Mobile Quarterbacks Evolution: How Justin Fields, Lamar Jackson, and Others Are Immortalizing the Work of Mike Vick

Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson are on pace for 1,000 yards rushing. Jalen Hurts is quarterbacking the top NFC seed. And this is just the start.

What we are seeing in the NFL 2022 is not your father’s quarterback position. As the game continues in its quest to attack vacant space, mobile quarterbacks are more valuable than ever. And despite the spike in quarterbacks who tote the rock, offenses are still largely primitive in the QB-run game, which should keep defensive coordinators up at night in the offseason.

Of the top 10 single-season QB rushing attempts list, eight have come since 2017. There has been an explosion in their usage, spearheaded by the Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson. Between the Ravens QB, Jalen Hurts, Cam Newton, and Kyler Murray, they hold the eight highest spots. It takes 133 attempts to sneak onto the list, and Hurts, Jackson, and Justin Fields are all on pace to make it.

In fact, Fields and Hurts are on pace to break the record, and Jackson is on pace to be just shy of his record 176 attempts. With the passing game inching closer and closer to the line of scrimmage and with the invasion of RPOs at the NFL level, mobile quarterbacks ask more questions than a defense can answer. The numbers simply aren’t there to defend everything consistently.

And the numbers surrounding QB runs are startling.

Note: All statistics are courtesy of Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise acknowledged. 

justin fields
Dec 4, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) looks for a receiver against the Tennessee Titans during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Mobile Quarterbacks By the Numbers

Among players with at least 50 attempts, six of the top 10 most efficient runners in the NFL from a points-added perspective are quarterbacks. For reference, eight QBs qualified for the attempts threshold. We can add Taysom Hill to this as well, but he doesn’t solely align as a QB, which muddies the waters a bit. He also ranks inside the top 10.

Only seven offenses in the league average a positive rush EPA, and only six defenses allow a positive rush EPA. But when we filter to just QB runs, not a single defense in the league generates negative EPA.

When filtering out scrambles to look at designed QB runs, only seven teams generate negative EPA-per-play on defense. It turns out that playing 11-on-11 and creating an extra gap to defend against makes things a bit difficult on defense.

But what is even more interesting is the difference between a QB’s overall EPA-per-play compared to their EPA on rushing attempts. Passing, by nature, is more efficient than running the ball. But even though many of these QBs have been efficient as passers, each one has been more efficient on the ground.

The first column has a 50-rush threshold, and the second has a 25-rush threshold. Only Jackson, Hurts, and Fields have over 50 designed QB runs.

PlayerRushing EPA (scrambles+)Rushing EPA (designed)Dropback EPA
Justin Fields0.380.350.096
Josh Allen0.360.390.241
Daniel Jones0.260.420.122
Lamar Jackson0.220.390.122
Jalen Hurts0.220.380.203
Kyler Murray0.150.220.025

It was surprising to see that five of the six qualified QBs have a higher EPA on designed runs than when including scrambles in the equation. Among the 61 rushers with at least 50 rushes, only 20 have generated positive EPA. Geno Smith is the only eligible QB who generates a negative EPA (-0.19). Marcus Mariota is slightly positive (0.05).

But easily the most shocking development has to be the player’s rushing EPA being higher than passing. Like anything, there must be a point where the frequency of QB runs would start negating its efficiency, but we are not at that point.

Not a single defensive unit in the NFL has generated negative rushing EPA through Week 12 when including scrambles in the equation. The Bills are close (0.07) at the top of the list, while the Dolphins rank last (0.77).

And we may never get there. Quarterback is the most important position in professional sports, and teams would rather not see their QB taking 150-plus hits in addition to the dropback game. That is unless you’re in Baltimore, it seems. However, coaches have one objective, which is winning as many football games as humanly possible. The QB-run game is aiding that venture.

If nerdy-per-play efficiency metrics aren’t your jam, there are more traditional ways to look at the insane success QBs are having on the ground.

We didn’t even get into arguably the most effective running QB in the NFL, Patrick Mahomes, who didn’t qualify for this little exercise but is one of the sneakiest athletes in existence. His “running without spilling his beer” style has somehow continued to surprise defenders on the edge in Season 6.

