The Patriots are feeling better about themselves coming off last week's win in Pittsburgh, but now Bill Belichick's defense will face its toughest test at quarterback.
Trending towards another NFL MVP-caliber campaign, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has accounted for 89 percent of Baltimore's total offensive output and all seven of their touchdowns. With the Ravens still figuring out their running back situation, Lamar is their running game, and he has also solved his struggles against the blitz so far this season.
Whenever Belichick needs to devise a plan to slow down one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, watching the chess match and how the Pats head coach attempts to limit them is fascinating.
With that in mind, here's how the Ravens highlight Jackson's best traits in one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL and ways the Patriots might try to defend Baltimore on Sunday.
THE RUNNING GAME
Every Lamar Jackson game plan starts with defending the designed quarterback runs in the Ravens arsenal. Baltimore typically features gap schemes such as QB power or counter designs, which aim to fold the defense and create downhill creases for Jackson to burst through for chunk gains.
Plus, the Ravens have the second-highest rate of motion at the snap, using different escort or lead motions to add blockers into the running game to gain the numbers advantage.
"It really forces a lot of eye discipline for the off-the-ball players, the linebackers and safeties. The guys who are on the ball don't see all of that. They see the blocking scheme in front of them, who's attacking them, who's blocking them, and what type of block they are trying to make on them. They react to that. Whether it's a cut-off block, a reach block, a base block, a high arm, whatever it is. They're really playing the blocker and finding the ball."
"It's the guys on the second level, the linebackers, the safeties, could be corners involved, whoever those players are, trying to sort out who's got who depending on what coverage you're in. Do we switch it? Are we locked? Is it a three-man switch? Is it a two-man switch? Who's got the back after he fakes, after all the crisscrossing happens? Who's got the quarterback? Just takes a lot of discipline, and I'd say pre-snap communication."
"The offense does that to try to keep you off-balance and keep the defense confused or hesitant. You try to set rules, guidelines on how to play those things," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told Patriots.com this week.
Last week, Jackson's 79-yard touchdown against the Dolphins was a great example of the stress Baltimore's designed runs put on the defense and Jackson's explosiveness as a runner.
Baltimore is blocking QB power read with Lamar in the shotgun and a pulling guard climbing to the MIKE linebacker. As speedster Devin Duvernay comes in motion, the running back next to Jackson releases as a lead blocker for Duvernay in case Lamar hands it off. The motion causes Miami's deep safety, Jevon Holland, to come down towards the line of scrimmage, taking away the depth of the defense. The pulling guard blocks linebacker Elandon Roberts in the hole, and Jackson bursts through the line and runs to pay dirt essentially untouched.
"Miami got hit on a couple plays where there wasn't a lot of depth on the defense. They split them and went for long yardage. But, they attack the running game very aggressively. It's really a gap running game with the running back, and obviously, the quarterback is a big part of that," Belichick added.
After struggling with the designed quarterback run game in the 2019 matchup, the Patriots adjusted the following season by inverting the formation in a three-safety package with Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips as wide edges (if Dugger can't play, expect Jabrill Peppers to take his spot).
With their most athletic tacklers on the perimeter to prevent Jackson and the Ravens running backs from turning the corner, New England used bear fronts to cover Baltimore's interior offensive lineman and prevent the Ravens from pulling their guards.
Although Belichick mentioned there isn't much carryover from the 2020 matchup due to roster turnover, the plan held the Ravens to -0.11 expected points added per rush (48th percentile).
THE PASSING GAME
During the 2021 season, the Dolphins put a blueprint on film for the rest of the NFL by sending the house at the 2019 MVP.
Miami wasn't the only team to find success by blitzing Jackson, as his 70.0 passer rating against the blitz was the fourth-lowest in the NFL in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus.
LAMAR JACKSON VS. THE BLITZ
LAST TWO SEASONS, VIA PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS
|STAT||VS. BLITZ IN 2022||VS. BLITZ IN 2021|
However, Lamar had all the answers this time in a shootout with the Dolphins last week, and as a result, Jackson's numbers against the blitz this season are drastically improved.
Again, the Patriots might not rely on the 2020 game plan as much as we expect, but the plan did feature only three blitzes on 40 drop-backs by Jackson. In short, Lamar has shredded the blitz two weeks in a row, and the Pats didn't blitz much the last time around.
Before we break down how the Pats pass defense defended Lamar, we have to highlight another conundrum: the box count. With Jackson as the primary ball carrier in the running game, defenses have an uphill battle because the offense is plus-one in the box after accounting for the QB.
With the offense at a numbers advantage, adding split-safety shells where the defense loses another body in the box against the run is playing with fire. But now the Ravens are finding ways to attack single-high coverages, knowing that's what they'll get (see above).
