How Do the Patriots Prepare for Lamar Jackson?

Lamar Jackson hasn’t faced a defense like the Patriots, and New England hasn’t faced a quarterback like Lamar. What’s going through the Patriots’ minds as they prep for this Sunday night showdown? We asked a few people who have gameplanned against Jackson already this season.
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Lamar Jackson

At the most critical point of the Ravens’ season so far, in the most hostile environment they have played, against the most pedigreed defense they had faced, the offense revealed itself for everyone to see.

It was fourth-and-two in Seattle, the game was tied at 13 with 1:24 left in the third quarter. Lamar Jackson had convinced his coach, John Harbaugh, to roll the dice and forgo a go-ahead field goal. Jackson wanted the ball, and he got it. Baltimore called quarterback power, with third tackle James Hurst lined up at tight end, blocking tight end Nick Boyle set in an h-back spot, and tight end Hayden Hurst and fullback Patrick Richard lead blocking.

The Ravens’ statement? Try stopping a quarterback who runs a 4.2 40 coming at you behind THAT.

And then there’s the concession—running is still what Jackson does best.

When Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman had to make his bet, he pushed his 22-year-old quarterback’s running ability to middle of the table, and this wager paid off handsomely. Jackson covered not just the two yards needed to gain a first down, but also easily took care of the other six needed to hit paydirt. The Ravens never trailed again, all thanks to a play design that looked like it was rooted in the old Delaware wing-T.

This isn’t an indictment on Jackson; it’s just where he is right now. While Jackson has grown significantly from last year to now, who he is as a player remains fundamentally the same. Or at least that’s what other teams have seen this year.

“To me, he is an athlete first,” said one defensive coordinator who gameplanned against him earlier this fall. “Thing is, when you’re playing him, he is going to be the best athlete on the field—or at least that’s true in a lot of games. He’s that athletic. He ran for (116) yards against Seattle. And it’s not like Seattle’s got bums.”

How much more can Jackson be this season? Well, this weekend will be telling, when Bill Belichick and perhaps the best defense the young quarterback has faced yet come to Baltimore.

* * *

We’re getting you ready for Week 9, with players to watch in both pro and college, and answers to your questions on …

 N’Keal Harry’s role in New England.

 The Redskins’ future.

 Andy Dalton and Teddy Bridgewater’s earning power.

 How trade deadline day became a dud.

 The Chargers’ offensive coordinator situation.

We’re starting, though, with the tantalizing Week 9 primetime showdown.

* * *

Among Belichick’s greatest strengths as a coach is his ability to force an offense to play, as they call it in football terms, left-handed. He used to make Peyton Manning hold the ball. He used Kyle Shanahan’s aggressive nature against him in a Super Bowl. He influenced Pete Carroll to throw the ball, and not give it to Marshawn Lynch on the goal line, in another.

As such, it’s a fair guess that Belichick will make Jackson beat him a different way on Sunday night. 

To preview what’s to come from both the young quarterback and the Patriots, let’s look back at Jackson’s performance through seven games. I spoke with a handful of coaches and scouts who have been tasked with evaluating and stopping Jackson this season.

I had questions. You probably have questions, too. So here’s a Q&A on Lamar Jackson, a season-and-a-half into his NFL career…

Is Jackson better this year than he was last year as a passer?

Yes, and that’s a great credit to him. It’s not easy to get more accurate, but Jackson has.

“I think the accuracy as a passer has improved,” one pro scouting director said. “It’s still not where you want it, he misses routine throws, typically high, but his touch on deep throws has gotten better, and he just looks more comfortable in the offense with his reads. He’s finding the open receiver quicker, he’s processing quicker, and he’s a little more accurate.”

“He’s throwing the ball better, that’s obvious,” an exec from another rival said. “You see his ability to create as a thrower—he’s more accurate than he was, he’s more comfortable in the offense. Last year, they put him out there, and threw off the run-game stuff. They’re letting him throw the ball now. But it’s still enabled by his speed. He’s so f---ing fast.”

Where are his weaknesses as a thrower?

Again, there are the inconsistencies with accuracy, but he’s continuing to tighten up his fundamentals. What will be harder to improve is his ability to make anticipatory throws, which still isn’t showing up on tape.

