Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s signature victory in his 2019 MVP campaign came against Bill Belichick’s top-ranked defense a little over one year ago.
The Patriots came into their showdown with John Harbaugh’s Ravens at a perfect 8-0, yet Jackson, and Baltimore’s running game, put up 37 points in a blowout win.
After defeating Belichick, Jackson’s success was validated, and he’d go on to be the unanimous MVP of the league. Although Baltimore is still the favorite, this year’s matchup looks different.
Earlier this week, we documented New England’s defensive struggles and how that’s a more alarming trend than their below-average offense.
New England has the 31st-ranked run defense by DVOA, a recipe for disaster against a top-five Ravens rushing attack that still has elite qualities with Jackson at the helm.
On paper, Baltimore’s physical downhill offense is a terrible matchup for the Patriots defense.
The Ravens still feature a gap and zone-read running game with unique blocks and motions that had Belichick searching for answers, but the personnel is different for both teams.
Ravens star left tackle Ronnie Stanley is out for the season with a severe ankle dislocation while Baltimore doesn’t quite have the war chest of blockers they did last season at tight end and fullback.
Plus, defenses are figuring out ways to at least slow down offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s play designs, and Baltimore’s passing game is having some serious regression.
This season, Jackson is 26th in Ben Baldwin’s EPA+CPOE composite score after finishing third in his MVP season, while the Ravens are down to 23rd in pass DVOA after finishing first in 2019.
On the other hand, the Patriots don’t have the talent or depth in their front seven to play so many defensive linemen and linebackers near the line of scrimmage to match up physically, as they did in last year’s matchup.
But that might be a blessing in disguise as the Pats now have hybrid defensive backs that, in theory, could flood the field with speed to contain Jackson.
Other teams, such as the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2018 postseason, successfully used defensive backs in the box against Baltimore, opting for speed over bulk.
The strategy is risky for a team like New England that doesn’t have the defensive line to keep smaller box defenders clean, but it might be their only hope, and it’s how they are built.
Offensively, the Patriots will need to deal with defensive coordinator Don Martindale’s blitz-happy system that gives offenses various pressure looks and coverages.
The Ravens, as they’ve always been under Harbaugh, are a well-coached operation that executes their system extremely well; a win on Sunday night will not come easy.
Here’s a game plan for the Patriots against the 6-2 Ravens on both sides of the ball:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
As we mentioned, the Ravens defense blitzes quarterbacks at the second-highest rate in the NFL at 42 percent of drop-backs and play a fast and physical brand of run defense as well.
Baltimore’s defense is actually carrying its offense, ranking fifth in DVOA through nine games, and are both stingy against the pass (seventh) and the top-ranked run defense by Football Outsiders.
The key for the Patriots offense will be diagnosing Martindale’s “amoeba” style. Before the snap, it’s unclear to the offense who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage, leaving them reacting post-snap to all the moving pieces, which isn’t easy.
Sometimes they’ll bring extra rushers, as they do above, and other times they’ll simulate pressure by showing blitz but dropping players off the line getting into a four-man rush.
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, due to the newness of the offense, has struggled against the blitz but was great in a tune-up game against the Jets.
The Jets also blitz at a high frequency, but the Pats QB handled it well, going 18-of-24 while averaging 8.5 yards per attempt against extra rushers.
“Overall, the ball came out pretty quickly last night, and the Jets were applying a lot of pressure. I thought he did a good job of identifying pre-snap where he wanted to go and got the ball to the right place,” Belichick said of Newton’s performance against the Jets.
Newton was also more aware of oncoming rushers and danced out of a couple of sacks in the pocket, and will need a repeat performance against Baltimore’s exotic pressures.
Although it’s still difficult to handle, Baltimore’s opponents know blitzes are coming, so they design quick answers for their quarterbacks.
In the first example above, Newton beat the Jets’ blitz by getting the ball out quickly to Damiere Byrd on a stop route against soft coverage, which will likely be in the game plan again.
