Patriots Game Plan: Why the New England Defense Should Play Zone Against Lamar Jackson

The Patriots defense will face its toughest test of the season against the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson.

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FOXBORO — Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has some legendary game plans over the years, and it’s fascinating to see what he comes up with when he faces a uniquely talented quarterback. 

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is a unique talent. He has flaws like any player, but he’s one of the best running quarterbacks certainly in recent memory and can pass well enough. 

Jackson, in a well-crafted scheme by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, has Baltimore leading the NFL in rushing at over 200 yards per game.

As a unit, Baltimore is second in scoring behind only the Patriots and seventh in Football Outsiders’ DOVA Metric. 

“He’s a major problem and everybody’s had trouble with him,” Belichick said of Jackson. “It’ll be a big challenge for us. He can do it all. He can run, he can throw, can throw on the run, can extend plays. He’s tough.”

Belichick wasn’t quite effusive was his praise for Jackson like he was with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes or the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, but containing Jackson is a challenge. 

The Pats head coach beat Mahomes twice, Rodgers once, and gave the blueprint to the rest of the league on how to slow down Sean McVay’s offense in Los Angeles. 

How will Belichick game plan to stop the ultimate dual-threat in Jackson? Let’s first take a look at an example of what not to do courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks. 

Before their bye, the Seahawks defense held the Ravens offense to only 16 points with two defensive scores getting them to their 30-point total. 

However, they made some mistakes against Jackson, who rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown.

In his first seven games, Jackson is a better quarterback both as a passer and scrambler, excluding designed quarterback runs, against man coverage. 

Jackson is averaging nearly nine yards per attempt against man coverages and over 17 yards per scramble, and there’s a noticeable drop when teams play zone against Baltimore’s offense. 

The Seahawks played mostly zone, but Jackson burned them both with his arm and legs when they were in man. 

On Jackson’s longest run of the game, a 30-yard scramble, the Seahawks brought man pressure blitzing the slot cornerback with cover-1 man behind it. The only player off the line of scrimmage with eyes on the quarterback was middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and the deep safety; the rest of the coverage was locked onto their man. 

When we roll the play, the Ravens send the receivers on vertical routes leaving Wagner to track the running back and Jackson. Wagner gets blocked by the back, and Jackson gets into the open field. Even if Wagner eludes the back, he’s still one-on-one in acres of space with everyone’ back to the quarterback. He’s not making that tackle. 

As the numbers suggest, the most successful strategy so far for slowing down Jackson is to play zone coverage in the secondary, giving the defense an edge force and underneath zone defenders to keep their eyes on the quarterback. 

Jackson’s accuracy struggles from the pocket could make it a challenge for him to fit the ball into tight zone passing windows and ideally forces him to get past his first read. 

This season, Jackson is an average quarterback on non-first read throws, ranking 16th out of 34 passers in Pro Football Focus grade on those passes (67.6 out of 100). 

Playing zone would go against the typical modus operandi for the Patriots, who play man coverage with the highest frequency in the NFL (62.7 percent).

But Jackson shreds man coverage, making it the best strategy based on the tape and data.

In the 2018 Wild Card Playoffs, the Los Angeles Chargers laid out a zone-heavy blueprint that held the Ravens to 90 rushing yards on 23 carries and 17 points. 

The Chargers played their typical cover-3 zone coverage in the backend putting six or sometimes even seven defensive backs on the field to chase Jackson. However, the key to their game plan was on the edges, where Los Angeles tasked safety Derwin James to contain on Jackson’s arm side. Arm side is more dangerous for mobile quarterbacks because they can throw on the run as well as scramble. 

On this play, the Ravens ran a play-action rollout with Jackson out of the pistol. James sits outside of Jackson to shut down his escape route, and the underneath zone defenders keep their eyes on him while also defending the shallow crosser. Jackson has no place to throw or run, and James gets into his face to force a throwaway. 

Here’s another example with James in the same spot, pass-rusher Melvin Ingram contain rushing on the backside, and an underneath zone defender in the middle of the field with eyes in the backfield.

As we roll it, you can see how the Chargers’ strategy forces Jackson to become a pocket passer, he doesn’t even look to run, and he misses the tight end up the seam throwing out of bounds down the sideline. Most likely, Jackson saw the post safety rotating over and thought better of throwing the seam. 

The Patriots could get aggressive with all-out pressure on Jackson to see how he handles it, but his career so far tells us that he’s too elusive in the pocket for that kind of game plan. 

Expect the Patriots to play more zone coverage, and possibly even take a page out of the Chargers’ book and put extra defensive backs on the field on passing downs.

Pats defensive backs Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Jonathan Jones, and Terrence Brooks could play underneath zones or even as spies on the Ravens quarterback. 

As for the Derwin James role, that’s where Jamie Collins enters the equation. Collins’s combination of size to hold up on the strong side of rushing plays and athleticism to contain Jackson is the closest thing the Pats have to James. 

