BALTIMORE — There is more of a businesslike approach around the Ravens this week as they prepare for Sunday night’s game against the New England Patriots, one of the NFL’s most popular and most hated franchises.
A lot of focus has been committed to New England’s blitzes and pressure-heavy defense, which has allowed only 61 points all season. The Patriots (8-0) have also collected 31 sacks and intercepted 19 passes. That’s the known. And then there is the unknown.
Few can predict what New England coach Bill Belichick will do to slow down Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“You only get so many reps in practice, so what you choose to draw on the card and put in front of your guys has to be your best estimate that’s going to give you the best chance to carry it forward into Sunday,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
“So, that’s part of what you do, but you also have to understand the way you develop a game plan is in such a way that you’re prepared for whatever might happen. But once the game starts, you have to go out and play and adapt and adjust. Anything that any team does is going to be NFL scheme. It’s just a matter of whether we’re prepared to handle it in that moment.”
That’s the intriguing element of this game. The Patriots are known for moving players along the line of scrimmage and coming up with different blitzes and pressures because they think that they have great cornerbacks who can match up one-on-one with receivers.
But that game plan might change a little with Jackson. He has rushed for 576 yards on 83 carries this season. If he gets through the first wave of pressure, he can easily make a big play. Also, teams prefer to play zone against Jackson rather than man-to-man because they don’t want him to reach open space.
In the open field, Jackson has the running style of former Chicago Bears and Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers.
“That’s a concern,” said Harbaugh, smiling sheepishly. “For us on defense, I know we worry ... You don’t worry about it, but a factor is the ability to defend a scramble when you’re playing man coverage or you’re blitzing guys and you crack that first layer.”
Belichick, perhaps the NFL’s greatest coach ever, will come up with something. His priority is always to take out the opposing team’s top weapon. Until the Ravens see something new, they will continue to prepare for what they have seen on film.
It’s a different New England team compared with previous years. Quarterback Tom Brady is still the heart of the franchise, but the Patriots have won more with defense than offense through the first half of this season.
The Patriots have scored six non-offensive touchdowns, including two on interceptions and two on fumble returns. They are on pace to generate 62 sacks, just 10 short of the NFL record set by the 1984 Chicago Bears. The defense has held teams to just a 15.6% conversion rate on third down (15 for 96) and is ranked first in the league in points allowed (7.6 per game), second in total yards allowed (234 per game) and second in passing yards allowed (148.8 per game).
“They do it with four-man rush. They do it with three-man rush. They do it with simulated pressures. They do it blitzing at times, too,” Harbaugh said. “They’re a big (Cover) Zero blitz team. They probably all-out blitz more than everybody, but even that’s not always an all-out blitz.
“They’ll have designated droppers, or they’ll have droppers based on the protection. They just do a really good job with it. They are guys that know how to play, and it’s showing up in stats like sacks and interceptions and their overall defense.”
Linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. leads the Patriots in sacks with six, but other linebackers such as Kyle Van Noy (4½), John Simon (three) and Dont’a Hightower (two) have contributed, as well as tackle Adam Butler (4½).
Besides Jackson, the busiest player on the Ravens this week might be center Matt Skura, who has to identify blitzing defenders and then call out pass protections. The Ravens have allowed 17 sacks this season.
“There are certain calls that I have to make to make sure that we’re all on spot and that I’m communicating to both sides of the line, because each side of the line kind of differs, as far as what they want to do,” Skura said of the Patriots. “Their blitz is definitely challenging.”
“You definitely see some of those plays, and it pops up at you,” Skura said of the Patriots’ 19 interceptions and eight forced fumbles this season. “The biggest thing for us is we just have to be all on the same page. We have to be mentally sharp, be great on our assignment, our techniques. I think that’s just the biggest thing for us.”
The possible return of receiver Marquise Brown from an ankle injury would help the Ravens. He is the team’s fastest player and could run quick screens and slant-ins to counter the blitzes. Because of his speed, he could also stretch the defense.
The Ravens also have the NFL’s No. 1 ranked rushing offense, averaging 204.1 yards. It features two good, solid runners in Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards. But the key for the Patriots is Jackson and slowing him down, especially off the perimeter.
“They’re very balanced in the running game between the running back, whoever that is _ those guys are all good, they’re good downhill runners and strong, break a lot of tackles — and the quarterback,” Belichick said of the Ravens. “The running backs have a little more production than the quarterback, though the quarterback has a lot of production and probably a little bit higher yards per attempt, but he has a lot of explosive plays.
“So you have to defend those. That makes it a little bit different. He’s a very talented player with a great skill-set that’s unique. So, that will be a big challenge for us to try to do that, no question.”