as the centerpiece.

HAIL MARY

Easy on the Nick Foles hype! Foles is getting another chance to earn a long-term stint as a QB1 after working his magic yet again last week in the Bears’ comeback win over the Falcons, but Chicago will quickly find out that he is a better relief pitcher than starter. Look, I’m not here to dismiss the accomplishments of a former Super Bowl MVP, but this is the Hail Mary section, after all … and there’s a reason Foles ranks as one of the best backup quarterbacks in NFL history.

Foles has a career passer rating of 105.6 in non-starts (including the playoffs), the best mark of any substitute since 1970 (minimum 125 attempts), per NFL Media Research. That’s a better rating than Hall of Famer Joe Montana — who ranks second in the category — posted in the same role (98.7). If that’s not enough to solidify his case as the ultimate QB2, Foles also has a 65.4 percent completion rate, 7.7 pass-yards-per-attempt average and a 9:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio when he comes off the bench.

Given those numbers, I understand why Bears coach Matt Nagy decided to hand the keys to Foles to see if he can keep the Bears in the playoff hunt with a solid supporting cast and opportunistic defense backing him up. The ninth-year veteran is the streaky shooter off the bench with the capacity to get hot when he sees his first shot go through the basket.

That said, historically, Foles has had far less magic when he serves as his team’s starter. He’s completed just 62.3 percent of his throws with a 7.0 pass-yards-per-attempt average and a 76:39 touchdown-to-interception ratio when he opens the game under center. His 88.3 passer rating as a starter is nearly 20 points below his super-sub output, which is obviously problematic.

Sure, Foles’ production and performance inspire more hope than that of his predecessor as the Bears’ QB1, Mitchell Trubisky (63.1% completion rate, 54:32 TD-to-INT ratio and 85.9 rating in his career), but are we really confident that Foles is going to set the world on fire in the Windy City?

Remember, Foles was supposed to be the savior in Jacksonville a year ago, but he suffered a broken collarbone in his first game with the team and, after he returned later, lost the starting job to then-rookie sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew. The Jaguars had seen enough to part with Foles for a fourth-round pick this offseason, and I’ve seen enough to know we should at least pump the brakes on the St. Nick hype train that has Bears fans dreaming of a playoff berth.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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