The title of Bobby Petrino’s book reads: “Inside the Pocket: An In-Depth Analysis of the Xs and Os.”
There are certainly things you can say about Petrino the person, but his book on offensive football is one that is always near me whenever I am writing about quarterbacks. In it, Petrino not only talks about offensive philosophy, but he opens up his entire playbook, diving into each concept he uses, the reads and progressions for the quarterback on each play, and when he might call each design during a given game. It is an incredible dive into what it takes to run Petrino’s offense as a quarterback, and the progression reads a passer has to make in his system.
He even includes a call sheet from one of his games while he was the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals. It comes from Louisville’s 2016 meeting with the Clemson Tigers, a battle of two teams ranked in the top five.
Clemson won by the final score of 42-36, despite Louisville’s quarterback completing 27 of 44 passes and throwing for 295 yards and a touchdown.
His quarterback that night?
Returning to the title of Petrino’s book, I always thought it was a subtle jab at the criticism facing Jackson coming out of Louisville. That Jackson was never going to be a pocket passer.
Because in Petrino’s eyes, he already was.
Early in the book, Petrino talks about a meeting with his quarterback during Jackson’s early days with the Cardinals. Jackson played for Louisville as a true freshman, but Petrino “knew he couldn’t learn the entire offense,” so the coaches gave him a smaller package of plays.
After the regular-season finale, Jackson came into his office:
He came in after that first season and—this was his word choice—he said, “I want to be a real quarterback.” So, for the bowl prep against Texas A&M, he came in every morning at 6:00 a.m. and went back through the installation of the entire offense, so he could work at becoming what he called a “real quarterback.” We all saw what happened for him the next year (winning the Heisman Trophy in 2016).
In that bowl game, Jackson completed 12 of 26 passes for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns, without an interception. He also ran for 226 yards — a Music City Bowl record — and two more scores.
But despite what Jackson did that day, or the following season when he won the Heisman Trophy, he continued to face the criticism that he was not a complete quarterback. A “real” quarterback, in his words. Criticism that follows him to this day, as he looks for a long-term deal with the Baltimore Ravens.
Yet over the first two weeks of the 2022 season, Jackson showed — as he did at Louisville and earlier in his NFL career — that he is a true weapon as a passer.
A real quarterback.
In Baltimore’s Week 1 win over the New York Jets, Jackson hit on 17 of 30 passes for 213 yards and 3 touchdowns, along with an interception. Beyond the numbers is what we saw Jackson doing from the pocket: Working through reads, moving and climbing the pocket, and playing with “wide eyes.”
Take this play from the third quarter, a touchdown pass to Devin Duvernay to give Baltimore a 17-3 lead:
This is a Mesh concept, with James Proche and Rashod Bateman running the shallow crossers underneath. Tight end Mark Andrews runs the deep sit route over the top of the crossers, while Kenyan Drake runs the wheel or rail route to the outside. Duvernay runs a deep post route.
Mesh is one of the concepts that Petrino talks about in his book, which he terms “mule.” He walks through the different variations of the concept — starting on page 256 if you are following along — and in each variation, the post route that Duvernay runs is not on the progression. Other coaches, such as Mike Leach, have the post route as a read for the quarterback if the defense is playing with two-deep safeties, as the Jets are on this play.
But something from Petrino’s book is evident here with Jackson, the idea of “wide eyes.” As Petrino puts it, “[w]hat you tell the quarterback on the mesh concepts is ‘you need to have wide vision.’ You need to be able to understand that as they come on the mesh, you need to keep wide vision and see who comes open ... “
Jackson shows that wide vision, climbing the pocket and finding Duvernay late downfield for the touchdown.
He showed those wide eyes later in the win over New York, as he hits Andrews on this crossing route to convert a third down:
This comes on a Shallow Cross concept, with Bateman running a shallow crossing route while Andrews works a deeper route over the middle. Jackson faces a bit of pressure on this play in the interior, but rather than tucking the football, he spots Andrews against man coverage, and adjusts the trajectory on the throw perfectly, dropping it over the defender to move the chains.
While the story coming out of Baltimore’s loss to the Miami Dolphins this week focused on Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, his performance in many ways overshadowed what we saw from Jackson. Which was another impressive performance from the pocket.
Jackson completed 21 of 29 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Most weeks, that likely gets you a win and perhaps AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Instead the win, and those honors, went to Tagovailoa after his six-touchdown performance.
Still, on Sunday against the Dolphins you saw yet more evidence of Jackson’s ability to punish defenses from the pocket. On this play from the second quarter, the Ravens dial up a four-vertical concept against single-high coverage, out of a 3x1 formation. Watch as Jackson uses his eyes to hold the free safety in the middle of the field, before hitting Andrews up the right seam for a big gain:
This is the kind of manipulation that matters from a quarterback. Jevon Holland, the free safety in the middle of the field, is reading Jackson’s eyes. Jackson’s job on this concept is to move Holland to one of the inside vertical routes, and then throw to the other. By opening his eyes to the left, he holds Holland in place just long enough so when he comes to the right to hit Andrews, the safety is a step late breaking on the throw.
If Jackson does not use his eyes here, Holland breaks up this throw.
Later in the game, the Ravens turned to a Mills concept, with Bateman running a deep post while Duvernay ran a dig route. With the Dolphins dropping into zone coverage, Jackson has to fit this throw around the underneath defender. He does so with ease, making an anticipation throw which leads Duvernay into the soft spot of the zone coverage:
On that day that Jackson walked into his coach’s office, he said he wanted to be a real quarterback. One who made progression reads and throws, and was as dangerous inside the pocket as he was outside. He began that process while in college, and has continued to perfect that craft since entering the league. Becoming the quarterback he wanted to be.
The coach he is going to face this weekend agrees:
Has Lamar Jackson answered the pre-draft questions about his pocket passing?— Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis) September 21, 2022
Bill Belichick: "Without a doubt. It’s the type of the player, the MVP type of candidate. I think he’s more than answered them. But, we’ll see what his contract is, that will answer them." pic.twitter.com/PG24bG2jLk
He has shown that more and more each year, and has shown it already through the first two weeks of the season.
It makes him a problem for NFL defenses going forward, who have to account for both his athleticism, and how he can break down coverages from the pocket.
And it also made for a pretty good title for a book.