If you only give the quarterback vertical routes, as the Steelers do here, they’ll be throwing low-percentage passes outside the numbers against pressure with the Ravens dropping linebackers into crosser and slant windows over the middle.
The Ravens blitzed Big Ben 13 times and sprinkled in simulated pressures, so the Steelers spread the field and gave Roethlisberger quick outlets.
Expect something similar from McDaniels if the Pats receivers struggle to get open downfield in enough time to beat the blitz for big plays.
Another way offenses combat Baltimore’s pressures is by putting their off-ball linebackers in conflict with play-action, usually from the gun so QBs can keep their eyes on the defense.
Instead of rotating safeties into the box as robbers, the Ravens like to show blitz with their linebackers and then have them drop into crosser and slant windows over the middle.
With play-action, the offense forces those defenders in the box to respect the run, making them late to their zone-drops, opening passing lanes.
In this play, the Ravens are in cover-one man with a single-high safety. When the linebackers step up to play the run, no. 36 Chuck Clark doesn’t get enough depth to fall underneath the crossing route, and Phillip Rivers throws at an out-leveraged corner with no inside help.
The Ravens will also play a lot of aggressive zone coverage, mainly cover-three or cover-two, and their second-level defenders can be easily manipulated out of passing lanes.
On this play, Big Ben gives a little pump fake to the under route coming from the right side, and no. 58 LJ Fort jumps it, leaving JuJu Smith-Schuster wide open in the middle of the field.
One would think McDaniels will send Jakobi Meyers on similar routes to hunt for chunk plays.
Lastly, the Patriots ought to get their screen game heavily involved to take advantage of Baltimore blitzing the quarterback, which is always a great way to beat pressure.
Here’s a little more man-pressure from the Ravens. This time, the Steelers run a screen to running back James Conner. The left guard blocks the linebacker assigned to the running back, and with the other off-ball player blitzing, Conner rattles off a 13-yard gain.
The Colts also had some success with wide receiver screens against the Ravens, as Rivers checked into them when he sensed pressure.
In this play, the Ravens overload the weak-side of the formation once again with off-coverage to the passing strength. Baltimore runs a simulated pressure with the strong-side edge defender dropping off the line into coverage, but there’s no way he can go out to the screen in time.
Combining all the strategies, I’d go back to empty looks where Newton can beat the blitz by throwing to flare screens or with his legs.
The Patriots are an excellent running back screen team, not so good at wide receiver screens, but McDaniels needs to empty his bag of tricks.
Although the Ravens have an excellent run defense, watching their tape did show some areas where the Patriots can exploit them in a strength-on-strength matchup.
Baltimore has a stout defensive line up the middle, but they’ll be without defensive tackle Calais Campbell, a major loss. The Ravens still have nose tackle Brandon Williams anchoring their run defense, but they’re more vulnerable up the middle than it appears on the surface.
This season, the Ravens allow 4.73 yards per rush against run-blocking schemes that involve pullers compared to a 3.62 average against designs without pullers (zone).
Baltimore’s linebackers get caught reading false keys and overreacting to pullers, creating advantageous blocking angles.
Here, the Steelers ran a same-side counter play meaning they pull the backside guard but hand it off to Conner, who is aligned on the strong side. Conner’s alignment gets the linebacker level to false step to the right, making it easier to fit blocks as the offense works to the left.
The Colts also got some big runs using pullers as bait, which would work for New England since they run so much with pulling linemen.
The offensive line blocks power with the backside guard pulling in this play, but Rivers flips it out to the running back out the backside instead, and there’s nobody home.
In Week 6, the Eagles ran for over 10 yards per rush against the Ravens with backup quarterback Jalen Hurts featured in quarterback run designs that could fit Newton.
Philadelphia ran GT counter-read here with the backside guard and tackle pulling on the counter action. When the backside edge defender (read) plays the running back, Hurts keeps behind the pullers whose jobs are made much easier with the second-level of Baltimore’s defense all out of sorts.
Ironically, the Ravens defense looked lost at times handling QB designed runs despite facing Jackson in practice. Even if they’re more prepared to face Cam, expect the Pats to test them.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
We’ll get to Jackson’s passing regression and ways to expose it, but the Patriots have zero hope in this game if their run defense doesn’t somehow contain Baltimore’s rushing attack.