“He’s not there as a quarterback yet, in terms of anticipation,” an exec from a third team said. “He’s not throwing guys open and won’t force the ball into tough situations. He made a great throw on a third down against us. You just don’t see those throws consistently.”

Could Jackson go from shaky to great in that area? The exec answered flatly, “no”, but with a caveat.

“You look at how the pro game is, it’s continuing to evolve to the college game,” the exec said. “He’ll have to improve as a thrower. But he still has the athleticism, the speed, that opens up avenues everywhere. So he will probably continue to improve, and that kind of offense won’t require him to be the best passer.”

How much are the Ravens helping him?

Plenty, which has made it really, really hard on defenses. This is, in essence, what college teams are up against when a service academy pops up on the schedule —what the Patriots are facing this week is very different than what they prepared for over their first eight games, and what they will prepare for over their last seven. And that means players getting out of their comfort zone, and coaches having to scrap what may be working.

“When do we practice against the triple option?” the coordinator said. “It’s like that—Who’s got the dive? Who’s got the quarterback? Who’s got the pitch? Do you have numbers on the quarterback? And it’s not Lamar scrambling, it’s certain called runs, lead runs, your numbers have to be right in every defense. And on third down, where the rest of the NFL, third-and-three-plus, is throwing the ball, they’re running it. You gotta be ready for quarterback power.

“They get you because they’re so not what everyone else is.”

Just imagine taking a Spanish class and having a test every week for a 16-week semester, except one. And during that one week? You’re taking and being tested on Italian. That’d be hard on teacher. It’d be hard on you. That’s the idea here.

How does he complete 63.3% of his throws with an accuracy issue?

Jackson’s athleticism and the structure of the offense naturally simplifies some things.

“We had a tough time with him in that sense,” the third team exec said. “And teams that play a lot of man, because of the inability to throw in an anticipatory manner, and throw guys open, they can have success covering them that way, but then you’re exposed because everyone’s backs are to the ball and guy can run. You really have to keep eyes on him … So you’re better off playing zone against him, but even then, he steps up, guys lose responsibility in the flat, and he dumps it off. It’s hard.”

Plays man against him, and he kills you running; play zone against him, and the throws get easier unless you can get heat, and pressuring can create scramble situations a team would rather avoid. Then, there’s the fact that a team has to commit so much to stopping the run that fewer resources are poured into the passing game. And the fewer guys are in good position in coverage, the bigger his throwing windows are.

As that exec said, not easy.

Is playing this way sustainable?

It might not be, but not for the reason you might think. The offense is sound schematically.

“He’s a premier athlete,” said a second defensive coordinator of Jackson. “You’re so worried about him keeping the ball, it messes with you. That’s the first thing, and then it’s what that offense does to your eyes. There’s lots of eye candy—guys’ eyes are all over the place, following all the action back there. Him being the athlete he is, combined with that run game, it isn’t a fluke.”

The potential problem ahead is simpler. One coach I spoke with said he wishes his team devoted fewer resources to accounting for Jackson as a runner in scramble situations, because he believes, in retrospect, Jackson really didn’t want to run in those spots. Of course, it’s easier to say that after the fact than actually expose yourself to the kind of big-play risk Jackson presents in those spots.

But Jackson has alluded to the fact that he actually does think that way, and that’s good, because he’s already running plenty. He broke the NFL record for carries by a quarterback last year (147),and pacing to break the mark again this year (188).

The question eventually will become when and how the Ravens will eventually scale back.

“This is my thing—maybe it’s just me—but them, the Cardinals, if Cam [Newton], who’s 6' 5", 260 pounds, can’t function because his body’s so beat up, how will Kyler and Lamar take the pounding that a 6' 5", 260-pounder can’t?’” said the first coordinator. “Then, it’s, ‘Who’s your backup?’ And, ‘Do you have to change the offense totally if they get hurt?’ … Cam was a litmus test. I don’t know if he’s the same guy, he’s beat to s--t.

“So you may go on a run, but it’s become like the life of running back in this league.”

For now, what do you do against Jackson?

