On Sunday night, the New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens. Will Lamar Jackson be seeing ghosts, or will he run right around them?
The Baltimore Ravens are perhaps the NFL’s most unique team, treating Lamar Jackson like a running back just as much as they treat him like a quarterback. This stands to cause problems in the New England Patriots‘ game-planning for their high-profile primetime matchup on Sunday Night Football this weekend.
Jackson has taken one of the biggest between-season leaps that the NFL has ever seen from a quarterback. Last season, while remaining a threatening presence on the ground, Jackson threw for an abysmal 75 yards per game and fumbled 10 times. It was a bit of an overused joke to call Jackson a running back instead of a quarterback, but he did play just like a running back summoned to play QB after his team’s fourth-stringer went down.
This year, his stats have sharply improved. 63% accuracy and 235 yards per game are far better than his sloppy 2018 campaign, But they still don’t seem that great, right?
Well, when you remember he’s accrued an astonishing 82 yards rushing per game, accounting for over 300 total yards of his team’s offense each match, you realize how threatening he really is as a player. The man is a running back with a quarterback’s arm… an arm that has also figured out how to stop fumbling,
As dynamic as Jackson is, it would seem that a dominant New England defense should be able to stifle his success; after all, that’s what they’ve been doing to offensive weapons all season long. However, the current design of the Pats D might not do a great job defending Jackson. To explain why, let’s analyze the way the squad worked their best game: the Jets’ “seeing ghosts” Monday Night Football game two weeks ago.
Jets QB Sam Darnold is a second-year player just like Jackson, but his play style is the polar opposite. He’s not the most mobile, but his strength (supposedly) is a consistent Peyton Manning-like arm that helps him thrive by stepping up into the pocket and delivering accurate balls. To guard against this, head coach Bill Belichick had the secondary doing what they’ve done all season: playing smothering man coverage. Meanwhile, everyone on the defense that wasn’t covering a receiver blitzed, a strategy known as a “zero blitz.”
In this setup, you have a defensive back following each receiver and everyone else (six-eight men) bull-rushing the quarterback. Belichick knows that Stephon Gilmore and the McCourty twins are too skilled to be beat by Jets receivers, and that Darnold would be crippled by the pass rush just enough to make bad throws and take costly sacks.
Darnold ended up finishing the night 11-of-32 for 86 yards and four interceptions in his worst outing as either a professional or collegiate quarterback.
This isn’t a Jets-exclusive playcall by Belichick either; all season the Patriots have been victimizing quarterbacks by playing great man coverage and hunting the QB. When your secondary can do such a great job covering receivers that the linebackers don’t need to play zones, the opposing offensive line can be overwhelmed quickly.
Here’s the problem: while man coverage can work great against QBs like Darnold and Daniel Jones, a lightning-fast QB like Lamar Jackson can find a way to beat it. Ravens head man John Harbaugh is one of the best coaches in the NFL, and if the Pats commit to man coverage with blitzes, then he can use Jackson’s skillset to take advantage of it.
Let’s put the zero blitz against the Ravens offense, and let’s suppose Harbaugh’s learned to read the defense’s positions enough to tell when it’s coming. Here’s how Harbaugh beats it: he lines up his receivers in regular spots, but their routes all head downfield to the right. Mark Ingram lines up on the left of Jackson in shotgun formation, and he acts as an extra blocker for the QB.
Jackson takes the snap, drops back a couple steps — tipping off to the secondary that they should indeed expect a throw — and then he takes off to the left, ideally with Mark Ingram running ahead of him and not hooked up with a defensive end. If Jackson can get around the end of the line, then the New England defense is exactly where Harbaugh and Jackson want them to be. The receivers have led the cornerbacks to the right side of the field, and the New England linebackers like Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy (while great at what they do) won’t have the speed to catch Jackson running toward the other side of the field.
If all goes right, there’s nothing stopping Jackson from evading the blitz and consistently running downfield for about 15 yards. If the Patriots commit to man coverage, then when Jackson is planning on running the ball, he just has to feign a pass and have the receivers lead their defenders away from his true planned rushing lane.
Man coverage beats a great arm, but a great ground attack beats man coverage. This is why I expect Belichick to call the Patriots defense a little more conservatively on Sunday night, perhaps playing some shallow zone and not blitzing excessively. This would give Jackson more time in the pocket, thus giving him more opportunity to throw rather than make escapist runs.
As dynamic as Jackson is, his arm alone won’t shred defenses. If New England can spy on Jackson’s rushes and dare him to throw, then it’s up to Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, and the McCourty twins to shut the passing game down while simultaneously making sure they’re staying responsible and not falling for decoy routes.
We’ll just have to have faith in Belichick to draw up the right scheme to fully stop Baltimore. While Jackson, Harbaugh, and the Ravens are certainly a force to be reckoned with, Pats Nation is also perfectly comfortable having faith in Bill Belichick to steer them to victory.