Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Ravens Week 9 Preview: At last, a game
For the first eight games of this Patriots season, you usually had the option of watching from the corner of your eye. Full focus on a flogging isn’t mandatory. But Sunday night’s game with the Ravens commands full attention. First, it’s the best challenge the team’s had to date. Second, Lamar Jackson’s a fascinating player and the plan the Patriots hatch to hold him in check is going to be fascinating (and Cris Collinsworth will be all over breaking it down). Third, these teams have a history. Night games between them going back to the unforgettable 2007 Patriots regular-season win to the officials-marred 2012 cliffhanger to the playoff matchups in the 2012 and 2014 seasons are some of the most highly-charged games New England’s played under Bill Belichick. Both teams have played suspect schedules. One team has the best quarterback of all-time. The other has perhaps the fastest one of all-time. Both eyes on Sunday night. Both eyes.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
The Ravens have played such horrendous competition, there’s some sifting to do. Their first two games were Miami and Arizona in its second week under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury. They allowed a total of 41 yards. Then they allowed 333 yards in their next two games against KC and Cleveland (!). Every good team they play piles up yards on the ground. Bad teams don’t. The Patriots are a great team with a bad running game. Sumpin’ gonna give. And it probably won’t be the Ravens because there’s no explaining away the Patriots impotence by saying they’ve gone against good defenses. They haven’t. They’ve been over 3.5 YPC once. They’ve been under 3.0 YPC three times. Sony, Rex, Bolden, James White, doesn’t matter, they can’t move people and it’s the line, the backs and the tight ends combined. They have a ways to go to get to adequate. The strength of the Ravens run defense recently has been interior defensive linemen Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams so this doesn’t seem like the game Sony Michel will break out.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
With a full week to get Mohamed Sanu enmeshed in the game plan, expect the earnest effort to try and divvy up the workload a little more so that Julian Edelman and James White and carrying outsized burdens. A lot of it will go to Sanu but some of it may also go to N’Keal Harry, active for the first time. Harry’s intriguing because, in his absence, it may have slipped people’s minds how well he performed for the bulk of training camp practices. He was very good, very physical. He should bring more pure speed and athleticism than Josh Gordon. The Ravens have a godawful pass rush. But they do have talent on the back end with safety Earl Thomas and corners Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and newly-acquired Marcus Peters. Baltimore has struggled a little on third down allowing the Seahawks and Bengals to go a combined 15 for 26 on third down.
WHEN THE RAVENS RUN
I’m not falling for the notion that the Patriots run defense is a “weak spot.” It’s not. They’ve given up too many explosive plays – runs of 41 and 28 by Frank Gore against the Bills; a 65-yard reverse by Steven Sims of the Redskins; a 44-yard run by Nick Chubb of the Browns – but that’s 178 yards of the 682 the Patriots have allowed. Take those gash plays out and they are allowed 3.5 yards per carry, not the generous 4.6. And I know, they all count. But down-in, down-out, they are solid. And they have to be this week. Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards have combined for 1,280 yards and 10 TDs going at 5.47 yards per carry. The Patriots will likely have to devote a player solely to Jackson as the Ravens try to get him I space while the Patriots try to get him to throttle down. The Patriots will obviously want to make him a thrower. He’s got a live arm and can heat up but he’s not amazingly consistent. This cat-and-mouse game between the two sides will be fascinating and it will force the Patriots into schemes they haven’t much relied on. But that’s where the institutional knowledge of this defense is so vital. Jackson is unique. But the Patriots have seen quarterbacks who can get out and move – Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and so on. With the Patriots stacked to stop Jackson and likely playing zone, Baltimore would be wise to scheme up some easy pitch-and-catch completions to try and force the Patriots out of that. To which the Patriots may say, “Fine. Let’s see you complete eight passes to get downfield and score.”
WHEN THE RAVENS PASS
There are only two factors that make the Ravens passing game a concern. First, because the Patriots play zone against running quarterbacks to guard against having their backs turned to the line of scrimmage in coverage, they won’t be locking down man-to-man as much as usual. That takes Stephon Gilmore away from his strong suit. Second, Jackson’s arm strength – if not his accuracy – makes him a flick of the wrist away from a deep connection at all times. This is a huge game for Patrick Chung on Ravens tight end Mark Andrews and for Devin McCourty making sure Marquise Brown doesn’t get loose downfield. It’s also going to be a big week for communication in the secondary if the Patriots are switching over to zone. The Patriots also figure to throttle back their pass rush so they don’t get creased by a scrambling Jackson. Worth noting? He’s been sacked 17 times this season.
The Ravens have the league’s best kicker in Justin Tucker. The Patriots have Nick Folk who hasn’t kicked in the NFL since 2016. Other than that, the rest of the special teams units are a wash but that’s still a huge advantage for Baltimore.
Questionable: WR Marquise Brown (ankle/thigh), CB Maurice Canady (thigh), S Bennett Jackson (ankle), G Patrick Mekari (back), LB Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), CB Jimmy Smith (knee), S Earl Thomas (knee)
Out: TE Matt LaCosse (knee). Questionable: RB Rex Burkhead (foot), S Patrick Chung (heel/chest), WR Julian Edelman (chest/shoulder), TE Ryan Izzo (concussion), G Shaq Mason, (ankle), WR Gunner Olszewski (ankle/hamstring), RB James White (toe).
Officiating this game is always a challenge because both coaches are angle guys. And Harbaugh, in particular, is a tantrum-tosser. Carl Cheffers’ crew gets this game. They are a skosh below the average number of penalties called per game league-wide but are walking off 16.1 yards more per game than the league average. Only twice have teams reached double-digits in penalties in a Cheffers game. They did Patriots-Jets at Foxboro earlier this year. The Patriots have taken 49 penalties in eight games; the Ravens have 53 in seven games. Interesting to note: The Ravens haven’t drawn a defensive pass interference flag all season.
Patriots are favored by 3.5. The total is 45.5.
New England is 6-2 against the spread and six of their games have gone under.
Patriots 23, Ravens 13
Week 1: Patriots 16, Steelers 13
Final: Patriots, 33-3
Week 2: Patriots 30, Dolphins 0
Final: Patriots, 43-0
Week 3: Patriots 20, Jets 6
Final: Patriots, 30-14
Week 4: Patriots 19, Bills 13
Final: Patriots, 16-10
Week 5: Patriots 30, Redskins 13
Final: Patriots, 33-7
Week 6: Patriots 16, Giants 3
Final: Patriots, 35-14
Week 7: Patriots 16, Jets 13
Final: Patriots, 33-0
Week 8: Patriots 27, Browns 10
Final: Patriots, 27-13