That riddle is rife with catch-22s.

A team can spy him with a linebacker who probably can’t run with him. Or a team can do it with a defensive back (Kansas City did with Tyrann Mathieu), which either compromises coverage, or puts smaller personnel grouping on the field, inviting a power-running team that come at players like a jackhammer in that phase of the game—many teams with fleet quarterbacks like this have put in finesse run games in the past, but that’s not what the Ravens are.

They in essence have a downhill runner (Ingram) and a change-of-pace back (Jackson) for you to deal with on every play, which is another headache to manage.

A team can play man to try to expose the accuracy issue, but so many backs turned to the ball serve as invitation for Jackson to run. A team can play zone, and try to get pressure, but you better be disciplined on your way through the backfield, or Jackson will take advantage of that, too.

So how does a team put Jackson in a bad spot? Win on first down, and put the Ravens in long yardage, which mitigates how the run game can lift the passing game. And ideally, the team will force the Ravens to play from a deficit, which is hard to do when you’re playing offense that way. Along those lines, Baltimore hasn’t trailed by more than four points at any point in any of their five wins, and never trailed period in three of them.

And again, they won’t make that easy to do.

* * *

All of this will make Sunday night’s game fun. Belichick has a deep group of linebackers, and a freakishly fast athlete, in Jamie Collins, in those ranks. He’s also bringing perhaps football’s best secondary, which has hybrids, like Patrick Chung, who could draw the assignment of following Jackson around, all over the place

That Patriot group, as we detailed in Monday’s MMQB, is producing at a historic clip. But they haven’t been tested like they will be Sunday.

Same goes for Jackson.

Find more Baltimore Ravens coverage here.

* * *

Aaron Jones, Bashaud Breeland

WEEKEND WATCH LIST

Chiefs CBs Bashaud Breeland/Charvarius Ward: The spotlight is on these players after Kansas City stood pat at the trade deadline. And Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen should give us a pretty decent read of where the Chiefs stand without bringing in any outside help.

Patriots S Patrick Chung: My hunch is that Chung will be a big piece in Belichick’s plan to slow down Jackson. And I think Collins will factor into it, too. They could go with one spy. Or multiple “rats” (guys covering underneath areas in the passing game with eyes on, and responsibility for, the quarterback too).

Browns LT Justin McCray: It’d be easy to list Baker Mayfield here, but my feeling all along has been that Cleveland’s issue isn’t with the quarterback so much as it is with his who’s blocking for him. And facing Denver this week, keeping Mayfield clean will be atop the team’s priority list. Getting the most out of McCray, who took over for Greg Robinson at left tackle last week, would be a good place to start in that effort.

Bears QB Mitch Trubisky: I know we’ve had him here before, but he warrants another appearance based on the revelation on Wednesday that the coaches had Trubisky watch tape of the FOX broadcast of last week’s loss to the Chargers, to see how his body language came off publicly. No matter how you slice that, not a great sign.

Cowboys S Xavier Woods: While he may have a hand in covering Evan Engram— which would qualify as one of the big jobs Dallas has to fill for Monday night—this is more about how the week went for the team, and the failed bid to get Jamal Adams. The Cowboys’ safety play will certainly be under scrutiny, and that starts with Woods.

TWO FOR SATURDAY

Utah State QB Jordan Love (vs. BYU, ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET): Coming into this year, Love had a shot at becoming a first-round pick. But the transition from Matt Wells (hired away by Texas Tech) to Gary Andersen hasn’t been as smooth as expected. The 20-year-old has completed 59.8% of his passes (down from 64.0 last year), has an 8-9 TD-INT ratio (down from 32-6 last year), has a 118.5 passer rating (down from 158.3) and is averaging 6.6 yards per attempt (down from 6.6). This week, he gets a rival at home, and has ground to make up in the eyes of scouts.

“Talented guy who has the skill set but needs to make better decisions with the ball,” said one NFC exec. “Played great in 2018, but does not look comfortable yet in this offense. Big-time talent but has a lot of developing to do. He has size, arm talent, athleticism, run skills but needs to show better command and decision-making.”

