FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Patriots and Ravens meet in Baltimore on Sunday night, you'll have the most electric quarterback in the NFL, Lamar Jackson, on one side. On the other, a New England defense that is on pace to be the stingiest we've seen in the Super Bowl era, apologies to the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens not needed (at least not yet). Who emerges from that battle this weekend?
"There's not another quarterback in the league like this," admired Bill Belichick midweek from Foxborough.
Jackson presents the Patriots defense with a challenge unlike any it has faced prior to this season and any it will face moving forward. We know how explosive and elusive Jackson is as a runner. He's coming off two straight games of 100-plus rush yards, and with 576 yards on the ground in 2019, he has more than double the next-closest quarterback (Kyler Murray, 279).
"I think you saw like Week 1, when they played Miami and everyone was saying like, 'He was a running back, he's a runner, he's a runner,' and he went out there and threw the ball all over the field," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "That's what I said, what makes him good is his ability to be really good at both things: throwing the football and running the football, because if you devote too much to him running, he's going to throw the ball. If you sit back too much and don't think he's going to run the ball, he's going to run the ball. And I think his knowledge and understanding of that, like he's not trying to be just a runner or just a passer."
So the challenge that every Ravens opponent this season (other than the Chiefs) has failed to meet is keeping Jackson from dominating with his legs while also turning this rapidly improving passer into what he was in his rookie year -- an average thrower at best. Teams have tried to rely more heavily on zone defense in an effort to meet that challenge. Jackson has faced zone coverage on 71.6 percent of his dropbacks since 2018, which is the highest rate in the NFL over that span (min. 350 dropbacks, including playoffs), according to Pro Football Focus.
However, the Patriots have lived off man coverage for the better part of the season, playing it on 62.4 percent of the snaps (highest rate in the NFL). They couple that with the highest rate of zero blitzes (12.4%), which come from a variety of looks. Can you maintain that aggressiveness against this quarterback, taking the risk of having your coverage guys turn their backs to chase a receiver and leave Jackson with large swaths of field to ramble on?
"Honestly, it's dangerous if you're in man or zone," McCourty told me on Wednesday. "I mean, there's times where they have two guys committed to him and he just outruns them. There's times they're in zone and you still have a guy that's in your zone, so you've got one guy that's playing the guy in the zone, so that leaves one guy with eyes on Lamar Jackson to get him down. He makes them miss, and now he's gone.
" ... Like, it's not going to be easy. He's obviously going to make some of his plays, but we have to still make some of our plays in the game if we want to have a chance to win defensively."
The general belief is that with someone as mobile as Jackson, the Patriots will go to an old formula, mixing in more zone coverage, muddling the rush and harping over and over again to maintain rush lanes. That's the formula they've employed versus mobile passers like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. It seems fair to presume Jackson would have had issues against such tactics last year, when 72.4 percent of his attempts were thrown from inside the tackle box (lowest of any QB in a season since 2016, min. 150 attempts). This year? He's improving and has actually proven to be a better passer from inside the pocket than outside, per Next Gen Stats.
Inside the tackle box: 8.5 air yards per attempt, 64.9% completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt, 16:7 TD-INT ratio, 97.2 passer rating
Outside the tackle box: 11.0 air yards per attempt, 46.7% completion percentage, 5.3 yards per attempt, 1:1 TD-INT ratio, 61.9 passer rating
Jackson has also increased his percentage of passes in the short area (0-9 air yards) and his numbers have shown an uptick here as well, although perhaps the greatest sign of growth is that the former Heisman Trophy winner has reduced his time to throw on short passes by 0.29 seconds. That suggests -- strongly -- that it's coming to Jackson earlier in his progressions. In other words, he sees it and slings it.
2018: 2.78 seconds (average time to throw), 65.1% completion percentage, 72.0% expected completion percentage, 6.3 yards per attempt, 2:0 TD-INT ratio, 90.2 passer rating
2019: 2.49 seconds (average time to throw), 73.9% completion percentage, 75.3% expected completion percentage, 7.3 yards per attempt, 4:3 TD-INT ratio, 95.0 passer rating
"Yeah, he can throw," said Gilmore. "He got a pretty deep ball. He throw a lot of passes on the money. He got a good arm. We can't sleep on his passing game."
"I'm just trying to build," said Jackson. "I'm trying to be better than I was last year."