Although zone coverage works on passing plays, the Baltimore rushing attack is much more than Jackson scrambling for a big gain on broken down passing plays. 

“They have a very good inside power game, and they have, obviously, very much a lot of speed on the perimeter and in passing situations against the pass rush,” Belichick said. 

“They have a core, certainly a base core of plays, that they run but they also have some complementary plays to those, and their core plays that they can run a lot of different ways, so they disguise them, they put you in different positions and change the run force and force you to handle it differently with different personnel groups, so I’m sure we’ll see that.”

Some of Baltimore’s core concepts in the running game are plays that involve pullers, both pulling offensive linemen and tight ends or H-backs with pre-snap motion. The Ravens play a physical brand of football with big offensive linemen. Jackson also keeps the ball on read-option plays more any other quarterback in the NFL. 

To successfully defend the Ravens’ diverse rushing attack, the Patriots could employ a strategy outlined tremendously by SB Nation’s Seth Galina here

The Chargers, and at times the Patriots, play what’s called a “tite” front, and LA did so several times against Jackson and the Ravens last postseason. 

With the tite front, there are five defenders between the tackles plugging up all the gaps on the inside, which forces the offense to bounce runs to the perimeter where there are outside force players to push the ball carrier back inside. And against a pull-heavy scheme, there are opportunities to get upfield to beat blockers to their landmarks. 

Here, Melvin Ingram steps up into the path of the pulling left guard, the inside linebacker to his side rotates down to set the edge of the defense while the weak side backer moves into the hole. The defensive linemen in tight plug up the line of scrimmage, and the Chargers stop them short on third down.

Any game plan against a quarterback as explosive as Lamar Jackson is only as good as the execution by the players on the field. 

In theory, zone coverage and compact defensive fronts with strong edge players should make life harder on Jackson to take over the game with his arm and legs. 

But everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

OTHER FILM NOTES

1. Slowing Down Ravens Tight End Mark Andrews and Wide Receiver Hollywood Brown

Other than a potent rushing attack, the best playmakers around Jackson are tight end Mark Andrews and rookie wideout Hollywood Brown. If the Patriots do play zone, it could leave them vulnerable between the numbers and up the seams, which is where Andrews makes is hay. They’ll have to match vertical routes on Andrews and stay on the same page if they’re running with Andrews rather than zoning him on certain patterns. They could also bracket him in, or if they want to get creative, it could be a situation where they play man coverage on Andrews and zone everywhere else. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if they put Stephon Gilmore on him at times in critical situations. As for Brown, when he’s on the outside, he could see Gilmore across from him ready with a heavy jam to disrupt the speedster. They could also assign Jonathan Jones to run around with Brown and match him in the slot where he plays nearly 40 percent of his snaps. 

2. Ravens Big-Name Secondary, Reputation is Deceiving on Defense

Baltimore’s defense isn’t bad by any means, but it’s merely average by their usual standards over the last two decades. The Ravens rank 18th in DVOA, 16th in scoring, and have only forced nine turnovers (tied for 21st) despite playing one of the easiest schedules in the league. With that said, they do have ballhawks in Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters in the secondary. Thomas has lost a step, and Peters is a zone corner that can be overly aggressive haunting for picks, but Tom Brady will need to track those two. Third-year corner Marlon Humphrey also has shutdown abilities but has been a little bit inconsistent this year compared to a year ago. In the front seven, there isn’t a ton of big names, but defensive coordinator Don Martindale can scheme pressure, which is where we’ll go next.  

3. Ravens Bring Creative Pressure Schemes at Opposing Offenses 

Similarly to the Patriots, the Ravens are riding the simulated pressure craze around the league. They run some zero blitzes and put multiple rushers around the line of scrimmage, then drop and rush guys from various spots. 

On this play, the Ravens bring double-A gap pressure and a defender off the line of scrimmage on a blitz while dropping the edge rushers into coverage. The rush stresses the middle of the protection, leaving a lane for the blitzer to come unblocked at the quarterback. Fitzpatrick somehow completes the pass, but the pressure is there. 

During his monthly media availability, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was noticeably unhappy with the play of the offensive line. Expect the Ravens to test them early. 

4. A Matchup of Two Premier Kick Coverage Units, Special Teams Head Coaches 

This is a matchup of the two head coaches in the NFL, Belichick and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, that invest the most in special teams. Both were former special teams coordinators in their careers, and Harbaugh has his team once again as the top-ranked unit in DVOA. The Patriots are much lower this season, 26th to be exact, but that’s mostly because of their struggles with field goal kicking, where the Ravens have Justin Tucker. The Patriots have the third-ranked punt coverage unit in the league going up against the eighth-ranked punt return unit in Baltimore. There will be some great play in the kicking game on Sunday night.