Yes, quarterbacks in the NFL still play on offense. But there is a reason why the position is called the most important in all of sports. It is because competent, or at times exceptional, QB play can affect the entire team, both offense and defense. Lamar Jackson signing a long-term deal and remaining with the Baltimore Ravens is not just a huge boost to the offense; it will also significantly help the defense.
When we look at team success in football, it starts and ends with points. Your offense has to score more points than your defense surrenders. Sometimes, it’s really just that simple. Obviously, Jackson is an upgrade at quarterback for Baltimore, who were poised to enter the season with Tyler Huntley under center if Jackson refused to return. But the behavioral data suggests that it is also going to be a huge lift for the defense.
Lamar Jackson Impacts the Baltimore Ravens’ Defense
When looking at quarterback play, we typically look at all the usual suspects in terms of statistics. Yards, touchdowns, interceptions, completion percentage, whichever passer rating metrics tell the story you want to hear, etc. But one thing we almost never look at is ball control.
That’s because it isn’t always clear how much one play impacts that. With Jackson missing significant time last year, we are able to look at what environmental impacts can be correlated with his absence.
Jackson Keeps the Defense Off the Field
When looking at several Ravens-focused behavioral data points that I track, one thing remains pretty clear: Despite how you feel about Jackson’s ability to throw the ball, he is by far the most effective game manager for this Ravens team, and that has real value.
Consider this: Through the first 11 games of the season (when Jackson started), the defense was on the field for less than 28 minutes 55% of the time. They were on the field less than 30 minutes 63% of the time. You may ask, why is this important?
The answer is simple. This was saving the Ravens’ defense. Through that part of the season, the defense was not yet the elite unit we would see later in the year. They were giving up .64 points per minute of possession time on average. That does not tell the whole story. They actually had a score prevention behavior rate of more than that in 63% of those 11 games and averaged over one full point per minute of possession time in four of those contests.
It stands to reason that if the defense had been on the field any longer than they needed to be, or in other words, if Jackson could not help control the clock on offense by possessing the ball, it stands to reason the defense would have given up even more points in those games, resulting in more losses.
As it is, in those seven games where the defense averaged .7 points per minute of possession time or more, the Ravens went 3-4. Without Jackson controlling the clock, that easily could have been 0-7 and a lost season.
How Do We Know Jackson Was the Reason?
What helps us determine Jackson’s value in this situation is that we got to see significant playing time from Tyler Huntley once Jackson went down. When looking at changes in behavior, we must examine environmental changes that occurred concurrently with the behavior change. Simply put, Jackson allowed the Ravens’ defense to find its form, so it could then try to carry Huntley.
In the seven starts from Huntley, the Ravens would go 3-4, including a postseason loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. That is an identical record that Baltimore had in the seven games with Jackson starting.
In the seven games Huntley started, the defense was giving up only .46 points per minute of possession time, a 38% improvement from when Jackson was the starter. Additionally, the defense went from getting better at preventing points week over week by 32% with Jackson as the starter to getting worse at preventing points by 74% week over week.
That’s a 113% difference in the wrong direction.
What could explain that? Well, the defense went from being on the field for an average of about 27 minutes during Jackson’s 11 starts to about 30.5 minutes in Huntley’s seven starts. Extra time on the field means more opportunities to give up points. It means expending more energy, and it means suffering from more fatigued.
Four of Huntley’s starts kept the defense on the field for over 31 minutes. The Ravens went 1-3 in those games despite the defense only giving up an average of 16 points. Jackson’s ability to lead and manage the game plan not only made up for a defense still finding its footing but also allowed the team to get through bad defensive performances. That simply ceased to exist once Huntley took over.
Yes, Lamar Jackson Also Impacts the Ravens’ Offense
The reason Jackson impacts the defense is because of the profound impact he has on the offense. Now, to be clear, the offense was nothing special in terms of scoring points efficiently, even with Jackson.
Their scoring behavior rate of .75 points per minute of possession time with Jackson would have ranked them in the middle of the pack at 16th in the NFL, just ahead of the New England Patriots (.745) and behind the Chicago Bears (.767).
The Ravens’ Offense Needs Improvement, But Not Tyler Huntley
The story is even worse with Huntley. His seven starts brought a scoring behavior rate of .48 points per minute of possession time, which would be third-worst in the entire league, ahead of only the Cleveland Browns and the Houston Texans. The Texans had the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, and the Browns would have had a top-15 selection.
To make matters worse, the decrease in scoring behavior rate from Jackson to Huntley is 53%. That is the second-largest drop-off between an opening-day starter and his replacement in 2022. Nine of Jackson’s 11 starts had a higher scoring behavior rate than all of Huntley’s starts. It isn’t really close between them.
To put this in simplest terms, had the Ravens opted not to re-sign Jackson and entered 2023 with Hunley as the starter, this team would not be a playoff contender. Not only would the offense not bear it, but the defense would not be able to hold the weight of the world that is the Ravens franchise.