Traditional Rushing Stats

There are eight quarterbacks and Taysom Hill who qualify for the 50+ carry threshold. Those 9 players have the highest first-down rush percentage in the NFL.

PlayerTeamFirst-Down Rush %
Josh AllenBills47.2%
Daniel JonesGiants45.6%
Justin FieldsBears45.1%
Lamar JacksonRavens40.9%
Taysom HillSaints39.7%
Jalen HurtsEagles39.7%
Marcus MariotaFalcons35.8%
Kyler MurrayCardinals34.8%
Geno SmithSeahawks32.0%
Josh JacobsRaiders31.0%

The top five rushers in YPC are QBs or QB adjacent. This includes Hill (7.1), Fields (6.8), Jackson (6.8), Allen (6.5), and Murray (6.3).

The four quarterbacks who rank inside the top 10 in missed tackles forced per attempt are Fields (30.3%), Allen (24.7%), Jackson (23.6%), and Hurst (20.6%).

The two other factoids that really stand out are that the only quarterbacks with 1,000-yard seasons on record are Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick, and there have been three instances total. Both Jackson and Fields are on pace for it in 2022.

justin fields
Oct 9, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) stands in the sidelines before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Why Are Mobile Quarterbacks so Difficult To Stop?

In a game that rarely provides black-and-white explanations, the same is true here. Adding a QB to the mix creates an extra gap for defenses to defend. Each quarterback among the group with 50-plus attempts brings a unique skill set that makes them difficult to take down.

Jackson and Murray do it with outrageous speed and agility, albeit in different packages. Jackson is the smooth mover, while Murray darts in different directions like a fly.

Allen is the young teenager who hit puberty before his peers, bullying defenders with overwhelming size and power, with more than enough athleticism to boot.

Hurts is an incredibly intelligent runner, and he possesses good density to glance off tackle attempts.

Fields is an athletic specimen not unlike Allen in terms of density, but he is a few inches shorter, is far more agile, and is still strong enough to throw tacklers off him.

Fields is impressive among a group of the freakiest athletes on the planet because his offense isn’t as shaped as Hurts’s or Jackson’s. In addition to being an agile 6-foot-2, 230-pound QB, he also is faster than most players on the field at any given time. Luke Getsy has started to figure some things out, but it’s all things borrowed, and he’s still working through how to make it all work together.

Impressively enough, the Bears QB is doing much of his work on scrambles. In total, 53 of his 108 non-kneeling attempts have come on scrambles.

Coverage vs. Run Defending and Pass Rush

Coach Cody Alexander is the creator of the website MatchQuarters.com. He’s written six books on modern defenses and one outstanding piece in his substack about defending the QB run.

And in that piece, he said something that resonated with me when it comes to playing defense:

“At the surface level, there seems to be a dichotomy between fitting the run and defending the pass. Like oil and water, the two separate themselves from each other. In reality, defenses are not divorced; instead, they need to be in harmony for a defense to thrive. An overreliance on one exposes the defense to the other.”

That’s exactly what happened in the inspiration for the content you’re reading now. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Green Bay Packers 40-33 in a game where the Eagles ran for 363 yards.

I am not a defensive coordinator, and I do not claim to be as intelligent as Joe Barry. But the Packers’ defensive issues felt obvious throughout the contest. Teams want to run out of two-high, at least pre-snap. There is a world of opportunities coverage-wise when aligning in a middle-of-field-open look pre-snap.

The issue is that it leaves your defense light in the box.

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Playing even defenders for blockers is already a decision defensive coordinators must live with. But against option teams with a good running QB, it’s a way to get chunks torn out of your defense in the run game. If you’re even against an option team, you’re actually down one because the quarterback adds a gap to account for.

But the offense is purposely leaving a defender unblocked as part of the quarterback’s read, which effectively takes the box count down to minus-2. That is how you have a team average 7.4 yards per pop on the ground over a 49-carry sample.

