FOXBORO, Mass. — Lamar Jackson’s rare speed isn’t the only thing the New England Patriots are having trouble replicating in practice ahead of Sunday night’s matchup with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens’ offense as a whole — with Jackson, the NFL’s most dangerous rushing quarterback, at its center — is unlike any the Patriots’ top-ranked defense has faced this season. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman runs a scheme that caters to Jackson’s strengths — a run-first attack that features liberal use of heavier personnel packages, as well as option concepts and pistol formations rarely seen at the NFL level.
“It’s hard to simulate, because our players aren’t used to running those types of plays, and it’s hard to get a feel for them,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy explained. “I think other teams have noted that when speaking to the media after games that they didn’t know how fast some of the (Ravens’) players were.
“We’re trying to do our best. The scout team is doing a really good job this week to try to make sure we’re not saying that after the game — that we are prepared (for) the speed and the lineman do a good job of their blocking angles, making sure we’ve got all that on the same page in order to make sure we’re prepared. So we’re doing the best we can.”
Since Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as Baltimore’s starter last November, the Ravens have racked up 3,036 rushing yards in 14 regular-season games, more than 800 yards more than any other team during that span. (Seattle is second with 2,230, and it’s played one additional game.)
This season, Jackson and Co. lead the league in rushing yards (1,429), rushing yards per game (204.1) and Football Outsiders’ rush offense DVOA while ranking second in yards per carry (5.5) behind the Cleveland Browns, whose Nick Chubb-led rushing attack totaled 159 yards and averaged 7.2 per attempt in a 27-13 loss to the Patriots this past Sunday.
“It’s tough,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said. “Like Kyle said, they’re just different. Their formations, how they attack you offensively — it’s just completely different. The skill and the personnel is what makes it difficult, as well. There’s no other Lamar Jackson in the NFL. (Rookie receiver) Hollywood Brown is a very, very unique player.
“They just have a lot of unique talent, and they do a good job of playing to their strengths. Obviously, the game is going to be a lot different, but our scout team is doing a good job of giving us a great look and preparing us for the game.”
Jackson has shown progress as a passer in his second pro season, but he still does the bulk of his damage on the ground, both on designed QB runs and on drive-extending scrambles. He’s the NFL’s 10th-leading rusher (576) and leads all qualified ball-carriers in yards per carry (6.9). Ex-New Orleans Saint Mark Ingram (470 yards; 4.7 per carry) has been a solid running mate.
Patriots players won’t reveal which scout-teamer is portraying Jackson in practice, but it’s likely a non-quarterback is handling at least some of those duties. When New England faced the similarly slippery Deshaun Watson early last season, it used cornerbacks Keion Crossen and Jomal Wiltz to simulate Watson’s quickness.
And while Baltimore’s offense is unfamiliar to most Patriots defenders, it’s not foreign to Bill Belichick and his staff. Roman ran a similar scheme in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick and in Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor, and both of those stints included games against New England.
“It’s different, but, I mean, it’s Coach Roman’s running game — what he did in San Francisco, what he did in Buffalo,” Belichick said. “It’s that running game.”
Limiting that running game — and Jackson in particular — will be priority No. 1 for the undefeated Patriots on Sunday.