How Lamar Jackson can break down the New England Patriots
Watch the league's most exciting quarterback take on the the NFL's top defense live on Sky Sports Action and Main Event from 1.10am on Sunday night/Monday morning; kickoff is at 1.20am
By James Simpson - @JS_Football
Last Updated: 04/11/19 12:13am
The New England Patriots don't care that you think they have had a weak schedule.
Bill Belichick's team go about their business - and take care of it - every single week, regardless of the strength of their opposition.
We know their credentials. They are six-time Super Bowl winners under Belichick and with Tom Brady at the helm.
However this season, these are the opposing quarterbacks they have faced so far:
- Week One: Ben Roethlisberger
- Week Two: Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen
- Week Three: Luke Falk
- Week Four: Josh Allen/Matt Barkley
- Week Five: Colt McCoy
- Week Six: Daniel Jones
- Week Seven: Sam Darnold
- Week Eight: Baker Mayfield
So... Not the best competition. Yes, they deserve credit - a ton of it - for how they have dominated so far.
But they need to be tested. And they will be, with match-ups against Lamar Jackson, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and (hopefully) Patrick Mahomes in their next five games.
When the Ravens (5-2) host the Patriots (8-0) on Sunday night, live on Sky Sports Action and Main Event from 1.10am, how can Jackson break New England down?
What Jackson brings
"I've never seen a player like this at the quarterback position," Patriots' defensive back Devin McCourty said during the week about the lightning-quick, elusive and strong-armed Jackson. He brings it all.
Since taking over as starter from veteran Joe Flacco in Week 11 last season, Jackson has helped the team to an 11-3 record. How does he find ways to win? With his arm and his legs.
His passer rating so far this season is 94.1 (narrowly behind Brady at 95.0), and Jackson is setting records as a runner. He reached 1,000 career rushing yards in his 21st career game (tied for fastest by a QB in NFL history with Robert Griffin III).
Jackson's 82.3 rushing yards per game in 2019 are the most by a quarterback in a season in NFL history, and he is on pace for 1,316 yards this season, which would smash Michael Vick's record of 1,039.
He's also averaged 6.9 yards per carry this season (first in NFL among all positions) which puts him on pace for the highest average in a season by any player since Russell Wilson in 2014 (7.2).
In short, he is a nightmare for defenses to handle.
What the Patriots do so well
As an overall unit, the Patriots' defense is on its own record-setting pace. New England have the number one scoring defense with 7.6 points per game allowed. If that remains until the end of the season, it would be the fewest points allowed in the Super Bowl era.
How do they do it? With a smart, simple scheme and players who are drilled and coached up to do a small number of things but do them extremely well.
A quick explainer: If a defender plays in man coverage, it means they have an assigned 'man' on offense to account for - wherever they go. If they are in zone coverage, they are responsible for a certain area of the field. There are a number of varieties within each type, but that is the basic premise.
The Patriots, this season, have used man coverage 62.4 per cent of the time, the highest rate in the NFL. This makes things simpler for players in the secondary, and the unit has thrived.
Opposing quarterbacks have thrown just two touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions against them. They have allowed a 40.6 passer rating, which would be the lowest since 1977 (Atlanta Falcons, 37.4).
Jackson described them as "fundamentally sound. A lot of veterans on the defense, all 11 at the ball at all times. That's how they're getting so many turnovers.
"They've got 19 interceptions? That's crazy."
Among those veterans are McCourty and Stephon Gilmore, who both rank in the top three in interceptions with five and three, respectively.
Linebacker Jamie Collins can drop back or rush with the best of them, and is the third player since 1982 with six-plus sacks and three-plus interceptions in his team's first eight games of a season.
Jackson might be the Pats' toughest test yet, but he hasn't played any team like New England.
Why Jackson will cause problems for New England
Man coverage is great for getting defenders to purely cover their receiver, but when playing against a dual-threat like Jackson, it can be problematic.
It means defenders have their eyes on their assigned receivers, and not on Jackson.
If wideout Marquise Brown takes off downfield and a cornerback trails with his eyes away from the backfield, that defender simply won't see Jackson take off and run. The 22-year-old is a master at picking when to go, and if he just makes one man miss, big plays happen.
Teams do try and counter this - Jackson has only seen man coverage on 22 per cent dropbacks in his career, the lowest among quarterbacks with 350-plus dropbacks since 2018 - but he still achieves great rushing numbers.
For context, Jackson's opponents have played man coverage on 30.3 per cent of their snaps against all other QBs - so teams do already adjust to account for his legs.
Twelve of 15 opponents Jackson has played against reduced their usage of man coverage when facing Jackson compared to other QBs, but only one team has been brave enough to increase their man coverage against him this season - the Cincinnati Bengals in Week Six.
The result? Jackson became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to pass for at least 200 yards and rush for 150 in a single game as he torched the Bengals for 152 yards on the ground in a 23-17 win.
So how will the Pats counter?
Belichick is a defensive mastermind, and someone who won't be fooled into think the Patriots can just play 'their way'.
On Inside the Huddle this week, Brian Baldinger explained how Belichick's malleability is crucial to why his defense is so successful. He said: "I think you're going to see a defense that they haven't played yet this year. I've seen them play different defenses against different players and different teams.
"I think they are going to play more zone so that all the guys in zone can keep their eyes on Jackson and when he might scramble or break the pocket.
"They could mix it up from series to series or quarter to quarter. I've seen the Patriots play a defense in the first quarter, and play a different defense in the second quarter. So I think you're going to see a lot of change-up, and [they will] keep Lamar Jackson guessing as long as possible - maybe up until the ball is snapped."
Ultimately, the Patriots will probably surprise us. The man coverage percentage should drop, but they will find times to utilize it. Perhaps they simply go all zone, stick a spy on Jackson and force him to stay in the pocket for the entire game.
Since 2014, first and second-year quarterbacks are 0-21 versus the Patriots. They know how to show something new to young signal-callers, and Jackson will be their latest target.
Watch Patriots at Ravens live on Sky Sports Action and Main Event from 1.10am on Sunday night/Monday morning; kickoff is at 1.20am.