Throughout the Patriots' 8-0 start to the 2019 season, it seems like just about everyone outside of the football offices at Gillette Stadium lamented the fact that Bill Belichick’s team, especially its talented defense, has yet to be tested.
Well, lament no more, because Sunday night in Baltimore New England’s defense must deal with unique second-year Ravens (5-2) starting quarterback Lamar Jackson.
A first-round pick a year ago, Jackson has taken his game and his team to the next level this fall, cementing the Ravens as a contender in the AFC thanks to his dual-threat skills.
“I’ve never seen a player like this at the quarterback position,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I think, obviously, his speed. The way he’s able to throw the ball down the field. You watch some games where he’s moving around the pocket, he’s close to running, and he sees a guy downfield, and it’s like he flicks his wrist and it’s 50 yards down the field easily. So, I think it’s his ability to throw the ball down the field. But also, they come out there in empty and if it’s not there, if he doesn’t like what he sees, he’s able to make three guys miss in the backfield. Now, it’s 45-50 yards later before anybody gets next to him. I think it’s a combination of everything.
“If he was just a runner, then you would change your game plan and not worry about the pass. If he was just a passer, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal to try to make sure you keep him in the pocket. But, I think it’s his ability to do both things at such a high level that makes it tough, and then it’s the scheme that they run. Everything is not something that you see every week, so now you’re trying to prepare for something that you can’t replicate in practice. We don’t have anybody that can throw the ball and run the ball like he can, so it’s very tough to prepare for him.”
Jackson leads the Ravens –and ranks 10th in the NFL overall – with 576 yards rushing on just 83 attempts for a 6.9-yard average. The former Heisman Trophy winner has also made strides as a passer, completing 63.3 percent of his throws with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions for a respectable 94.1 passer rating, though a big chunk of that production came in an opening day blowout of the Dolphins.
“He's a major problem and everybody's had trouble with him,” Belichick observed. “It'll be a big challenge for us. Yeah, he can do it all. He can run, he can throw, can throw on the run, can extend plays. He's tough.”
Of course the Patriots defense is tough too. And Jackson will certainly face a different kind of test than he’s previously met up with in his young career, even if he is coming off an impressive pre-bye win in Seattle.
It’s also the latest installment in what has been a pretty competitive rivalry over the last decade, a primetime battle between two of the perceived top teams in the conference.
“You’re going to have two teams that I would probably go out there to say probably don’t like each other very much, and go out there and try to beat each other,” McCourty concluded. “It’s going to be as competitive as a game we’ve had this year.”
“It'll be a great atmosphere down there Sunday night and a big challenge for us,” Belichick added.
As the hours wind down to this big test for both teams, here are some key areas to keep an eye on in this clash of AFC contenders.
Two good runners – There has been a ton of focus this week on Jackson and his impressive running ability from the quarterback position. He can certainly make plays and make defenders look silly. But Baltimore also has another productive piece in its No. 1 rushing attack, a more traditional rusher in running back Mark Ingram. Ingram has 470 yards on 99 attempts (4.7 avg.) as well as seven touchdowns. He and the offensive line are capable of moving the ball on the ground even if Jackson isn’t doing his deeds. There is also the question of whether the rush defense might be the weakness of the Patriots impressive unit. Nick Chubb had 131 yards on 20 attempts last week for a 6.6-yard average, even if the production was overshadowed by his two fumbles. Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.7 yards per carry on his 15 attempts a week earlier as the best the Jets could muster. Frank Gore hit it for 109 yards back in Buffalo in Week 4 in New England’s toughest game to date. Sure the Patriots have a lot to deal with this week in regards to Jackson, but in order to keep the Ravens from putting together long drives they have to also prove they can stop the traditional running game with Ingram.
