BALTIMORE – A half-dozen coaches of the New England Patriots stood Sunday night near midfield at M&T Bank Stadium, their backs to their own team, gazing at their opponents. In the final moments of warm-ups before their showdown with the Baltimore Ravens, they looked for any last-minute clues for how to beat the Ravens and how to stop Lamar Jackson.
They knew the challenge ahead, but surely felt confident in their plan. If any coach could halt Jackson’s ascent, it would be Bill Belichick, the greatest coach of all-time, who entered on a 21-0 streak against quarterbacks in their rookie or second seasons. If there was a way to solve Jackson, Belichick would find it. By the end of the night, Jackson had made clear an answer may not exist.
“Man, Lamar is the dude,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram said. “He is that man.”
In the Ravens’ 37-20 toppling of the previously undefeated Patriots, Jackson rushed 16 times for 61 yards and completed 17 of 23 passes for 163 yards. Numbers alone didn’t tell the story. The Patriots’ defense, which had held opponents to four offensive touchdowns in nine games dating to their unmasking of the Los Angeles Rams in last year’s Super Bowl, threw more alignments and coverages at Jackson than he had ever seen in one game, some of which went against their usual tendencies.
With the help of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s diabolical run schemes, and through his smarts, nerve and breathtaking athleticism, Jackson solved them all. The Ravens’ offense matched that four-touchdown total in one game, with Jackson running for two and passing for another.
Belichick casts spells on young quarterbacks, forcing them into decisive mistakes and catastrophic decisions. He sows doubt. He plants land mines. Jackson’s skills countered Belichick’s ability to set traps, and his smarts thwarted what attempts Belichick made. He refused to make the big mistake so many others do, throwing no interceptions and taking one sack, for just one yard. Lamar Jackson didn’t see ghosts.
In the fourth quarter, after an offensive lineman pulled Jackson into the end zone on a goal line keeper, the M&T Bank Stadium crowd chanted, “M-V-P! M-V-P!” There are other worthy candidates, but after Sunday night Jackson should be among them.
“I’m right with the crowd,” said safety Earl Thomas, a man not easily impressed or quick with superlatives. “This man is the MVP. I’m right behind him. I’m backing him.”
Jackson made highlight-worthy scrambles, Ingram bruised the Patriots for 144 total yards and cornerback Marlon Humphrey scooped a Julian Edelman fumble and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. But the game hinged on one snap, a play in which Jackson revealed both his poise and passing touch.
On the Ravens’ first drive of the second half, the Ravens broke their huddle facing third and 5 from their 24, leading, 24-20. On the sideline, weary Ravens defensive players strapped on helmets and hoped. Tom Brady had seized control of the game – because of how the first half ended and Humphrey’s return, the Patriots had run 27 consecutive offensive plays. Momentum had shifted.
Jackson surveyed an extreme defensive alignment. The Patriots lined up nine men along the line of scrimmage, almost all of them standing up, meaning they could rush or drop into coverage. Jackson recognized a scheme he had studied since training camp and coaches had drilled all week. It was Cover Zero, a New England specialty, a coverage in which the Patriots play no safeties and bring heavy pressure.
“You never know for sure,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “But we felt there was a good chance in those situations zero could come.”
At the snap, the Patriots sent six rushers. Based on the play call, Jackson knew one rusher would come unblocked around the edge, so he would have to release a quick pass. A sea of bodies and arms swarmed him. He stood still in the pocked and lofted a pass to Andrews, running a corner route with defensive back Terrence Brooks draped on him. The pass landed where only Andrews could leap and snare it. The 18-yard gain kept Baltimore’s drive alive and re-energized a team on the ropes.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” Thomas said.
The completion set up the most electric play of the night. Eight plays later, Jackson rolled right and spotted defensive end John Simon setting the edge. He slammed on the brakes and sprinted back to the left, across the formation. He ran into linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who as instructed directed Jackson back toward the middle. Jackson, though, can foil the most disciplined defense. He juked left, left Van Noy dead-legged and bolted inside, through a maze of defenders. He scooted 11 yards for a first down at the 5-yard line, setting up a touchdown that sent Baltimore ahead, 30-20.
