OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Lamar Jackson presents the NFL’s most perplexing problem for a defense to solve. He is a proficient passer and one of the fastest players at any position, and around him the Baltimore Ravens have built a system to exploit his strengths. Jackson’s unique athleticism makes it impossible for opponents to approximate him during practice.
“We don’t have a guy,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t know if anybody else in the league has a guy, either.”
Belichick is arguably the greatest solver of problems in league history. He figures out what an opponent does best and systematically forces them to beat his team doing something else. They rarely do.
“Best in the business,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Nobody’s ever done it better.”
Sunday night, Jackson and Belichick will clash in a showdown that could shape the AFC playoff race. The 8-0 Patriots and 5-2 Ravens will play at M&T Bank Stadium on “Sunday Night Football,” the most-watched show on television. If they played an untelevised exhibition in a parking lot, it would fascinate just the same. For strategy connoisseurs, there may not be a more delectable meeting all season than football’s most electric quarterback versus the game’s paramount tactician – one who has won 21 consecutive games against quarterbacks who, like Jackson, are in their first or second years.
How will Belichick tailor his defensive game plan? If it works, what will Jackson and the Ravens do to counter? Will Jackson solve Belichick and pass the toughest test of his career? Or will Belichick solve Jackson?
The intrigue is heightened by the shape of New England’s season. The Patriots’ defense has allowed five touchdowns and scored four. It blows away the league by every consequential statistical measure. But the Patriots have also played just one team – Buffalo, in Week 4 – with a winning record. They have faced a motley collection of quarterbacks.
“We’ll see how good they are when we play them,” Ravens tight end Nick Boyle said. “They haven’t seen anything like what we do or like what Lamar does.”
If that sounds like bravado, it is actually a statement of fact. Nobody plays offense like the Ravens, who this offseason constructed a system from the ground up around Jackson, a project led by offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Jackson has posted a 94.1 quarterback rating while rushing for 576 yards, 10th among all players. Coaches are captivated by one question: What will Belichick do to stop Jackson?
Geep Chryst would have a better idea than most. Chryst served as the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach in 2012, when Roman coordinated an offense for Coach Jim Harbaugh, John’s brother, quarterbacked by Colin Kaepernick, another quarterback with a rifle arm and uncommon running ability. Those 49ers beat New England, 41-34, in a late-season game on their way to an NFC title.
It could be precarious to try to glean tactics from 2012, or even Roman’s Buffalo Bills team in 2015, when he called plays for dual-threat Tyrod Taylor in two meetings against Belichick.
“If G-Ro was running the same offense he was in those years, he wouldn’t be an offensive coordinator today,” Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin said. “You have to adapt. I talked to G-Ro about it. I asked him, because I wanted to know about the system. He said it’s changed. Everything changes over time.”
Still, Chryst said he knew both Roman and Belichick would build the structure of their game plan by studying the 2012 Niners-Patriots film and the Patriots-Bills games in 2015.
“I’m more than sure they’re gonna look at it,” Griffin said. “I’m more than sure G-Ro looked at it. What’s going to show up in the plan in the game Sunday night, who knows?”
In 2012, Chryst recalled, the 49ers believed Belichick would strive to limit Kaepernick’s running. Roman’s 49ers entered the game intent on passing, to prove to the Patriots they would throw in inclement weather and could do it successfully. San Francisco passed on its first six plays, including a long touchdown pass down the left seam from Kaepernick to Randy Moss.
Kaepernick ran seven times for only 28 yards, but the 49ers beat the Patriots by throwing deep against defensive alignments designed to plug running lanes. Kaepernick threw four touchdown passes, all of them 24 yards or longer.
“[Belichick has] always had a reputation, and his tape shows, he’ll take away what you do best and force you to do something that isn’t as good,” Chryst said. “What Lamar does best is run the ball, whether he drops back to pass and kind of broken-field running, or it’s designed runs. I thought he actually did a nice job of taking away some of our quarterback-designed runs. That’s probably where the point of focus for the game plan for New England would be.”
Chryst expects the Ravens will employ personnel packages with multiple tight ends, a staple of Roman’s offenses he has taken to the extreme in Baltimore. That would compel Belichick, Chryst believes, to play his base 3-4 defense, with three down linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs. To block running lanes, Belichick would move his cornerbacks and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, between six and 10 yards from the ball, in a “four across” alignment, which would look to a quarterback like “zero coverage,” meaning there would be no deep safety.
“The thing I’ll be watching for,” Chryst said, “is are [the Patriots] willing to play Baltimore’s offense in zero coverage. It’s a great way to shut down all run lanes. Can Lamar hit a deep pass or two over the heads?”
The Patriots, Chryst said, are sure to employ wrinkles within their base defense. They could align one of their versatile veterans, like Kyle Van Noy, in an unusual spot to confuse Jackson as to whether he’s dropping into coverage or rushing. They could rotate one safety deep just before the snap, to throw off how Jackson should read the coverage.
“It seems like those are the things you got to watch and look at almost personnel-wise,” Chryst said. “Who are the pieces that are out there in base that he might use in a way that is nontraditional?”
One of the toughest parts about preparing for Belichick is his capacity to surprise. In the Super Bowl last year, he came out in a six-man front with exotic coverages behind it that shutdown the Los Angeles’s Rams outside-zone rushing scheme and bamboozled quarterback Jared Goff. The Ravens may prepare for a base defense against their multiple tight ends; that doesn’t mean they’ll get it.
“Those are always the fun things that you kind of probe when you have your opening script, and try to find out,” Chryst said. “Just because they do that in the first half, they may not do that in the second half. They might save it for the second half. That’s another clever thing to do. You’re adjusting to all the looks that you’ve seen in the first half, and they come out in the first series in the second half and you have them make that adjustment on you.”
As a matter of basic principle, the Ravens believe they will be able to adjust. In overhauling their offense, Harbaugh wanted to make the Ravens more adaptable to in-game adjustments. Griffin said every one of the Ravens’ opponents has played them differently than they what they had shown on film against other teams. Harbaugh will take his best guess at how the Patriots will play Jackson and prepare for it. But he’s also confident his offense can adjust to the unknown or unforeseen.
“You only have 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 forward into Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “You also have to understand, the way you build the game plan is in such a way you’re prepared for whatever might happen. Our systems are built so we can adapt on Sunday.
“We think that’s very important,” he continued. “. . . I think we’ve gotten it to a different level this year in a positive way. Once the game starts you have to go out and play and adjust. . . . It’s not going to be anything we’ve never seen before. It’s just a matter of whether we’re prepared to handle it in that moment.”
While Belichick hasn’t played Jackson before, he has prepared for him before this week. Belichick studied Roman’s work in Baltimore last season during the playoff bye week, when he didn’t know if the Patriots would face the Ravens or their eventual opponent, the Chargers.
Even if the outcome is no longer in doubt, the strategy will continue. If the Patriots are ahead by multiple scores later, Chryst said, they might show the Ravens a “camouflage look” – a defensive call meant either as an experiment or a decoy, film to deceive the Ravens in case they meet again in the playoffs.
“It’s kind of an electronic shadow you’re creating that’s a little different than how you really want to play them,” Chryst said. “So the game is still a 60-minute game. Even if the game were more than a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, I wouldn’t turn the game off.”
As for Jackson, he said he is preparing for the Patriots as he would any other team. He prides himself on his ability to take what defenses give him. If the Patriots want to make him pass, he’ll accept the challenge. If they guard against his passing, he’ll run. Which one will happen Sunday is what everyone wants to see.
“I don’t know,” Jackson said. “I’m not coaching against myself.”