Bill Belichick will lavish praise on opposing players when he isn’t afraid of them. He’ll go on for 10 minutes about Sam Darnold or the Dolphins defense, then thoroughly demolish them on Sunday.
But when Belichick is brief, you know the player has his attention.
So it went Wednesday, when Belichick was asked about the running ability of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“Yeah, he’s very fast. Yeah,” Belichick said. “He’s had great production.”
Is it hard containing such a dual threat?
“Yeah, he’s a major problem, and everybody’s had trouble with him,” Belichick said. “It’ll be a big challenge for us. Yeah, he can do it all. He can run, he can throw, can throw on the run, can extend plays. He’s tough.”
Belichick has dominated young quarterbacks throughout his career, but the Patriots will have a unique challenge Sunday night in Baltimore. Jackson is certainly not a polished passer, but he’s an athletic unicorn — faster and more elusive than every other player on the field, and a good enough passer to be dangerous.
The second-year quarterback has seen his passing numbers regress after a hot start. He enters Sunday’s game ranked 16th in passer rating (94.1), 20th in completion percentage (63.3), and tied for 13th most in sacks (17). In his last game, a 30-16 win at Seattle, Jackson completed just 9 of 20 passes for 143 yards — and 50 of them came on one throw in the first quarter.
But you can’t deny the production. Jackson and the Ravens are No. 2 in the NFL in scoring at 30.6 points per game. They lead the NFL in time of possession (35:10). And the Ravens’ 18 punts are the fewest in the NFL; the Patriots, by comparison, have 43, the fifth-most.
Jackson has the benefit of terrific coaching. His offensive coordinator is Greg Roman, who has been at the forefront of the read-option offense at the NFL level, first leading Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012, then getting solid production out of Tyrod Taylor for two years in Buffalo.
Roman has a history of running the ball well with a mobile quarterback against the Patriots. In 2012, Roman and the Niners racked up 180 rushing yards in a 41-34 win at Foxborough.
In a 2015 game, the Bills racked up 160 rushing yards on 5.9 yards per carry. In 2016, the Bills rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry. In both games, Taylor had a touchdown run and broke off a 20-yard-plus run.
Jackson, like Kaepernick and Taylor, will run a dozen or more read-option plays throughout a game, and has the speed to rip off 30-yard runs. And the Ravens do it with old-school power-football principles, with pulling tackles and centers and two-tight-end formations.
Belichick said Roman disguises his plays well, and when Jackson rushes the ball, it gives the Ravens an extra blocker, which has helped Jackson rip off 19 runs of at least 10 yards this year.
“They dress things up a little differently each week,” Belichick said. “They have certainly a base core of plays that they run, but they also have some complementary plays to those, and their core plays that they can run a lot of different ways.”
Of course, Jackson is more of a threat as a runner than as a pocket passer. In his last three games, Jackson has rushed 14, 19, and 14 times, for 338 yards and two touchdowns. He already has 576 rushing yards on the season, and is on pace for 1,316, which would shatter Michael Vick’s quarterback record of 1,039.
But Jackson is still a big problem with his arm, because of his feet. The defense is often so worried about Jackson breaking out of the pocket that he has his receivers in one-on-one coverage. His top target is young tight end Mark Andrews (36 catches, 449 yards, 3 touchdowns), whom the Ravens love to run down the seams. And Jackson has shown nice touch on several deep passes to Andrews down the middle, such as a 33-yarder against Seattle two weeks ago.
The Ravens obviously run a lot of play-action and rollout plays to get Jackson out of the pocket and simplify his reads. But unlike many young quarterbacks, Jackson will sometimes roll out or escape the pass rush to his left and throw against his body.
While the Patriots could defend Buffalo’s Josh Allen or Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield knowing they would only try to escape to the right, Jackson forces the defense to play contain on both sides of the pocket. And as the Seahawks found out two weeks ago, Jackson doesn’t always run out of bounds, and can pick up an extra 10-15 yards in a flash.
The obvious comparison to Jackson is Vick, and I think it is appropriate. Jackson threw an effortless 50-yard bomb against the Seahawks that looked just like a Vick flick.
Jackson can run for a touchdown from anywhere on the field, like Vick. And Jackson, like Vick, isn’t totally hopeless in the pocket. Jackson can drop back, find the defender in “off” coverage, and hit a receiver on a quick slant or hitch.
But Jackson is raw as a passer. If forced to sit in the pocket for more than one beat, he’ll start to pat the ball, and stare down receivers, and see ghosts on the field. Against Pittsburgh in Week 5, Jackson took too long in the pocket, then never saw a cornerback just waiting to undercut his throw and pounce for the interception.
So keeping Jackson contained is key for the Patriots, though it is easier said than done. Blitzing can work, as long as it is a disciplined blitz that doesn’t overrun the play. The Patriots surely will use their “amoeba” front in this game and do their best to confuse Jackson as to who is rushing and who is dropping.
Spying Jackson is a must, but not necessarily with a linebacker. Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy simply can’t keep up with Jackson one-on-one. I would expect the Patriots to use their speedy defensive backs — Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and even cornerback Jonathan Jones — in spying roles. In one game against the Bills when Roman was there, the Patriots used dual spying cornerbacks on each side of the field to contain Taylor.
A heavy dose of zone defense also will ensure that Jackson won’t have huge swaths of open field.
The Patriots’ front seven will be on the hot seat in terms of staying disciplined in their lanes, especially on the edges. When Jackson runs a read-option, the back-side players must stay home and not overrun the play.
If the Patriots play mistake-free football on defense and force Jackson to play as a pocket passer, he will be in for a long night. But they have given up a few big plays this year: Steve Sims’s 65-yard run for Washington and Nick Chubb’s 44-yard run for Cleveland.
The Patriots could get away with a few bad plays against those teams. But Jackson has the speed, throwing ability, and coaching to make the Patriots pay if they’re not careful.