Lamar Jackson has seen three-man pass rushes and eight-in-the-box run defenses. He’s been blitzed, spied, dared to beat every manner of zone defense. And the second-year quarterback has handled it all rather well: Through eight weeks, the Ravens rank first in the NFL in rushing, second in total offense and fourth in scoring.
When their attack is in sync, Jackson can be breathtaking. Five weeks after posting the first perfect passer rating in franchise history, he threatened the NFL’s single-game rushing record for a quarterback. And when the offense is askew, Jackson can stabilize it for just long enough, a super glue that moves like lightning.
In Week 4, Jackson scrambled for 17 yards early in the third quarter of an eventual loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens have had more dynamic runs this season, but maybe not more unlikely ones. And that is what will worry New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his historically good defense ahead of Sunday’s prime-time matchup at M&T Bank Stadium.
After faking a handoff to running back Gus Edwards, Jackson started to roll to his right, looking for a receiver headed to the sideline. No one was open, and safety Eric Murray had cut off his path out wide. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi was closing in from the blind side. So Jackson tucked the ball, moved up in the pocket and took off.
Defensive end Olivier Vernon’s dive at Jackson’s feet might’ve touched a shoelace, but no more. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson grabbed at air as Jackson ran by, speeding to the sideline. Picking up a block from running back Mark Ingram II on linebacker Mack Wilson, he turned the corner before running safely out of bounds.
Jackson has had nine longer carries this season and countless more that went for less. This one was different. There might not be a play more illustrative of his improvisational ability, a talent all his own. This is not only because of the pocket presence and the speed and the agility. It’s also because the Ravens had lined up with just 10 players. A man down, Jackson had still managed a first down.
However long he plays in the NFL, Jackson might never face a tougher challenge than this Patriots defense. Over two months, it has as many touchdowns scored as allowed (four). It’s second in total defense and pass defense — behind only the San Francisco 49ers — and fourth in run defense. According to Football Outsiders, whose efficiency records date to 1986, it’s the best defense ever through eight games.
Jackson has often spoken of his reverence for Patriots legend Tom Brady: The six-time Super Bowl champion and four-time Most Valuable Player is the “GOAT,” or greatest of all time. But Jackson will be the most influential quarterback on the field Sunday. Even if Jackson and his receiving corps can’t puncture New England’s airtight secondary, it’s his running ability that has lifted him to MVP consideration.
As Belichick said in a conference call Tuesday with Baltimore-area reporters, “We don’t have a guy [to imitate him in practice]. I don’t know if anybody else in the league has a guy, either. He’s a very talented player with a great skill set that’s unique. So that will be a big challenge for us to try to do that, no question.”
How the Ravens unleash Jackson
The Ravens have the NFL’s top rushing offense because they also have the NFL’s most mobile quarterback. The Patriots have a top-five run defense largely because they don’t give up big plays. Of the Ravens’ 39 carries of 10-plus yards this season, Jackson has 19; New England has allowed just 15 such rushes all season.
The challenge for the Patriots will be cutting off both of the Ravens’ ground game sources: their traditional running attack, led by Jackson and running backs Ingram and Edwards, and their unplanned offense, which comes to life whenever Jackson scrambles.
Whenever Jackson has the ball, both are dangerous. Six of his 10 longest carries this season have come on zone-read or draw plays, while 10 of his 19 longest have come on scrambles. In Week 6, with a Cincinnati Bengals safety giving the defense almost eight players in the box, Jackson ran a zone-read option, kept the ball himself, followed lead blockers Nick Boyle and Willie Snead IV off left tackle and coasted for a season-high 36-yard run. He finished the win with a career-high 152 yards.
A week later, against the Seattle Seahawks, Jackson was more dangerous as an ad-libber. In the second quarter, on third-and-10, he ran away from Jamar Taylor’s uncovered cornerback blitz and headed for the first-down sticks. When he realized he could cut in and run for even more yardage, he did that, too.
The Ravens haven’t just embraced the chaos Jackson’s legs create. They’ve also seemingly tried to organize it. In the fourth quarter of the win at Seattle, on another third-and-long, the Seahawks sent five pass rushers after Jackson and asked All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner to spy Jackson. The protection held up long enough for Edwards to leak out and meet Wagner just across the line of scrimmage.
He did not try to run a route, as expected. He merely tried to get in Wagner’s way. When Edwards landed a block, Jackson wriggled out of the pocket. He wasn’t caught until he was 30 yards downfield. Almost eight minutes later, the Ravens’ drive ended with a field goal and a double-digit lead.
A day later, Harbaugh was asked whether the pass play had, in fact, called for Edwards to block a linebacker.
“I’m not at liberty to divulge that information at this time, in all honesty,” he said. “Seriously.”
How the Patriots can stop Jackson
With the Ravens’ bye, New England has one less week to prepare for an offense that will challenge the weakest part of its elite defense. For as much as has been made of the motley crew of quarterbacks the Patriots have faced — Ryan Fitzpatrick, Luke Falk, Josh Allen, Colt McCoy and Daniel Jones, to name a few — New England’s run defense has been tested only slightly more over the season’s first two months.
Outside of the Cleveland Browns (No. 3 in Football Outsiders’ rushing efficiency) and Buffalo Bills (No. 6), the Patriots have faced some of the NFL’s worst ground games. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Washington Redskins rank among the NFL’s 11 least efficient rushing offenses, and when the Patriots faced the New York Giants (No. 13), Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley was unavailable because of injury.
That the Browns rushed for 159 yards on just 22 carries Sunday (7.1 yards per attempt) is a sign that New England is most vulnerable up front. After not allowing any carries of 10 yards or more over the season’s first three weeks, the Patriots have allowed three or more in three of their past five games. Strangely enough, New York Jets running back Le’Veon Bell’s longest run of the season (19 yards) — and seven of his 16 longest overall — came against New England.
Maybe more than in any other game this season, the Patriots have to be solid Sunday on third down, where Jackson’s legs have moved the sticks from 8, 10 (twice), 14 and 20 yards out this season. The Ravens convert almost half of their third-down opportunities (47.3%, fifth best in the NFL). New England stops almost 85% of them, by far the league’s top mark.
The Patriots will also enter Baltimore having faced two quarterbacks with quick feet. In limiting Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield to a combined 33-for-59 passing, with one touchdown and four interceptions, New England also held them to six carries (for an otherwise impressive 44 yards) and forced 10 sacks.
It’s a defense that’s most destructive when it forces offenses into obvious passing situations. On Buffalo’s first drive, eight Patriots crowded the line of scrimmage before third-and-10, threatening an all-out blitz. When Allen took the shotgun snap, all but linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. either came with pressure or faked it, engaging a blocker before backing off. Allen was sacked almost immediately after he reached the end of his drop. (A defensive-holding penalty ultimately negated the play.)
Against Cleveland, on third-and-11 midway through the fourth quarter, the Patriots again showed heavy pressure. But only five pass rushers went after Mayfield. Two linebackers kept tabs on Mayfield, while a safety waited for a hole, then took off. Mayfield had three receivers in single coverage downfield and couldn’t connect.
The Ravens’ best hope against such an organized, well-schooled defense might be that one of New England’s greatest strengths — the reliability of its man-to-man coverage, even with little safety help — can be used against it. Jackson’s three longest scrambles this season, which averaged 29 yards, came after he escaped either a blitz or a spy and no second-level defender was around to stop him.
If the Patriots continue to call for man coverage, their linebackers and defensive backs could be turning their backs on a game-breaker.
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
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