Belichick excels at determining what his opponent thrives on and eliminating it. But how is any defense – no matter how sound and no matter the genius directing it – supposed to take away that?
“I mean, I think people underrate how special he is and how fast he is,” Ravens tight end Nick Boyle said. “Anything can happen when he has the ball.”
All night, Jackson processed and conquered everything the Patriots presented. The Patriots came out in a 5-2 defensive front, with outside linebackers Van Noy and Jamie Collins effectively playing defensive end. By widening their line, the Patriots could corral Jackson on scrambles. But it also created natural creases for runs, and Roman exploited them by motioning his three tight ends all around, creating advantageous angles for blocking and outnumbering defenders. The Ravens leaped to a 17-0 lead.
Belichick started adjusting. Patriots coaches like to use Jonathan Jones as a chess piece – he was the defensive back who morphed from cornerback to safety in the Super Bowl last season, to the ruin of Jared Goff. On the third drive of the game, Belichick employed Jones as a spy from his safety spot, an unusual tactic that kept Jackson from leaving the pocket. According to Jackson, middle linebacker Donta’ Hightower also spied him at times.
After Ingram burst for a 53-yard run, Harbaugh felt the Patriots dialed down their blitzes, wary of the Ravens breaking through for a big gain. But they didn’t stop introducing different plans.
“They were mixing it up pretty good,” Harbaugh said. “Nobody does it better than they do.”
Jackson saw the Patriots play two safeties, a four-man deep zone, a six-man zone and, sometimes, the cover zero. None of it could fluster him. Rather make risky, downfield throws, he identified the soft portion of the defense, whether that meant passing or running. He deciphered it all, on “Sunday Night Football,” against the defending champions.
“I don’t see him as young,” Harbaugh said. “He’s wise beyond his years in a lot of ways.”
Harbaugh paused. During his postgame news conference, he stood behind a dais and Jackson sat in a plastic chair directly to his left. Harbaugh joked that he should stop talking, because he didn’t want to inflate Jackson’s ego.
“But you can, because he gets it,” Harbaugh continued. “He has a very high football IQ. He also understands the moment. He has poise. He just has an amazing ability. It just goes to the way he thinks and the way his mind works. He has an amazing ability to take a lot of factors, a lot of things – play call, personnel, formation, defense that presents, whatever changes that have to be made – and just process all of that in that kind of moment, which is what makes the position at quarterback so difficult. That’s why Tom Brady is so good at it, too. Lamar does it his way, but Lamar does it as well as anybody.”
Deciphering defense for Jackson may be easier than for other quarterbacks. Opponents have to allocate resources to contain his rushing in ways they don’t for other passers, which decreases the number of reads he may to have make. But nothing is easy against Belichick. Jackson only made it seem that way, and not just because of his athleticism. He understands the game, like all great quarterbacks, on a deep level.
“If I mess up a play here or make a wrong read, we go to the iPad in practice, look and see what coverage it was and go from there,” Jackson said. “Next time I see it, it’s in my mind. I don’t forget it. If I see it in the game, if it presents itself, we just do it.”
There is a good chance Jackson and Belichick will meet again. Belichick will have four quarters of tape to study, and his plan will likely be harder for Jackson to solve. The team around him will help. With Jackson at his disposal, Roman can match wits with Belichick. An example: On the drive that sealed the game in fourth quarter, Roman used one tight end, and one running back, which forced the Patriots into playing defensive backs. With those players on the field, Baltimore gashed the Patriots.
But none of it would be possible without Jackson at the center.
“That’s our MVP, and that’s the league MVP,” Andrews said. “No doubt about it. He’s a special player. A guy like that you can’t replace. He’s special.”
The question entering Sunday night was how Jackson would perform against Belichick, if he could pass his greatest challenge. If and when they meet again, the question will be transposed. We know Jackson can triumph over what Belichick presents him. In the future, maybe in January, we’ll find out if Belichick can find a way to repress Lamar Jackson.