“Strong arm. Talented. Good size,” added an AFC scout. “Not a lot of talent around him, and he’s inaccurate at times and inconsistent.”

Love has a year of eligibility left after this one, and there are real questions over whether he should leave early or not. As it stands, he’s got five games left to regain some of the momentum he built last year.

Georgia RB D’Andre Swift (vs. Florida, CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET): There isn’t much question over who the top back in next year’s class is as it stands today, and facing the Gators in Jacksonville gives Swift another chance to build on an already impressive resume—he’s at 752 yards, is averaging 6.8 yards per carry and has scored seven touchdowns on the ground through seven games.

“He’s a three-down back who can return kicks and is excellent in the passing game,” said one AFC college scouting director. “The type of back that is working in the league right now—he can be a mismatch guy out of the backfield.” Another AFC exec added, “He’s a good player, quick-footed with good burst. He attacks the line of scrimmage and can get through it, and is a very good receiver as well.” 

In other words, he’s a three-down back with the size (5' 9", 216) and aggression to be a force between the tackles. He’s not Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley—“He’s not; good player, but those two are elite,” said the AFC scouting director —but he’s probably on the next tier. Which means he’s probably still a first-rounder. 

“More explosive than [Sony] Michel, different than [Nick] Chubb,” said a third AFC director, comparing him to other Georgia backs. “Quick, fast, catches the ball well. Very good change of direction, very good balance, breaks a lot of tackles. And he’s a really good athlete.”

* * *

Mohamed Sanu

MAIL TIME!

From Greg Richards (@igglesnut): I think most were surprised when New England gave up a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu, but it seemed to have a strategic benefit by inflating asking prices and prevented other contenders from picking up upgrades at reasonable prices. Any chance New England intentionally overpaid?

Greg, I don’t think that had anything to do with it. I think the prices on Laremy Tunsil and Jalen Ramsey messed with how teams value players. Adding that to a hot receiver market—with five teams (New England, San Francisco, Buffalo, New Orleans, Green Bay) after two players (Sanu, Emmanuel Sanders)—and you get the mark ups on draft-pick compensation.

It’s interesting how that affected the rest of the trade market. I do think heightened expectations from sellers on what they’d get in return for vets turned off some potential buyers on Monday and Tuesday. That led to so much talk over the last couple weeks producing a dud of a deadline day.

From Danny (@bettheover85): With the recent history of players forcing their way off teams, will the owners try to instill something in the new CBA to prevent or reduce it?

I think they could try, Danny, but players’ radars will be up. If you remember, the 2011 CBA ramped up penalties for holdouts, both in sanctions affecting future free agencies and financial repercussions. That basically killed off the idea of a summer holdout for the first five years of the deal—Kam Chancellor broke the ice in 2015, and Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack would famously follow down the line.

Based on how this has worked for the owners, it’s hard to see where they’d roll back some of the rules that have benefitted for them. But the players should know now, based on experience, not to let them take it any further than they already have.

From Alfie Lau (@AlfieLau): What is the Washington (Racial Slurs) best way out of their hell? New GM? Best coach to get? What to do with Trent Williams and has Dwayne Haskins been Josh Rosen-ed? Seems like no end to their dumpster fire.

Alfie, I’m not sure how you’d have faith in the current leadership to put the right football people in place, and so this is one case where I think soliciting outside help to reshape the organization might make sense. From there, I’d suggest finding a personnel chief—and you could consider guys from within, like college scouting director Kyle Smith—to go with whoever your coach is (and they have a good internal candidate there too, in Kevin O’Connell), there too.

As for Trent Williams, this is going to be a slog to the end of the season, and thereafter I do think the Redskins will acquiesce and trade him. That doesn’t change the fact that they’ve horribly mismanaged their asset. Washington made Williams available a day before the deadline. And remember, this is a player who’s had a ton of medical, and off-field, concerns. So who, exactly, was going to fork over a first-round pick without having all the information?

As for Haskins, I guess it depends on where the Redskins are drafting. But my odds are on Haskins playing as Washington’s QB next year.

From mm (@meek858): The Chargers fire Ken Whisenhunt this week. Seems as though he was the scapegoat for a bad rushing offense. What other changes do you believe are on the horizon for that franchise this offseason? Ownership included.

