When the New England Patriots went up against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens’ offense last season, they were fielding the top scoring defense in the league. And yet, Jackson and company were able to hang 30 points on the unit — the most it surrendered all year long, and clearly above its regular season average of 14.1 points given up per game.
While offensive inconsistency played a role in this, the Patriots’ inability to stop the Ravens’ running game also contributed in a major way: Baltimore gained 213 yards on 38 carries for an average of 5.6 yards per run, and also found the end zone three times. No matter who handled the ball-carrier duties, they found success against a New England defense that had scored as many touchdowns up until that point as it had surrendered.
The main piece in the puzzle, of course, was Jackson. The former first-round draft pick did not just complete 17 of 23 pass attempts for 163 yards and a touchdown, he also gained 63 yards on 13 carries while finding the end zone twice and averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. The Patriots simply had no answer for the future league MVP.
Obviously, that needs to change this year. When the Patriots take on Baltimore on Sunday night, Jackson again is the key cog in an offense that averages 24.9 points per game. While the number does not stand out — especially compared to a league-leading 33.2 last season — the Ravens offense is still capable of making life hard for a New England defense that has had its own issues over the course of the season so far.
That said, Bill Belichick noted that his unit should be better prepared to take on Jackson and Co. this time around.
“Well, our offense has run some of those kinds of plays. I mean, we haven’t done that before, but this year we’ve run some of those kind of plays, so it’s not something that we’re unfamiliar with,” New England’s head coach said during a media conference call earlier this week.
Belichick is obviously referring to his own team’s offense that is now being led by Cam Newton. With the long-time Carolina Panthers quarterback taking over for Tom Brady this offseason, the Patriots have started to incorporate more dual-threat elements and run-based option concepts — plays that were not possible to be called with a lesser athlete like Brady under center. In turn, New England’s defense has seen those types of plays regularly in practice as well.
“The Ravens have their way of doing it and they’re in the pistol a lot. So, that changes and makes things a little bit different, because you get either side of the ball more balanced,” continued Belichick. “But we’ve dealt with that and so I wouldn’t say we’re starting all over again, like we might have been in other years where we hadn’t faced those kind of plays.”
Belichick added that training camp usually plays a pivotal role in installments and preparations like these, with teams taking the time to go over specifics of certain opponents. However, he also noted that the potential lack of carryover between summer and in-season is a factor to consider. This, once more, plays in the Patriots’ hands this year when it comes to planning for Baltimore — certainly when compared to last season.
“I think that’s something that you look at as you put in your training camp installation, see if there’s something that you’re not getting from your offense and that you may not get in the season for a while, but you know is going to come up. Do you want to address it ahead of time? The problem with that is you can address it in August and it doesn’t come up until November, how much carryover really is there?” asked Belichick.
“But, those are the decisions you have to make in terms of getting those things covered. I would say this year defensively, it’s been different than in the past because we’ve had to deal with these plays from our offense. So, we’ve had a little bit more experience with them than in prior years.”
With Newton and the Patriots’ new-look offense providing different looks, the defense should be better prepared to go up against Baltimore’s run-based offense from a foundational perspective. Of course, performance is a whole different area and something New England has struggled quite a bit after an offseason full of personnel changes; this is particularly evident versus the run.
So while the Patriots may be in a better situation from a preparatory standpoint, in the end it all comes down to performance.