Led by second-year phenom Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens’ offense took the league by storm in 2019. The unit led the NFL in scoring, averaging 30.4 points per game, with its quarterback earning MVP honors and the team setting a new rushing record — breaking the one set by the New England Patriots back in 1978.
This year, however, the Ravens offense is not playing on the same level.
Coordinator Greg Roman’s crew is ranked 15th in scoring, averaging 24.9 points per game, and has shown some unfamiliar inconsistency compared to its 2019 version. The advanced numbers reflect this as well: Baltimore is ranked 22nd in EPA per play (0.038), 23rd in DVOA (-3.3%) and just 26th in success rate (42.4%). This is not the same offense that led the Ravens to a 14-2 record and the top seed in the AFC just one year ago.
That being said, Baltimore still has plenty of firepower — especially on the ground: its offense is still ranked among the most effective rushing units in the NFL, and therefore a challenging matchup for a Patriots defense that has struggled to consistently slow down opposing ground attacks.
So, what does New England have to do in order to find success versus the Ravens on Sunday night? Let’s find out.
Make Lamar Jackson feel the heat
Baltimore’s quarterback earned MVP honors last year by being near-unstoppable on the ground and also passing the football with high efficiency: Lamar Jackson registered 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, and also completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns and six interceptions. Jackson was a true dual-threat, and a challenge for every defense due to his abilities as a runner and thrower.
The third-year quarterback is still very dangerous on the ground — he is leading the team with 79 rushing attempts for 469 yards, three touchdowns and a 5.9-yard average per carry — but has not been his same efficient self when passing the ball: Jackson’s completion percentage has dropped to 62.9 percent while he has thrown for 1,513 yards with 12 scores and four interceptions. His numbers are still very good, but not on the same level they were last year.
There are multiple reasons for Jackson’s statistical regression. The aforementioned turnover along the offensive line has certainly not helped, with him taking almost as many sacks through eight games in 2020 (21) as he had through 15 in 2019 (22). Furthermore, the team’s receiving talent outside of tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Marquise Brown has been inconsistent so far.
Lastly, there’s Greg Roman. While the Ravens’ coordinator is as good as anybody in the NFL when it comes to scheming run designs, his offense is not built to withstand pressure from a defense: Baltimore is built around the vertical passing game, with hot reads — either screens or other quick passing concepts — not a prominent feature of the attack. This, in turn, has forced the team to rely on Jackson’s running abilities as a counter against pressure.
The results have not always been great, however, and led to defenses trying to bring the heat in numerous ways: either by blitzing, overloading the line, or challenging the entire operation with fake pressure.
Take a look at the following pick-six from the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8:
The Steelers originally aligned in a 4-2 front with three down-linemen and outside linebacker Bud Dupree (#48) in a two-point stance on the strong side of the formation. Before the snap, off-the-ball linebacker Vince Williams (#98) pulled up to the line to signal blitz with Robert Spillane (#41) moving into his vacated spot off-the-ball. Williams indeed ended up attacking the pocket, but Dupree eventually pulled out to leave a four-man pressure intact.
Lamar Jackson (#8) had plenty of time to survey the field with the offensive line picking up the pressure, and eventually decided to move to the other side of the field to throw to rookie wide receiver James Proche (#11) on a sit-down route as his hot read versus the blitz. Proche moved right into Spillane’s coverage zone, however, which allowed the linebacker to undercut the route and pick off the football.
The simulated blitz and Dupree dropping back to take away Jackson’s first read made the play possible, with the young quarterback failing to account for the movements on the second level of the defense. The Patriots, of course, have been masters at disguising pressures and keeping QBs on their toes at all times. Don’t be surprised if Bill Belichick and company try something similar on Sunday night.
Keep an eye out for play-calling tendencies
One of the problematic areas for the Ravens offense this year has been the team’s offensive predictability. While Greg Roman still has a deep bag of tricks at his disposal, and can change things up on the fly, teams have started to adapt to any play-calling tendencies and found success against them.