Man up? – New England has preferred being a man coverage team more often than not over the last few seasons. It plays into the strengths of some of its best defensive players, led by No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The problem with playing man coverage against a mobile quarterback is that it can lead to defenders being run off and open up lots of room for productive scrambles. So, do the Patriots go for more zone coverages on Sunday night? Probably. Will they mix things up against a young quarterback? Definitely. There is also the question of whether the Patriots utilize some sort of spy against Jackson, or a defender assigned to mirror him on essentially every play. That’s a likely proposition, at least on occasion, one that could involve any number of options including Jamie Collins, Devin McCourty or Jonathan Jones. There is a lot to consider when defending the Jackson-led Ravens offense. Then, even when you come up with a plan, the players actually have to go out there and execute it effectively.
Passe passing? – Tom Brady’s passing attack has been getting by more than it has be standing out. Really New England has targeted Julian Edelman and James White with what might be unsustainable regularity as the passing game goes through yet another transition. Josh Gordon is now long gone. Mohamed Sanu has a game under his belt and is trying to get up to speed. N’Keal Harry is in line to join the mix. And Phillip Dorsett continues to just kind of chug along in his complementary role. Even Ben Watson made a nice catch down the seam against the Browns. There are a lot of balls in the air right now with the passing game, though not a lot of proven, consistent, reliable targets for those balls. It’s up to Josh McDaniels and Brady to begin to figure out the strengths, weaknesses and approach of the weapons the team has to work with heading toward the key portion of the schedule. The Ravens have a middling pass defense, led by newcomers Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters in the back end. Those are two dangerous playmakers Brady must be wary of, but in all likelihood this could be another week when Edelman and White get leaned on as the rest of the group continues to work things out.
Just kickin’ it – Sunday night could certainly be a competitive game, one that’s tight on the scoreboard into the fourth quarter. It might even come down to a kick. If so, that’s a major advantage for Baltimore. Justin Tucker is probably the best kicker in the game right now, having hit all of his PATs and all 16 of his field goal attempts. Nick Folk is less than a week into his New England career, returning to the NFL after nearly two years away, including a stint in the AAF. Folk is a complete unknown. While he has a stronger leg than Mike Nugent, who was dismissed after four at-times ugly weeks, there will be plenty of questions about his reliability until he proves his mettle. Will Belichick be more willing to try plus-40 yard attempts? Hopefully, for the sake of Brady and the offense. Can Folk do the job? Stay tuned.
Jackson, Jackson, Jackson – It’s very likely that whatever Jackson does – good or bad – could decide the game. The last two weeks have seen the Patriots destroy two other first-round picks from last year’s draft. Sam Darnold was left seeing ghosts on his way to four interceptions and a fumble. Baker Mayfield didn’t see ghosts, but also didn’t see Lawrence Guy on a shovel-pass interception in another somewhat inept Cleveland performance that left the Browns leader lashing out at the media even days later. Is Jackson more up to the task of dealing with the mental, physical and playmaking pressure of battling the Patriots dominant Boogeymen defense? Can offensive coordinator Greg Roman put Jackson in position to succeed? He’s done it in the past with athletic quarterbacks against the Patriots, including leading Colin Kaepernick keying an impressive win in New England in 2012. Jackson, much like Reggie Jackson used to proclaim with the Yankees, is the straw that stirs the Baltimore drink. The players and coaches talked about him all week. Now they must deal with him.
Prediction – So far this season the Patriots have taken care of business through limited challenges. The games that appeared likely to be their biggest tests – in Buffalo and against a talented Browns squad – pretty much were just that. Now they head to a tough environment to face a team coming out of its bye feeling good about itself. On paper this certainly is the toughest test to date. As good as the Patriots defense is, it’s going to be hard to maintain a turnover pace that’s seen New England take the ball away from the Giants, Jets and Browns 13 times in the last three games, especially against a Ravens team that’s given it away just seven times in seven games. Look for New England to try to establish the short passing game – maybe going with some tempo offense – and a little bit of running to keep possession. Look for the defense to throw a lot of looks but not as much all-out aggressive calls at Jackson. Keeping a safety back to avoid big plays and trying to put forth controlled rushes will be key. Overall, look for the Patriots to be in probably their first real battle of the season against a team that’s very much capable of pulling of the upset. But in the end, look for Brady and Co. to prove their worth yet again in the 24-20 win to appease the “Who have they played?” masses to improve to 9-0 on the season heading into the bye week.