See, the Eagles, Ravens, and Bears specifically don’t need to spread teams out and pick them apart in the passing game. And they don’t automatically need to abandon the run game when they find themselves in a deficit because they can create explosives with the run game, especially when teams are sitting in light boxes with the lead.

But that wasn’t the only issue for the Packers’ defense against the Eagles.

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In reality, Hurts could have dumped a pass off to Kenneth Gainwell here for an even bigger gain, as Quay Walker futilely abandoned his coverage responsibility to defend Hurts’ legs. And yes, the Packers’ defense did a poor job tackling on this particular rep.

But Green Bay ran man coverage on multiple high-leverage third-and-long situations in this game, opting to turn their backs to the mobile QB, only to have him put his head down and scamper for the first down instead.

That’s something Giants QB Daniel Jones has done with great success this year under Mike Kafka and Brian Daboll. If there is a crease and the defense insists on turning their back to you, quarterbacks are opting to take off.

Playing coverage without properly accounting for the QB’s rushing ability is putting the cart before the horse. Defenses can no longer sit back in coverage without a plan to defend a scrambling QB. That’s how the Raiders ended up allowing the Cardinals comeback early in the season. They couldn’t account for Murray’s legs.

A few years ago, Scott Barrett and PFF studied QB rushing attempts against man and zone coverage from 2015-2018. They found QBs rushed for 8.76 yards per carry against man coverage versus 6.93 against zone.

Simply put, playing man coverage against a mobile QB is more dangerous than zone coverage.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

We already saw it in the clip above. Shane Steichen has gone all the way into his bag when it comes to the option game, particularly with that “Bash QB GT Counter” or “Inverted Counter Read.” Traditionally, the back would be the one following the pulling linemen on this counter read. Bash puts the running back on the backside running a sweep action.

Because Hurts is such a talented runner, the offensive coordinator wants to freeze the read defender on the sweep, the keep cue for Hurts. Not every offensive line will be built to play on the move the way Philadelphia is. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to stress a defense in the option game outside of the traditional zone read.

Different concepts create different questions for a defense to answer. That, in particular, is why we can’t just say that the edge defender is responsible for the quarterback and the linebacker is responsible for the back, and vice-versa. It’s far more complicated than that.

Even if we’re simply looking at concepts where the primary read is the EMOL (end man on line), offenses can adjust to the different ways to defend certain runs. Every defender has a different skill set, even at the same position.

Sam Hubbard is an outstanding run defender on the edge for Cincinnati. However, if he was told the back is his responsibility when he’s the read man, that puts him at a disadvantage if the offense is using bash, because it puts Hubbard in space, where he is less effective because he doesn’t have the same speed as, say, Myles Garrett.

The variety in how teams deploy their option offense can create chaos defensively. Given the lack of practice time made available to NFL teams thanks to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, there are only so many answers they can come up with. Remember, in the end, fewer than a third of NFL teams really delve into the option game, so it is on the relative backburner until it’s time to face it.

Not every offense reads EMOL only, either. And by peeking at Hurts’ eyes throughout the season, it appears the Eagles are one of them that will read the linebacker at the second level to decide whether to give or keep on a given play.

It’s more common to see this on things like Power and Veer rather than a true read option, but on split zone option that can be added in, as the H-back kicks out on the EMOL, allowing the QB to read the linebacker.

The NFL continues to pluck ideas from the high school and college level on offense. Speed option is something the Cowboys like to run in 3×1 sets to the single tight end side, and teams are even starting to get players on the wing involved in triple-option looks.

Defending the Option

While teams certainly have options themselves defending the QB run game, individual defensive matchups dictate the techniques defenders can viably implement.

We see “feathering” most often. Instead of charging the mesh point like a bat out of hell, the read defender slowly approaches the mesh to force a give to the back and then defends the cutback lane once he sees the QB has, in fact, handed off the ball. The problem with this is it effectively gives the EMOL two jobs and can cause confusion at the mesh point because the defender is trying to play both.

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An option that is practically obsolete is in the above video. Jaelan Phillips posted a 9.87 Relative Athletic Score at the Scouting Combine. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash and posted an elite short shuttle.