The odds of New England holding up against the Ravens rushing attack are long, but teams are giving them blueprints as to how to contain Baltimore’s ground game.
Last season, the Ravens hit the Patriots with a series of gap-reads, not zone-reads, the perfect foil to New England’s two-gapping front, but it was mostly poor execution that led to big plays.
The Patriots must do a better job of playing their assignments against read-option, or they will get destroyed by Jackson and Baltimore’s running backs once again, priority number one. In other words, do your job, whether that’s to play the running back or the quarterback.
On Jackson’s longest run of the night, the Ravens did something unique, calling a gap-read where Jackson reads the defensive tackle instead of the edge defender.
The Ravens are in a full-house formation out of 22-personnel with two tight ends in the backfield as lead blockers. The Pats combat the read element by having no. 50 Elandon Roberts “charge” the mesh, meaning he’s going to force a keep read by essentially blitzing the running back. Unfortunately, Lawrence Guy gets caught in an odd situation for a defensive tackle and plays the running back as the read defender with Roberts taking out Gus Edwards. If Guy plays the scheme correctly, he’ll play the quarterback, and Jackson will have less room to run.
Following Lamar’s 18-yard run in the opening quarter, the Pats held Jackson to 2.9 yards per rush on 15 carriers. Instead, it was Baltimore’s running backs that killed New England’s defense.
Above, the Ravens are running their zone-read concept with Jackson reading Van Noy to his left. Van Noy forces Jackson to give the ball to Edwards, and the Pats fit it up nicely until Ja’Whaun Bentley runs himself out of position flowing to Hightower’s A-gap. Hightower is filling his gap just fine, but Bentley allows Edwards to run out the backside for a 12-yard touchdown.
The Patriots had opportunities to make plays against the Ravens’ read-option schemes but killed themselves by playing undisciplined football.
OTHER STRATEGIES TO DEFEND READ-OPTION
If Belichick wants to go in a different direction, a combination of playing defensive backs in the box and using the Cincinnati Bengals’ blueprint might be their approach.
The Bengals stifled the Ravens offense with “something completely different”
CIN quietly put together one of the best defensive game plans for the Ravens run option attack, holding them to 20 points. Harbaugh said they weren’t prepared for it.
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) October 14, 2020
The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen wrote an excellent breakdown of Cincinnati’s “lever, spill, lever” strategy that had two separate parts working together: the defensive line playing the inside run while the linebackers “fast-flow” to the pullers on the outside run aspect of zone-read.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 19, 2020
The Chargers and now Patriots hybrid safety Adrian Phillips used their defensive line to force keep-reads for Lamar on outside runs with their linebackers quickly closing on the Ravens QB.
Belichick built his defense in the offseason with Phillips, top draft choice Kyle Dugger, and other hybrid defenders capable of playing in the box.
Although it won’t be easy with their limited talent along the defensive line, the Pats might gamble to put more speed on the field.
Jackson and the Ravens’ passing attack is seeing significant regression this season after lighting the league up in Jackson’s 2019 MVP year.
Most of Baltimore’s passing game issues stem from somewhat limited skill talent outside of tight end Mark Andrews and a lack of answers against pressure other than Lamar’s legs.
As was the case in San Francisco in the first iteration of his offense, Roman’s scheme is a vertical passing attack that doesn’t feature much in the way of screens or quick passes.
This season, Jackson has a 53.8 PFF grade against the blitz while only averaging 5.5 yards per attempt, which is somewhat on the QB but mostly on the scheme failing to give him answers.
Pittsburgh had success against Lamar with Baltimore’s own poison, simulated pressures, taking away his first read by dropping defenders off the line.
Here, the Steelers show blitz with five players on the line and a standup on-ball linebacker in the B-gap. Jackson anticipates a blitz, but when he goes to his quick pass on the high-low read to his right, the edge defender drops into the passing lane with the in-line linebacker rushing. Jackson works to his second read, not expecting the edge defender to drop, forgetting to account for the other underneath zone defender, and throws a pick-six.