In the 2020 matchup, the Patriots majored in zone coverage with cover-3 (19 snaps) and cover-2 (ten). By keeping all eyes on Lamar, zone coverage allowed the defense to contain the QB on scrambles and forced Jackson to beat them from the pocket, mainly with a contained mush rush.
But if Jackson continues to stay hot against single-high structures, and the Pats don't want to take a defender out of the box in split-safety shells, they also have a man coverage wrinkle that Miami mimicked.
The wrinkle for the Dolphins was to have safety Brandon Jones spy Jackson with the rest of the defense in man coverage. In 2019, the Pats did the same with Jonathan Jones to get a more athletic open-field tackler as the spy instead of a linebacker.
Although there are advantages to man coverage, the Patriots have played 77 percent of their defensive snaps in zone coverage this season.
With the ultra-mobile Jackson coming to town, we expect the Patriots to sit in zone and make Lamar beat them with his arm.
PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. RAVENS DEFENSE
The Ravens are two games into the Mike Macdonald era on the defensive side of the ball.
Macdonald spent seven seasons with the Ravens, including three with former defensive coordinator Don Martindale, before returning to Baltimore after a short stint as Michigan's defensive coordinator.
Due to Macdonald's history in Baltimore, the Ravens defense has plenty of carryover from the Martindale days. But with only two weeks of film, it's hard to get a great read on if Macdonald will turn up the aggressiveness as his predecessor did.
Martindale's defenses consistently ranked among the league leaders in blitz rate, and as the Pats saw in the preseason with Wink's Giants, the veteran coach has a maniacal blitz package.
Macdonald's zone-heavy approach in the first two weeks featured less blitzing, which is pretty typical when you play the majority of reps in zone.
Baltimore still did some exotic scheming in the first two weeks, like dropping free safety Marcus Williams all the way from the line of scrimmage to centerfield. But we didn't see a pressure package on Wink's level.
Without much tape and all of it coming against the Shanahan tree, it's difficult to say what a tweaked Ravens defense might do against the Patriots on Sunday.
Based on their first two games, they'll play a lot of zone coverage, which means the floods, high-lows, and possibly more play-action concepts will be called frequently.
Belichick explained earlier this week that play-action is less effective against man coverage. Baltimore, who played zone primarily in the first two weeks, has given up the most receptions (21) against play-action through two games.
The Ravens linebackers are aggressive downhill players, especially Patrick Queen, and can be easily sucked into the line of scrimmage by play-action.
If the Ravens morph into a man coverage defense as the Steelers did last week, expect a similar passing script of crossers, dig routes, and verticals to clear out the coverage.
Baltimore's defensive strategy is a bit of an unknown against a non-Shanahan-style offense, so we anticipate adjustments once the game declares.
1. Pats LT Trent Brown vs. Ravens EDGE Justin Houston
This matchup is more about the interior rushers for the Ravens than Houston, but the veteran pass-rusher can still get after it and takes advantage of the interior guys denting the pocket. DT Justin Madubuike is a rising star, Calais Campbell hasn't lost much juice, and Michael Pierce is a stout early-down nose tackle. Mac Jones might not have much room to step up in the pocket, which has opened the side door for Houston in the first two games (2 sacks, 11 QB pressures).
2. Pats DT Davon Godchaux vs. Ravens C Tyler Linderbaum
Everybody knows that Baltimore wants to run the football, and they'd prefer to use gap schemes to get downhill. The rookie center has held up through two games, but Godchaux needs to lead the charge in occupying the interior trio. The Pats need to turn this into a zone rushing attack, not a downhill game, to limit the explosive plays on the ground for Baltimore. Big week for Godchaux.
3. Pats WR Nelson Agholor vs. Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey/Marcus Peters
Pats wideout Jakobi Meyers (knee) is banged up, as is Humphrey (groin), and both didn't participate in practice in the first two days. The Ravens will play some man coverage this week, so if that leads to Peters on Agholor, then the Pats speedster needs to win that matchup. Look for New England to run Agholor out of the slot. If Peters travels with him, that's a mismatch inside. Peters is much more comfortable ball-hawking on the boundary in zone.
4. Pats CB Jonathan Jones vs. Ravens WR Rashod Bateman
We all know about Mark Andrews. But the player who stood out the most on the Ravens offense while watching film is the second-year wideout. As evidenced by taking a slant 75 yards to the house against Miami, Bateman combines straight-line explosiveness with noticeable separation quickness through the break. Although we anticipate that the Pats will lean heavily on zone coverage, Bateman is quickly developing into Lamar's 1B to Andrews when the Ravens face man-to-man.