FOXBORO -- The Patriots will face their toughest challenge of the season when they run up against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense in Baltimore on Sunday night.
Whether it's Bill Belichick, Jerod Mayo or Devin McCourty, anyone factoring into the defensive plan for Jackson has acknowledged that he presents a unique challenge. Not only is his running ability something the Patriots haven't seen -- and won't see again this season unless they run into the Ravens in January -- but the scheme he runs is orchestrated by a coordinator who's willing to go against the grain.
What, then, will Belichick and his staff cook up? It could incorporate a variety of looks the Patriots have shown before. It could borrow from others around the league who've frustrated Jackson in the past. We know that whatever the plan is, it'll be layered.
INTO THE WAY BACK MACHINE
OK, you don't have to go too far back here. But one of the clues into how the Patriots may try to keep Jackson's running in check could be found from a game plan Belichick assembled in 2012. It was then that the Patriots and Niners squared off, pitting Mayo and the rest of the Patriots defense that year against Colin Kaepernick and coordinator Greg Roman.
Roman, of course, now is the Ravens coordinator. And in Week 15 of that season seven years ago, Kaepernick was coming off of back-to-back weeks in which he rushed for about nine yards per carry. If the plan was to limit Kaepernick on the ground and force him to win through the air, the Patriots achieved that to a certain extent.
Kaepernick finished with just 28 yards rushing on seven carries, but the plan wasn't flawless. He averaged over 8.0 yards per attempt through the air, found Randy Moss for a touchdown, and the Niners won, 41-34.
Still, in terms of being able to limit Roman's running game, the Patriots did that. Outside of a 31-yard run by safety Dashon Goldson on a fake punt, the Patriots allowed just 3.9 yards per carry. And they did it with their base defense on the field. Four of their top-five snap leaders that week were front-seven players. Run-thumping linebacker Brandon Spike played 51 of 68 snaps. Space-eating defensive tackle Vince Wilfork played all but one play.
The Patriots could use a similarly-heavy package on Sunday in order to ensure that they have every gap along the line of scrimmage accounted for. Gap discipline is always one of the keys to Belichick's game plans, and against a quarterback who can break an explosive run at any time, that figures to be critical to the head coach's approach yet again this week against Jackson, Roman's "Pistol" formation, and a running game that leads the league with 204.1 rush yards per game and is second behind the Browns 5.5 yards per carry.
"Well Coach Roman really believes in the Pistol formation," Belichick told Charlie Weis and Bob Papa on Sirius XM Radio this week. "Unlike a lot of other shotgun teams where the back is almost always offset, in his offense the majority of the time the back aligns behind the quarterback. That creates options or scheme possibilities on both sides of the ball.
"Coach Roman is a big scheme blocking coach . . . A lot of teams are featuring these zone plays, they just find another way to run the zone or the flash play where the tight end comes back. Coach Roman really has a lot of gap schemes that slice the defense . . . Double teams and kick-out blocks. It really creates blocking angles and he does it with a lot of motion.
"Not re-inventing the game but just things we don't see on a regular basis. And then you add Jackson to that, his ability to run the ball and make big plays . . . It's hard enough to stop the rung as it is, but if you add the quarterback element to it, a lot of times he's not accounted for, or if you account for him, then you're not good enough at stopping the more conventional running plays."
TO SPY OR NOT TO SPY
Part of the issue with figuring out a good way to slow down Jackson is that even if you commit an extra body to keep an eye on him, there likely isn't going to be a player in the front seven fast enough to track him down.
The Patriots have spied mobile quarterbacks in the past. Take Buffalo's Josh Allen, for instance. There were multiple snaps back in Week 4 when Jamie Collins or Elandon Roberts would stay on their toes in the middle of the field, ready to roll with Allen one way or the other and chase him down if the opportunity presented itself. There were occasions when Patriots linebackers would align over the center, looking almost as if they were part of the Patriots pass-rush, only to hover in the middle of the field or slowly walk toward the center dropping back into pass protection. The benefit? Occupy a pass-blocker without rushing, and serve as a second line of defense against a good athlete who looks more like a tight end than a quarterback once he crosses the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots could deploy a similar play against Jackson, giving the "spy" a chance to get an angle on Jackson if the pass-rush flushes him in one particular direction.
Jackson's passer rating is better to the right side of the field this season, per Pro Football Focus, but the majority of his explosive runs this season have gone around the left edge, according to Sharp Football Stats. And Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark -- part of a pass-rush back in Week 3 that coaxed Jackson into some poor throws and forced him to finish with just a 70.6 quarterback rating and 46 yards rushing -- said that part of the team's plan that day was to force him right.
