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Patriots vs. Ravens game plan: How New England will find success in Week 3

Some old friends are visiting Gillette Stadium for the Patriots’ home opener.

David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

A defensive powerhouse for most of the last 20 years, talk about the Baltimore Ravens is now primarily centered around their offense. For good reason: quarterback Lamar Jackson is already establishing himself as a serious MVP candidate two weeks into the season, while the unit as a whole ranks near the top of the league in most traditional and advanced metrics.

It is averaging 31.0 points (4th) and 373.5 yards (12th) per game, and has an expected-points-added-per-play (EPA) number of 0.170 EPA (6th). Needless to say that the unit of long-time offensive coordinator Greg Roman has been quite good so far.

The team’s defense, on the other hand, finds itself on the other end of the spectrum early in Year 1 under defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. The group has given up an average of 25.5 over its first two contests (23rd) as well as 463.5 yards (32nd). It also surrendered an EPA of 0.103 per play (26th), with a lot of it due to a collapse in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins.

Turning the page quickly will be critical for the unit and team as a whole. Likewise, its Week 3 opponent will try to get out of a slump of its own — especially on the offensive side of the ball: the New England Patriots offense has scored just three touchdowns all season and has yet to prove it can consistently string positive plays together for an extended period of time.

In a way, Week 3 is therefore a battle of strength against strength (New England defense vs. Baltimore offense) and weakness against weakness (New England offense vs. Baltimore defense). All in all, though, the visitors are still seen as the better team: the Ravens are currently listed as 2.5-point favorites, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

What can the Patriots do to overcome their home underdog status? Using the Ravens defense’s first two games of the season as a blueprint, here is our best-guess estimation.

Patriots offense vs. Ravens defense

Have the zone beaters ready

Two weeks of tape is not enough to make any definitive statements about how the Ravens defense is looking with Mike Macdonald at the helm, but according to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick there is some carryover from his predecessor Don “Wink” Martindale.

“Pretty similar,” Belichick said earlier this week when asked about the similarities between this Ravens defense and those under Martindale. “Obviously, Wink has put his flavor on it, Mike has put his. It’s two games, so we’ll see how it all plays out with more evidence in, but right now, there’s certainly a lot of carry over from what they’ve done in the past. But, there’s some differences, too. It’s not the same, but it’s similar.”

So, what has the Ravens defense shown this year that can be relevant for the Patriots? For starters, it played a lot of zone coverage in its first two games against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins; the expectation is that New England will also see plenty of zone this week.

While the Patriots’ offensive staff saw some turnover this offseason, the team still has plenty of zone beaters at its disposal. Take the ever-popular Hoss concept, which can be modified in various ways based on the coverage and use of option routes.

Basically speaking, however, it looks somewhat like the following design called Hoss Y-Juke in the Patriots’ terminology:

The goal of a play such as Hoss is attacking zone coverage by getting players into the soft spots between the defenders. Here, those soft spots are located between the second and third levels of the defense — an area that is attacked by the two seam routes out of the slot — or in the flats if the boundary defenders play off.

Hoss is not the only such play the Patriots can call against zone, though. Whether it is flooding zones to create conflict or running high-low concepts, the goal remains the same.

The Dolphins accomplished that goal several times last week, including on the following concept:

This concept is called Dagger, and it is another staple of the Patriots’ zone-beating playbook. Miami was unable to take fully advantage on this particular play, with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) checking down to running back Raheem Mostert (31) rather than targeting wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) who had gotten open on the dig route:

The play itself, however, had unfolded perfectly against the Ravens’ Cover 2 structure. Linebacker Josh Bynes (56) followed the tight end up the seam, which in turn cleared up a hole for Waddle to maneuver into. Alas, Tagovailoa settled for the shorter gain.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the play, it worked and is something the Patriots might also incorporate this week as well. Whether it is Dagger, Hoss or other core concepts the team likes to run against zone such as Yankee or Post/Wheel, expect New England to be ready if Baltimore continues to bring a zone-heavy plan to the battle.

Give Mac Jones space

The Ravens have a lot of depth along their interior defensive line, led by talented pocket-collapsers Justin Madubuike and Michael Pierce. The edge, meanwhile, has been thinned out a bit with Tyus Bowser on the physically unable to perform list; as a result, Baltimore brought veteran free agent Jason Pierre-Paul on board to help bolster the depth behind starters Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh.

From a Patriots perspective, it is imperative that their offensive line does not exacerbate the issue of the Ravens’ talented interior linemen by giving Houston, Oweh and Pierre-Paul easy wins to the inside. Instead, they have to be forced to run the loop to give quarterback Mac Jones space to maneuver in the pocket — and time to find openings in the defense’s zone-based structures.