It’s fair to ask about the situation Whisenhunt was in—up-and-down quarterback play, a shaky line, a group of backs in flux—and wonder how much of his demise ties directly back to his circumstances. But my feel on it is that Anthony Lynn simply saw a team that needed a spark, and firing Whisenhunt and promoting well-regarded quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen was a way Anthony Lynn thought he could provide it.

I don’t think you’re changing the owner out. But if things get bad down the stretch, it’s possible the Spanos family gets restless, particularly because of how hard it’s been to sell the new stadium. That wouldn’t be very fair, of course, considering the job Lynn’s done. But the team in general has a lot of loose ends to tie up between now and the start of next year—not the least of which is Philip Rivers’s contract situation.

From Michael Cass (@michaelcass14): Chances Antonio Brown plays this year?

Slim-to-none. As long as he in limbo with the league, I don’t think he gets signed, and the league appears to be in no rush to get him closure.

From Kevin Kolber (@kevinkolber): N'Keal Harry becomes a factor this year or nah?

Kevin, my guess is that the Patriots will find ways to use him in specific matchups—they did walk away from Josh Gordon to find him a roster spot. But I’d temper expectations beyond that because of the Patriots’ history with rookie receivers; players have to earn opportunities as a pass-catcher working in Tom Brady’s New England.

The three most successful rookie receivers of the last 20 years there—Deion Branch (2002), Julian Edelman (’09) and Malcolm Mitchell (’16)—got off to fast starts in part because they hit the ground running and started those years healthy (Branch and Edelman would get injured later in those seasons). So Harry’s path to producing is more complicated than it was for the guys were able to make their mark there that early on.

From Wendy (@wendybmcg): Andy Dalton...Average or worse?

From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): How much money has Teddy Bridgewater make for himself this year??

Hey Wendy and Don, I’ll answer both of these at once. I think both Bridgewater and Dalton enter 2020 free agency in Josh McCown Territory. Both could start opening day for someone next year, but I’d say it’d like be as a stopgap/mentor on a roster with a young quarterback on it. And those jobs, as you know, can be lucrative. We’ve seen guys (Mike Glennon, McCown himself) make well into eight figures to do it.

So congratulates to Teddy and Andy. Keep getting paid.

From JoelRocks (@Joel83065619): Your defensive player of the year??

Defensive Player of the Year is usually tied to narratives, and great defenses in New England and San Francisco are doing enough (performing at a historic clip) to be a part of what looks like a league-wide defensive renaissance in 2019.

And therein lie some obvious candidates. Jamie Collins (3 INTs, 2 FFs, 6.0 sacks) has been Mr. Do-It-All for the Patriots and is a logical pick who could flash in some big games the rest of the way. Then, there’s 49ers rookie Nick Bosa. He hasn’t been as statistically diverse as Collins, but his impact on the rest of a star-studden defensive line can’t be overstated. He’s at seven sacks, with the Niners hitting the halfway points after tonight’s game in Arizona.

If you want a darkhorse, check out Cleveland’s Miles Garrett, who could have a shot if his team turns it around.

From Chad (@chadrstoe): I keep hearing that teams don't value draft picks as much as they used to. But this past trade deadline showed that teams were unwilling to trade draft picks. Which one is it? Are they or aren't they valuable?

We’ll wrap things up here, Chad. And you’re going to have to follow me chronologically.

I do think the recent boom in blockbuster trades (eight veteran players have been traded for packages involving or exceeding a first-round pick since March 2018) is partially due to how teams value picks. The analytics boom has helped clubs quantify the value of picks, and that’s made GMs feel more comfortable about parting with higher-end ones, which has opened the floodgates on trades.

The flip side is that eventually, the market was going to top out and level off, and it’s worth considering whether or not that just happened. The massive hauls that Tunsil and Ramsey attracted set a high bar, and that plus a robust lineup of buyers on the receiver market pushed the tags up on Sanu and Sanders, which made the asking price on others naturally a little higher.

I’d expect there’ll be some natural ebb and flow with that stuff moving forward too.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.