Belichick has plenty of simulated pressures in his bag if he thinks it’ll still be effective this week.
Another strategy that has worked against Jackson due to the absence of a screen game or “hot” routes off blitzes is zero pressure with no deep safety, which the Chiefs used in Week 3.
Again, most of the Ravens’ route combinations are vertical concepts, with Jackson ranking tenth in average air yards per attempt this season, giving him few answers against all-out pressure.
The spoon is back! Ravens offense has zero answer to a simple empty pressure by the Chiefs. No reaction from the receivers. No hot. Lamar seems to notice it late. Great rush discipline by the DE as well pic.twitter.com/lNwTecYNyr
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) September 29, 2020
Here’s an excellent breakdown by former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz on how unprepared Jackson and the Ravens were for Kansas City’s zero blitzes. By the way, the Ravens should’ve prepared answers for zeros against KC, as it’s a big part of their scheme.
#Patriots film: cannot understate how heady of a play this was from Devin McCourty. Pats running a zero blitz. DMac is blitzing unless the RB releases out of the backfield. He stops his rush, peels off with the RB, and blankets Perine's wheel route. Play probably saved the game. pic.twitter.com/NHgsC5PFRe
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 10, 2020
The Patriots are dialing up zero coverage on over nine percent of their snaps this season; as we know, it’s a big part of what they do defensively to pressure quarterbacks.
Although blitzing, especially with man coverage, could lead to giant scrambles for Lamar, if the pressure comes up the middle with disciplined edges, you can limit his escape routes.
MAN COVERAGE (DB SPY)
In obvious passing situations, such as third down, the Patriots were rather successful at defending Jackson and the Ravens last season.
The Pats held Lamar to 177 passing yards and only 7.1 yards per attempt. It really wasn’t a problem in the 2019 matchup, and they limited his scrambles by spying him with speedy corner Jon Jones in the box.
Along with playing as a “robber” at the sticks, Jones was tasked with spying Jackson to limit his scramble opportunities, and did so effectively.
If, and when, the Patriots defense is in obvious passing situations, expect more of the same.
New England can limit Baltimore’s passing attack, but their 27th-ranked early-down defense is going to need to be a whole lot better.
1. Patriots Tight End Stoppers vs. Mark Andrews: Andrews is Lamar Jackson’s best and go-to weapon in the passing game. He’s mostly a jumbo slot receiver who will run the seam and work on “Y” option, breaking based on the coverage. Expect the Pats to get physical with Andrews, double him on occasion, and put their top coverage players on him in the passing game. He’s very Kelce-ish.
2. Free Agent Target Matthew Judon vs. Michael Onwenu: Judon is playing on the franchise tag this year for Baltimore but had a disappointing first half in terms of pass-rush production. Still, the Ravens edge defender can rush the passer with help from the scheme (stunts, amoeba fronts), set the edge, and effectively drop into coverage. Sounds like a guy Belichick should scoop up next offseason. If his pass-rushing production doesn’t improve, he might come cheaper than expected.
3. Patriots Interior DL vs. Ravens Interior OL: the Patriots must get a better performance out of their interior defensive linemen to have any chance when Baltimore has the ball. Ravens potential Hall-of-Fame guard Marshal Yanda retired after last season, leaving a huge void in the interior of Baltimore’s O-Line. With Stanley also out, the Ravens’ line isn’t what it used to be, but it might not matter against what the Pats are putting out there.
4. Jakobi Meyers vs. Marlon Humphrey: Humphrey might be the best slot corner that Meyers will face the rest of the season. He’s a physical defender bigger than typical slot corners, so Meyers will need to continue to do well playing through contact.
5. David Andrews vs. Baltimore’s Blitz Package: as much as it’ll be on Newton and his receivers to beat the blitz, Andrews has the challenging task of helping Newton set protections. The Pats will need to react to Baltimore’s pressures post-snap, but Andrews can get the line pointed in the right direction before the play begins.