Starting offensive tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn will therefore be under some pressure to perform this assignment this week. Generally, the pair has performed quite well this season, but it has had its ups and downs: Brown surrendered a pair of sacks in Week 1 and drew responsible for a hit in Week 2. Wynn, meanwhile, saw himself walked back quite a few times against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday.

Additionally, awareness and communication will be vital versus an aggressive Ravens defense. While Macdonald has not dialed up the blitz as frequently as his predecessor yet — Baltimore is ranked 10th in blitz rate (30.1%) — his time under Martindale has had an impact on him and how he sees defense.

Accordingly, the expectation is that Baltimore will try to disguise its pressure packages until the last moment and send different players. Off-the-ball linebacker Patrick Queen, one of the best athletes the position has to offer league-wide, and safeties Marcus Williams and Chuck Clark are three players to watch in that regard.

The following play from Week 1 against the Jets is a good example of that, with Williams (32) charging downfield at the last second to burst through the offensive right-side A-gap:

Running back Michael Carter (32) is able to get a hand on Williams at the last second, but the frontside pressure forces quarterback Joe Flacco (19) out of the pocket and collapses the play. While Mac Jones is a better and more mobile QB than Flacco, such free lanes cannot be allowed to become open.

The Patriots’ running backs and their pass-protection skills will be key, as will be Matt Patricia countering. Play-action or RPO concepts could help take advantage of the aggressive downhill nature the Baltimore off-ball personnel has, by using it against itself.

Cut back on risky deep shots

One week after going against one of the NFL’s best safeties in the Steelers’ Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Patriots offense will face another. Baltimore free agency acquisition Marcus Williams has been a game-changer for the Ravens, not just due to his ability to attack the pocket as a second-level blitzer.

The former New Orleans Saints second-round draft pick also has the play recognition, burst, and ball skills to make opposing quarterbacks pay for throwing near him in two-deep coverage looks. Just ask Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa (1), who was intercepted by Williams while trying to hit wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) on a comeback route:

Williams quickly recognizes what is going on, and reacts accordingly. Hill, meanwhile, does not attack the ball quick enough, giving the defensive back an opportunity he rarely misses.

Technique issues are not the only way to get Williams in a position to make plays for the defense; risky downfield shots are as well. Mac Jones, of course, has not been afraid of making those — with up-and-down results.

Jones was able to connect with Nelson Agholor for a 44-yard touchdown last week, albeit against a single-high defensive structure, while two passes of his intended for DeVante Parker were picked off. Both interceptions were made not by the cornerbacks initially covering Parker, but rather by safeties coming in to help out over the top.

Considering Williams’ qualities, Week 3 is probably not the best time to try to get the Jones-Parker connection going down the field.

Ball security also relies to the running backs. Obviously, it is important every week, but especially against a Ravens defense that attacks the rock relentlessly when given opportunities. The Patriots’ backs led — Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and rookie Pierre Strong Jr. — need to cover the football up and don’t give the defenders any easy shots at punching it out.

Patriots defense vs. Ravens offense

Force Lamar Jackson off his spot

As noted above, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been spectacular so far this season. The fifth-year quarterback has completed 64.4 percent of his pass attempts for 531 yards as well as six touchdowns and an interception. Additionally, he has accounted for almost two thirds of Baltimore’s rushing yards, gaining 138 yards on just 13 non-kneel down carries — including a 79-yard run against Miami last week.

For as impressive a runner as Jackson still is, his ability to hurt defenses with his right arm is equally elite. And given how passing the football is generally more efficient than running it, the 2018 first-round draft pick is a bigger threat in the pocket than outside of it — something Kyle Barber of SB Nation’s Ravens blog, Baltimore Beatdown, told us earlier this week.

“Jackson has become a full-fledged NFL quarterback,” Kyle said. “It’s quite a testament to Jackson and the Ravens that both worked to develop Jackson’s abilities. I think he’s really become a greater threat in the pocket than on the run, and that’s not to discredit his ability on the ground, but it’s become clear he is a passing quarterback who can easily punish over-pursuing linebackers and defensive linemen.”

In order to counter Jackson’s abilities as a runner, the Patriots went with a zone-heavy coverage approach the last time the two teams met in 2020. It would not be a surprise if they did the same this year, while trying to keep all eyes directed toward him.

That being said, downfield coverage is only one way to counter the hyper-talented QB — pressure up front is another.

Obviously, over-running him and giving up easy escape lanes could have disastrous results. That said, the key to stopping Jackson is getting him off his spot and forcing him to make spectacular low-percentage throws. Make no mistake, he can make those, but the odds do shift in the defense’s favor if he is forced to quickly pull the trigger while off-platform.

What should help the Patriots in that regard is the status of Baltimore’s offensive line.

Starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley remains out for another week, while the unit is starting a rookie at the center position. Tyler Linderbaum is a very good player and there is a reason he went in the first round of the draft earlier this year. However, his inexperience has showed up several times through the first two games of the season with Baltimore’s interior O-line struggling to pick up twists and stunts.

New England’s big three pass rushers — Matthew Judon, Christian Barmore and Deatrich Wise Jr. — could thrive in 1-on-1 situations against the Ravens’ tackles and their rookie center. If that happens, and they stay disciplined in their pass rush lanes, Jackson could find himself in confined space on several occasions.

Be mindful of the quarterback run

Of course, when talking Lamar Jackson one cannot disregard his dual-threat abilities. He is a very good thrower of the football, but he might very well be the best running quarterback in the entire NFL. His size, burst and elusiveness make him one of the hardest players to bring down regardless of position.

The Jets defense saw this first-hand in Week 1:

New York is doing what we just talked about. It methodically collapses the pocket around Jackson (8) while not opening up any escape routes. This results in a near-sack, but most of the time “near” is not enough against the 25-year-old.

In this case, he spins away from the pressure, steps out of a tackle attempt, and is able to gain enough yards on 3rd-and-8 to move the chains. Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap to the opponent — and this is one of those plays. It also is a perfect example to show what Jackson is capable of even if the defense is doing almost everything well.

The Patriots, of course, know all of that. They’ve seen Jackson twice and he was able to make an impact on the ground each time.

In 2019, he carried the football 13 times for 64 yards and an average of 4.9 yards per carry. He also scored a pair of touchdowns. The following season, Jackson had 11 rushing attempts for 55 yards and a 5.0-yard average.

While both outings are underwhelming from a statistical perspective, one can make the argument that the 2020 matchup was a better one for the Patriots. After all, their defense that year was a lot worse from a personnel perspective due to a combination of free agency departures, injuries, inexperience and Covid-19 opt-outs.

And yet, the unit gave up just 17 points — in large part due to its performance against Jackson both from a coverage and run defense perspective. The Patriots accomplished that by using a look not often seen from them.

They used a 3-3 stack alignment with outside linebackers playing off the line and rotating down if there was an in-line tight end to their side. Additionally, the unit played a lot of Cover 3 from a big nickel look to keep the safeties on the perimeter against the threat of Jackson breaking to the outside; it also incorporated some Cover 2.

Schematically, the alignment looked like this:

In action, it looked as follows:

The 3-3 stack look saw the defensive line in a bear front, with the nose in a 0-technique spot directly over the center and the two ends head-up on the tackles. Behind them were three linebackers — again, depending on where the tight end was — with five defensive backs on the field; oftentimes three safeties with two of them on the edge to provide athleticism against Jackson.

The Patriots, of course, have one of the best safety groups in the NFL these days. Devin McCourty will continue to play deep, but the other three are all capable of aligning near the line of scrimmage: Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers. Dugger is questionable entering the contest due to a knee injury, but Phillips and Peppers are both able defenders as well.

Don’t be surprised, therefore, if the Patriots continue to use the 3-3 stack and big nickel look even if Dugger is unable to suit up.

Respect the wide receivers’ speed

A quarterback can only be as good as his receiving corps allows him to be. Luckily for the Ravens, they are pretty well set-up across the board. Mark Andrews is one of the NFL’s better tight ends, while Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay have proven themself a prolific one-two punch at the wide receiver spot.

Their biggest asset is speed. Bateman and Duvernay are both flying down the field — on offense and in the kicking game, as evidenced by the latter’s 103-yard kickoff return touchdown last week — and can get behind a defense no problem.

The Patriots need to respect that speed, and not put themselves into vulnerable positions. The Dolphins did just that when they were burned while running Cover 0:

While Miami did put its best cornerback on Bateman (7), All-Pro Xavien Howard (25) did give up the catch and touchdown. The wideout was able to sell the fade, forcing Howard to open his hips to the sideline; he then broke underneath on a slant route, and took the short pass to the house with nothing but green grass in front of him — a result of Miami’s coverage setup.

Playing Cover 0 against Baltimore’s speedy pass catchers and big-armed quarterback is obviously a risky endeavor. The same is using soft shells as the Jets found out in Week 1:

On this play, Duvernay (13) aligns as the outside receiver in a three-man bunch formation and simply runs past cornerback Bryce Hall (37). With Hall not getting a hand on him, and the deep safety stuck in the middle against the other routes run out of the bunch, Jackson and Duvernay were able to connect on a 25-yard touchdown.

The Patriots do have some speed in their defensive backfield, with Jonathan Jones as their prime cornerback against it. However, speed alone is not all that matters: the structural integrity of the defensive call also needs to be given for it to work.

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