After two weeks on the road to open the season the Patriots will open their home slate on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens in a rivalry game that has provided some of the most memorable games of the last 20 years.
The Pats are 1-1 against Lamar Jackson, dropping their first contest of 2019 to the young quarterback before bouncing back in 2020 with no fans in the stands and rain pouring down from the heavens. Baltimore is coming off a hugely disappointing loss to the Dolphins in which they blew a three-score lead and allowed too many explosive scores that gave Miami the victory. While their defense is having issues against the pass for the second year in a row, Jackson remains a dual threat who can score with his arm or legs from anywhere on the field. Expect Baltimore to get right sooner than later, with the Patriots offense doing everything they can to make sure it doesn't happen this week.
The Ravens have one of the most unique and difficult offenses in the NFL to prepare for, they'll surely put a New England defense that has been excellent through two weeks to the test. Here are the 10 key things to watch!
Andrews easily leads the Ravens in receptions (14 catches, 156 yards) and remains the key offensive piece for Jackson. While there is plenty of concern about Lamar's legs and the deep passing attack, Andrews is where Jackson will be looking in the "gotta have it" moments. With a diverse safety group, the Patriots should have the personnel to match up as Andrews can be expected to line up all over the formation. Keeping him in check will be a sneaky big key, in his two games against New England he has a solid nine catches for 82 yards.
Prevent Big Plays
This game will likely be determined by the amount of big plays that the two teams can execute, as they were the defining feature of last week's Ravens-Dolphins game. With the Patriots unlikely to put on the same aerial acrobatics that the Dolphins did, making sure they contain Ravens receivers Devin Duvernay and Rashod Bateman and don't get beat over the top is a huge key to the game. New England's performance in Week 1 containing Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the same duo that combined for over 300 receiving yards against the Ravens, should offer some confidence that the Patriots can force Lamar to take what he has underneath.
Mac-ing strides in offense
The Patriots had a good plan last week against the Steelers on offense. They put Mac in the shotgun and let him do what he does best before turning to the running game to close out the impressive victory. Still, the performances by the offense in Weeks 1 and 2 were largely similar, with a contested ball going for a touchdown instead of an interception, and turnovers making the biggest difference in the game. The opportunities against Baltimore's pass defense should be there. If Mac can pick up some of the plays he missed against the Steelers, more easy explosive plays should show up. But despite the stats and recent performances, the Patriots should expect to get a fully focused Ravens team that is looking to get on stride defensively.
There's only one Lamar
Jackson could once again be on an MVP pace completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 531 yards with six touchdowns to one interception, while also rushing for 136 yards on 15 carries that included a 79-yard touchdown scamper against Miami. The Patriots defeated Jackson in 2020, but still saw him pass for 249 yards and rush for 55 yards in the loss with weather playing a significant factor. Jackson will make his plays, but a basic plan should include keeping him contained in the pocket, taking away his deep options and making him move through his reads to his checkdowns. It's easier written than done, one missed tackle or false step could mean a long touchdown run, but it's a good place to start philosophically.
Bombs away on Ravens secondary?
Can the Patriots passing attack take advantage of the mounting injuries and experience in the Ravens' secondary? They might not have the kind of speed at receiver that the Dolphins do, but the emerging attack has some elements to work with, including Nelson Agholor's first 100-yard receiving day as a Patriot. With Kendrick Bourne seeing a gradual increase in his role, the Patriots should consider spreading the field once again to test the Ravens, and avoid running headfirst into their monstrous defensive interior. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are still very talented corners playing in front of what appears to be one of the best safety groups in the NFL. The talent is there for the Ravens, but the Patriots cannot let this be the week that they get on track.
Run to win
Despite an offseason full of talk about the "Shanahan Offense," Sunday's win over the Steelers featured a throwback to the roots of the Patriots original system, the Erhardt-Perkins offense. One of its main adages was "Throw to score, run to win," and that was clearly how the Patriots managed to get their first win. Why get away from what worked? The Steelers and Baltimore are similar AFC North teams, happy to take on a ball control struggle where physicality rules the day. What does that mean for Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson? The duo went wire-to-wire last week, as the Pats attack lacks a true third down back at the moment as Pierre Strong develops and Ty Montgomery gets healthy on IR. This week Harris and Stevenson should stay ready for another fourth-quarter put-away.
Fight the power
Baltimore's offense is a song of speed and power. On one hand they've got the fastest quarterback in the game with two top weapons that can get downfield in a hurry, while on the other hand you've got a multiple tight end and fullback offense that isn't afraid to turn games into a field brawl. The Ravens will almost always have at least two tight ends or a tight end and a fullback on the field. Can the Patriots counter this by creatively tapping their talented safety group? With speed on the back end of the defense, finding a balance between the linebackers and safeties will be Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo's challenge. Mack Wilson could find himself playing another significant role, while Ja'Whaun Bentley's physicality will be depended upon if he's healthy enough to go after battling injuries before and during last week's game.
How about some credit for the Patriots' pass protection last week, which was recorded with just three QB hits and zero sacks allowed. That kind of protection is something that can give Mac Jones' confidence in the pocket a boost. But the Ravens are another difficult test up front with veterans Calais Campbell and Justin Houston still playing tough football, while emerging youngsters Odafe Oweh and Patrick Queen provide a boost of youthful aggressiveness. That foursome will be heavily involved up front against the Patriots and will challenge them to put together another sack-free performance.
Take it away
Takeaways proved to be the difference for the second week in a row for the Patriots. Against Miami, they lost the turnover battle 3-0, but against the Steelers they forced the key takeaway on Gunner Olsewski's fumble that was the game's turning point. But Baltimore has just one giveaway this season, a meaningless interception by Jackson against the Jets, so counting on mistakes by Baltimore's offense might be a bad formula. Still, if we've learned anything from the Patriots of the last two years, their most direct route to getting a victory is when they get game-changing mistakes from their opponents. In the 2020 matchup, the only takeaway of the game for either team came on a J.C. Jackson interception near the end of the first half with the Ravens threatening to at least tie the game with a field goal. The 2019 game was a wash with both teams getting two turnovers each. Like New England, Baltimore will rarely beat themselves, but winning the turnover margin by just a single takeaway might just be enough to turn the tide.