And even he can’t defend the option like this. The “squeeze-and-pop” technique is as described. The read defender stays square but dives down the line to force a keep, before popping out and trying to string out the QB long enough for help to arrive.

It’s simply a poor option with the level of athlete we’re seeing at QB these days. Even if an edge defender were to try and string out a QB, Murray, Jackson, and Fields are all sudden enough to plant that outside foot and get downfield as the defender stumbles to stop their momentum.

Charging the mesh is something more teams should probably implement on a regular basis when defending option teams. They don’t want their QBs taking too many unnecessary hits, and mesh charging forces those hits on a QB, cutback lane be damned.

And that is exactly why defenses don’t often do this. Not only does it leave them susceptible to cutbacks against zone read, but it also leaves them down a gap against same side zone and traditional power read as they attack the space vacated by the upfield EMOL.

But at the end of the day, there is a give-and-take running a QB as often as teams are starting to do. Getting hit as a passer is a better predictor of QB injury than running the ball. However, as we’ve seen with running backs, piling up hits takes its toll over time, so teams and QBs are walking a fine line.

justin fields
Nov 13, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) runs with the ball against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Vick Revolutionized the Game, and Justin Fields May Be The Evolution of It

We’re seeing a generation of quarterbacks who grew up watching Vick. There’s a chance no QB in NFL history will have left a more significant impact on the game of football. Running QBs didn’t exist past college football before Vick. But in the modern game, the days of the statuesque pocket passer are gone. If you can’t create with your feet on third downs early in your career, you’ll play like hell to be consistently productive.

Forever, square quarterbacks were shoved into round holes. Now, like the times, offensive coordinators are more open-minded and willing to mold an offense around the strengths of the QB.

What Steichen is doing in Philadelphia will probably earn him a head coaching job somewhere else in the future. And Getsy’s ability to flip the script with Fields and the Bears’ offensive midway through the season could change the Bears’ future.

Because as talented as Hurts is, Fields is a supercharged version of that in nearly every single physical attribute one can imagine. Fields leads the group of mobile QBs in EPA, and he’s doing it without the structure and ingenuity of Philadelphia’s run game or their offensive line.

At Ohio State, Fields led a devastating intermediate and downfield passing attack with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. It wasn’t the same type of mesh-filled, option-latent offenses we’d seen with Urban Meyer. In fact, Trevor Lawrence probably showed more as a rusher in college than Fields did, even though the potential was always there with him.

Now, he’s breaking tackles at a higher rate than any player in the league while giving us some truly special displays of athleticism.

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Fields has 26 runs of 10-plus yards on 66 attempts. That’s good enough for fourth in the entire league trailing only Nick Chubb (33), Jackson (31), and Josh Jacobs (31).

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This is your reminder that Fields weighed in at 227 pounds at the combine, and he moves like that! Vick and Jackson are truly impressive athletes. But the way Fields moves at his density is otherworldly.

Giving Getsy an entire offseason to build an offense that best plays to Fields’ strengths as a passer while also improving the variety and smoothness in the option run game could change the Bears’ fortunes moving forward, especially if Ryan Poles can improve the Bears’ offensive line.

Chicago is just scratching the surface with Fields. If he continues to grow as a passer, he’ll become practically indefensible. But the second half of the season has shown how dangerous the Bears’ offense can be, even with an incomplete picture.

We’re Just Getting Started

There are five stages of technological adaptation that make up 100% of the pie. The mobile QB revolution feels similar. There are innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%), and laggards (16%).

Vick was the innovator. And while Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton certainly ran the ball a lot, the rest of the league didn’t follow suit. Now, we have Jackson, Hurts, Fields, Murray, and Allen. That’s a bit over the 13.5%, but close enough.

There is an entire generation of young athletes not only seeing athletic phenoms playing QB but excelling at the NFL level playing the position. Soon, this will be the norm. Teams will fight tooth and nail, finding ways to adequately defend the option while still playing coverage.

Now, athletes like Jackson won’t be pushed to play a different position. Fans won’t call Fields or Jackson a running back in an attempt to discredit their abilities at the position because a majority of the league will operate similarly. The game is changing, and the league is more entertaining for it.

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