Take a look at the following play from the Ravens’ 27-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5, for example:
Rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay (#13) gained 42 yards on this run, with Baltimore setting it up nicely with a fake pull by left guard Bradley Bozeman (#77). The defense reacts to the pull as if going against a regular hand-off, with the second level linebackers all flowing with the play. However, Lamar Jackson (#8) kept the ball before handing it off to Duvernay on an end-around in the different direction.
Four weeks later, against the Indianapolis Colts, Roman called a play that was structurally similar:
The play again is a hand-off to Duvernay on an end-around, with right guard Patrick Mekari (#65) serving as the pull-blocker. The defense again flowed with the play initially, but did not oversell on the backside to still stay alive versus the run. Colts cornerback Kenny Moore (#23), a former Patriot, and safety Julian Blackmon (#32) did a tremendous job to reverse course to shoot straight to the ball carrier and eventually take him down for a loss of one.
Indianapolis was well-prepared for the end-around, and did not fall for the misdirection before the real hand-off. The defenders read their keys properly, did not oversell their position, and eventually were able to make a play.
What does this mean for the Patriots? If they did their homework during the week, they should be prepared to stand their ground against potential tricks that Greg Roman may have up his sleeve — something that will likely happen given how multi-faceted his run game designs are. If they fall back on old tendencies, however, New England needs to be ready just like the Colts defense was on the play outlined above.
Play fundamentally sound football
The Patriots’ issues against the run have to do with the personnel available, as New England has never quite replaced free agency departee Danny Shelton; only recently did the team sign Carl Davis off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad to take over the nose tackle position as a big-bodied two-technique.
While adding Davis should help with some of the issues — it allows other linemen such as Deatrich Wise Jr. and Byron Cowart to play their more natural positions — the Patriots will also need to get more consistent with their execution, especially in two areas that will be critical versus Baltimore: finishing tackles and controlling their gaps.
“They just do a good job of getting matchups, getting whether it’s Lamar Jackson or the backs in some one-on-one open-field spaces,” said safety Devin McCourty during a media conference call earlier during the week. “They find ways to make one guy miss, and then once he gets in the open field, that’s when they’re at their best.”
The Ravens’ skill position talent has been very good at forcing missed tackles over the course of the season, with rookie running back J.K. Dobbins and quarterback Lamar Jackson standing out in particular: while Dobson avoided a combined 19 tackle attempts so far this season, Jackson was able to slip out a combined 15 times. For comparison, the Patriots’ most elusive player, running back Rex Burkhead, has broken 13 tackles this year.
Needless to say that New England’s defenders need to play a fundamentally sound game in order to limit the potential impact that Dobbins and Jackson in particular might have — something that has not always worked well. The Patriots have missed 45 combined tackles this year, with John Simon and Devin McCourty as the main culprits: the two starters have each whiffed on six separated tackle attempts over the first eight games.
Finishing tackles will be a key in the running and the passing game, something that also can be said about lane integrity up front.
As noted above controlling the gaps will be massively important against a strong rushing attack like the Ravens’ and a dual-threat quarterback such as Lamar Jackson. While the Patriots defense has more experience working against this type of offense from its own practices against Cam Newton and New England’s offense, there is a difference between executing versus teammates on the practice fields and opposing players in a real game.
Holding the position at the line of scrimmage improved at times last week versus the New York Jets and with Davis taking over the nose tackle role, but the Ravens are obviously a different beast — despite their offensive line having suffered some heavy losses since last year: right guard Marshal Yanda retired during the offseason, while left tackle Ronnie Stanley suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8.
Not having to go up against the two veterans makes life easier for the Patriots’ defense, but it still needs to do its job: filling the gaps properly in the middle, and setting a hard edge to funnel rushing attempts into the heart of the line. New England’s defenses are built around the players’ ability to do that, and if they fail on Sunday it could be a long night for the entire team.