While it would still be difficult for any linebacker to tackle Jackson in open space, maybe by forcing him right and giving a linebacker an angle to potentially slow Jackson down, that would allow other defenders to rally to the football.
"Honestly, man, it just comes down to a coach being able to trust that player," Dont'a Hightower told us on Monday Night Patriots when asked what makes a good spy.
"The guys that you're spying, they're not just average quarterbacks. They're really good athletes, too. Lamar Jackson, the Josh Allens, the Deshaun Watsons. Whatever guy that your choosing to spy or shadow or whatever, that guy obviously has to be fast but has to be knowledgable of how the quarterback scrambles what kind of scrambler he is."
BEST TO BORROW?
Of course, having linebackers chase around one of the most athletic quarterbacks in recent NFL history is that what looks like a four-yard scramble can quickly turn into a 40-yarder if the linebacker loses the leverage battle.
Having a defensive back play that role, then, might be the best course of action. Perhaps someone like safety Patrick Chung or safety Terrence Brooks -- players that are more sturdy than corners in the run game but faster than linebackers -- could spy Jackson on Sunday.
If the Patriots decide to flood the field with defensive backs to match up with Jackson's speed, then they could try to pull a page from the Chargers' playbook from last season.
In the Wild Card round, LA's speed confounded Baltimore. They were tough enough to snuff out the Ravens running game, fast enough to track down Jackson, and athletic enough to defend the pass when they needed to. Their "quarters" package featured seven defensive backs on the field for much of the game. They also deployed a "Tite" front -- a 3-3 look with athletes on the field -- to get a bead on the Ravens running game, which you can read more about here from Pats Pulpit's Mark Schofield.
The NFL is a copycat league, and perhaps Belichick will like what the Chargers did that day enough to emulate them.
Belichick could also turn to what an old friend did against the Ravens earlier this season to try to smother Jackson. Former Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly is now the defensive line coach in Kansas City under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and Daly's front did well to limit Jackson to just 51.2 percent completions and 6.2 yards per attempt in a 33-28 Ravens loss that day.
The Chiefs mixed zone coverages -- allowing defensive backs to keep their eyes forward in case Jackson scrambled and not in the chests of individual coverage assignments -- with a pretty simple plan up front. The defensive line remained relatively consistent as it sent four-man rush after four-man rush in Jackson's direction.
With box safety Tyrann Mathieu occasionally inserted as part of the pass-rush plan, the Chiefs were successful at times keeping Jackson in the pocket. And when he broke loose, they were mostly solid as tacklers. It's no coincidence that one of the teams most effective in limiting Jackson was one of the best tackling team the Ravens have seen this season; Kansas City missed eight tackles that day, per PFF, which was the fewest the Ravens had forced in a game this season until Seattle missed only six two weeks ago.
"It's stressed every week," Duron Harmon said Thursday. "We want to go out there and do a good job of tackling. But we know the skill that they have, not just with their skill players but with Lamar Jackson as well. He breaks more tackles than any player in the NFL, if I'm not mistaken.
"We know we gotta rally to the ball. There's gotta be guys accounting for Lamar. When you get there, that's one thing. Bringing him down, that's another thing. We know he's tough to tackle. We know it's going to be a tough task, but we're working hard at it this week, and we're looking forward to the challenge on Sunday."
PLAY TO STRENGTHS
Dominant as they've been, the Patriots defense has had its share of issues in the running game of late, allowing 131 yards to Nick Chubb last weekend, and checking in at 21st in the league with a 4.6 yards per carry allowed figure.
Should they dedicate numbers up front to slowing down Jackson and running backs Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards, and should they be efficient in their tackling -- they've missed nine or more tackles in three of their last five games -- they should be happy to let Jackson try to beat them deep down the field.
Good as Jackson has been throwing the football this year -- his 70.9 QBR is fifth in the league -- he's struggled at times going deep. And that's where the Patriots are best.
The Patriots force teams to go over the top quite a bit as opponents are averaging more than a quarter of their throws (26.4 percent) 15 yards or more down the field. But on those throws, the Patriots are lock-down. They've allowed just 13 of 72 to be completed, according to Sharp Football Stats, for two touchdowns and nine picks, resulting in a 16.8 rating. Jackson, meanwhile, is just 15-of-46 on those deep attempts for a 32.6 completion percentage.
If the Patriots can bottle up Jackson at the line of scrimmage -- whether it's by dipping into an older game plan with bigger bodies, or by borrowing from another team that's had success against the Ravens with a multitude of defensive backs -- and coax him into trying them down the field, then they'll have a shot at winning their 22nd consecutive game against first or second-year quarterbacks.
The challenge is that this second-year quarterback is unlike most they've seen.
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