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Four days before the Ravens faced a New England Patriots team that had allowed four touchdowns in eight games, John Harbaugh was asked about preparing to face a defense that was consistent in its execution but iterative in its week-to-week strategy.

“Our systems are built so that we can adapt on Sunday,” he said Wednesday. “We think that's very important. We always have. We’ve gotten it to a different level this year that way in a positive way, but once the game starts, you have to go out and play and adapt and adjust. Anything that any team does is going to be NFL scheme. It’s going to be X’s and O’s. It’s not going to be anything we’ve never seen before. It’s just a matter of whether we're prepared to handle it in that moment.”

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After a 37-20 win Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, quarterback Lamar Jackson said New England’s No. 1-ranked defense tested him with more looks than any other team had this season, but that he was prepared for them all. New England could not say the same; it was like trying to hit a moving target. Coordinator Greg Roman’s offense continues to evolve from game to game. The Ravens exploited what they had practiced but what the Patriots had not yet seen on film.

Two of their longest gains Sunday came on plays called for the first time this season, or at least from a different formation. And both were called on the Ravens’ opening drive. When tight end Nick Boyle said Wednesday that New England hadn’t faced “anyone like our offense,” it wasn’t bluster. Of the Ravens’ 65 offensive plays, Jackson dropped back just 24 times. Still, they finished with 5.7 yards per play, a season-worst mark for the Patriots.

Pistol option

The option is a simple, mostly safe play. But the last time the Ravens ran it, it ended with the ball on the ground and a nearly disastrous turnover.

Late in the Ravens’ AFC North-title clinching win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 17 last season, on the drive before linebacker C.J. Mosley’s clinching interception, Jackson took a third-down snap out of the pistol formation. Running to his left, he read the edge defender and pitched the ball to running back Ty Montgomery. But the delivery was low and too far ahead of Montgomery. It glanced off his hands, and Montgomery was lucky to collect the ball after a few bounces before falling for a 6-yard loss.

For as much as Jackson has improved as a passer this season, his fine-tuned execution of the team’s running game can’t be overlooked. After 12 fumbles — four of which he lost — over seven starts and 16 games last season, Jackson has just four fumbles and none lost in eight starts this year. Which means Roman can get even bolder with his play calls.

A defense like the Patriots’, more often than not, will succeed if it understands the tendencies of the opposing offense. The Ravens’ use of the option, which attacks the edge, was an unexpected wrinkle. Of Ingram’s 99 carries entering Sunday, just five were what Pro Football Reference calls “end” attempts — rushes outside the tackles.

On the fourth play from scrimmage Sunday, Jackson lined up in the pistol formation, with Ingram behind him and fullback Patrick Ricard to his right. At the snap of the ball, the trio swung right. New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy was left unblocked along the edge. He could’ve kept pace with Ingram, but Jackson was too dangerous to leave alone. When Van Noy committed to the keeper, Jackson made the pitch. It hit Ingram in the numbers, and he took the play for an easy 13-yard gain, his path cleared by Ricard and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.

On their first drive against New England, the Ravens ran an option play that went for 13 yards. After taking the snap, quarterback Lamar Jackson attacked New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy on the edge. When Van Noy committed to stopping Jackson, he pitched the ball to running back Mark Ingram. With fullback Patrick Ricard, who'd lined up next to Jackson in the pistol formation, and the right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. clearing a path, Ingram picked up an easy first down.
On their first drive against New England, the Ravens ran an option play that went for 13 yards. After taking the snap, quarterback Lamar Jackson attacked New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy on the edge. When Van Noy committed to stopping Jackson, he pitched the ball to running back Mark Ingram. With fullback Patrick Ricard, who'd lined up next to Jackson in the pistol formation, and the right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. clearing a path, Ingram picked up an easy first down. (NFL Game Pass)

In the third quarter, the offense lined up in a similar formation, but with Nick Boyle next to Jackson and another tight end, Mark Andrews, lined up in the slot instead of as an in-line blocker. Here, they ran another option, but with misdirection. As Boyle took off to the right, taking safety Devin McCourty with him, Jackson and Ingram headed left. It was much the same result. When defensive end John Simon played Jackson’s running lane, Ingram got the pitch.

Only linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s work to shed a second-level block from left tackle Ronnie Stanley limited the damage to 6 yards. Still, the Ravens had gotten to the perimeter against New England again, and they’d made it look easy.

Jet-motion shovel pass

Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has been one of the NFL’s most dangerous rookies this season, but his deployment has been mostly one-dimensional. Whether it’s because of concerns over effectiveness, the potential for leg injuries or strategic considerations, Brown’s role has been limited to the Ravens’ passing game.

After five games in seven weeks, Brown had 21 catches and no carries. After Sunday’s win, he’s up to 24 catches and still no carries. But no reception was more intriguing than the one that amounted to a handoff.

Immediately after Ingram’s 13-yard option carry, the Ravens went back to a heavy pistol formation, with Ricard next to Jackson and Boyle positioned as an in-line blocker. Lined up in the slot was Brown, who motioned from right to left. Just as Brown started to run behind Boyle, center Matt Skura snapped the ball. Jackson caught it, then flipped it like a hot potato to Brown, who didn’t need to break stride to secure the shovel pass.

Because the Patriots were in zone coverage, no defensive back mirrored Brown across the line of scrimmage. That left linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., lined up outside of Stanley’s left shoulder, as the only defender capable of stopping Brown from breaking into the open field. Ricard’s cut block crumpled him, though, and the rest of New England’s in-the-box defense didn’t even realize Brown had the ball until Jackson was a few steps into his fake option, headed the opposite direction.

With wide receiver Willie Snead IV locking up cornerback Jason McCourty, Brown nearly ran past Devin McCourty before stepping out of bounds with a 26-yard gain. Coming off ankle and thigh injuries, he might not have been 100% healthy. But he could still fly. “He continues to work hard, and he’s nowhere near where he’s going to be,” Harbaugh said Monday. “There’s no doubt about that.”

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The play itself was the latest reimagining of Brown’s presnap potential. In Week 4, the Cleveland Browns stopped a jet-motion shovel pass from a different pistol formation after just a 3-yard gain by Brown. And in his preseason debut, when Brown had three catches for 17 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles, he also had one carry for minus-4 yards.

As in Sunday’s game, that play called for jet motion. But it wasn’t a shovel pass. Instead, Brown got the ball on a handoff from quarterback Trace McSorley, who was lined up under center. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham was left unblocked, and with how quickly he diagnosed the reverse and how close Brown was to the line of scrimmage, the rookie was swallowed whole before he even got outside the hash marks.

Jackson’s running ability changes the play’s math. The threat of Brown’s speed has a similar effect. In Week 3, the Ravens put Brown in motion and sent him to the right flat, where Jackson faked a short throw. Two Arizona Cardinals defenders bit hard, clearing a throwing lane downfield to a wide-open Andrews for a 27-yard touchdown.

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As the Ravens offense heads into Sunday’s rematch with the winless Cincinnati Bengals, Brown will remain a vital tool, as dangerous with the ball as he is without.

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