That would be intriguing enough on its own, but the matchup also brings a clash of styles, with Bill Belichick’s man-coverage preference potentially vulnerable to Lamar Jackson’s mobility.
1. Belichick’s focus will be on Jackson’s legs
Jackson has taken major strides as a passer, but his legs remain the more consistent threat. Given the Patriots’ suffocating secondary, Belichick surely would prefer Jackson throw it than run it on Sunday.
Stopping Jackson’s running ability is two-fold: containing designed runs and limiting damage from scrambles. Both have ramped up recently, as Jackson has 47 carries in his past three games, with a 2-1 ratio of designed runs to scrambles.
The Ravens will test the Patriots extensively with designed runs, as that’s the only weakness New England’s defense has shown. In three of the past five weeks, the Patriots have allowed at least 135 yards rushing and 6.1 yards per carry. Jackson’s presence will stress the weakness further — he draws at least one defender on virtually every run, and he can often beat that defender even when he makes an ill-advised decision to keep the ball.
New England will use Bear fronts (D-linemen covering both guards and the center) to clog the middle and limit rushing lanes, but Greg Roman’s diverse scheme can attack the perimeter, too, and Baltimore will mix in various RPOs on backside slants and screens.
Things get even more intriguing in the pass game, where the Patriots play man coverage as much as any team in the league. Man coverage, of course, takes eyes off the quarterback, creating scramble opportunities.
Will Belichick change up? Yes, he’ll likely play more zone than normal, but I’m not convinced he’ll deviate drastically from his Cover-1 foundation. The Patriots can still play Cover-1 with a spy (perhaps safety Devin McCourty, for extra speed) accounting for Jackson, or Cover-1 with a three-man rush and two spies.
They’ll likely be more selective, but the Patriots still will bring the Cover-0 blitzes they’ve used extensively in recent weeks. Not only would these stress Jackson’s timing and accuracy amid pressure, but extra rushers would fill his escape lanes with bodies.
Ball security will be critical. After fumbling 12 times in seven starts last year, Jackson had none through three games this season, but he now has four in his past four games.
2. The domino effect of Watt’s injury
In Week 7 at Indianapolis, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt looked like the same guy who won three Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2012-15. He ripped through the Colts’ offensive line as if it were wet toilet paper, swimming over right tackle Braden Smith and right guard Mark Glowinski over and over.
But in the eight snaps Watt didn’t play, the Texans’ pass rush was nonexistent, allowing Jacoby Brissett virtually unlimited time in the pocket. Last Sunday, the Oakland Raiders plan called for more quick throws, but the Texans registered just one hit and no sacks of Derek Carr, with Watt missing half the game.
Watt played 93.3 percent of snaps before sustained a torn pectoral muscle, a huge share to replace. Whitney Mercilus is having a nice season (5.5 sacks, eight QB hits, four forced fumbles) but will now draw double the attention each week.
The onus falls on coordinator Romeo Crennel to get more creative. He already uses plenty of diamond fronts (five potential rushers — some standing up — over five O-linemen) to create one-on-one matchups and stunts to spring rushers free, but that must now be his foundation. Crennel also could use more double-A gap fronts, from which he’s featured twists with linebackers and D-linemen to great effect.
The Jacksonville Jaguars O-line isn’t formidable, but it can shut down Mercilus with schemed help. If other Texans can’t threaten, Gardner Minshew will have ample opportunity to make big plays off schedule.
3. Major test for Chiefs’ defense
It’s hard to imagine a worse matchup for the Kansas City Chiefs defense than the Minnesota Vikings offense.
Minnesota leads the NFL in base personnel usage (75 percent with two or fewer wideouts), runs the ball very effectively (third in rushing yards per game, sixth in per-carry average) and is also impeccable on screens and play-action.
Kansas City, meanwhile, is 30th against the run (per game and per carry) and doesn’t have any linebacker it fully trusts. No Chiefs linebacker has played more than 78 percent of the snaps, and Anthony Hitchens has played just 57.5 percent of the time despite his $9 million annual salary. It was Hitchens whom the Packers torched in coverage on Aaron Jones for most of Sunday night’s loss, but passing-downs linebacker Ben Niemann allowed the game-ending third-down conversion.
By using their base, the Vikings will force the Chiefs to keep Hitchens, Damien Wilson and perhaps Reggie Ragland on the field, allowing Minnesota to exploit the trio in coverage with Dalvin Cook and on intermediate routes off play-action. Rookie tight end Irv Smith is emerging and could be a weapon there.
The Chiefs’ answer in recent weeks has been heavy blitzing, snuffing out the run game on the way to the QB, but a few coverage busts have gone unpunished. It might only take one long touchdown to make Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo back off.
4. Rodgers, LaFleur in harmony
As dangerous as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is off schedule, he’s at his most lethal when those plays come only occasionally (i.e. naturally), with him operating mostly on schedule.
That’s been the case lately, and head coach Matt LaFleur deserves credit. He’s used backs very creatively in the passing game, at times employing a running back with fullback Danny Vitale, two running backs (Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams), and even a package with all three and two tight ends. These looks — whether spread out or off play-action — provide immediate coverage definition for Rodgers, helping him be decisive.
That should continue this week, as Los Angeles Chargers coordinator Gus Bradley’s defense remains predominantly a straightforward Cover-3 unit, despite occasional wrinkles. The Packers have the pass protection to survive Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, but Rodgers would be best served continuing to distribute quickly.
5. The “race” for the No. 1 pick
The AFC’s three worst teams have one major thing in common: disastrously bad offensive lines.
The New York Jets unit has the veterans to be adequate on occasion, but it hasn’t played near its potential. The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, simply don’t have enough capable bodies, with injuries (Cincinnati) and personnel decisions (Miami) the primary culprits.
All three are unsurprisingly contenders for the top overall pick in April’s draft, with the Jets’ visit to Miami on Sunday a major factor in the “race.”
Despite an ugly two-game skid, New York is more suited to hold up against Miami’s pass rush than vice versa. The Dolphins’ defense — with a total of nine sacks and 26 QB hits all season — are far less threatening than the Patriots’ and Jaguars’ fronts from the past two weeks.
On the other side, even if the Jets’ D-line doesn’t win its matchups, Gregg Williams’ pressure schemes should be too much for the Dolphins’ O-line to handle.
–By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media