Patriots vs. Ravens preview: Five crucial matchups in Week 3 clash

We knew to expect adjustments last week. It just wasn’t clear that heading into Week 2 the Patriots would adjust to the point of looking like a different offense.

The Patriots shouldered Matt Patricia with an unprecedented level of responsibility to open the season. They ran an abundance of two-tight end formations. They called for a number of inside zone running plays. They went to work with Mac Jones under center.

Then, in Pittsburgh, they morphed into something else.

Patricia got help from Bill Belichick and Billy Yates during offensive series. Two-tight end formations were almost entirely scrapped. Power runs with pulling guards were emphasized over inside zone. Mac Jones worked almost exclusively from a shotgun.

The result? Progress. Sure, it was 17 points. Not enough to win most weeks. But progress.

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How do the Patriots find another level, particularly against a Ravens team that’s tied for fourth in the NFL in points scored through two games (31.0)?

It may be as simple as delving further into that which their quarterback likes. Running a more spread-out offense from the shotgun that featured a variety of RPO attempts had Jones looking like the guy who was in the running for the Heisman Trophy a couple of years ago at Alabama.

“I think it puts stress on the defense,” Jones said this week when asked why he likes run-pass option plays. “I definitely learned in college just watching Coach [Nick] Saban sometimes explodes at practice. Just knowing he’s trying to tell somebody to do something but [the defender’s] guy is running a route. But then it’s also a run. Is it a pass?

“There’s a lot of cool gray area there from an offensive perspective. I’ve always, obviously we didn’t run them in high school, I ran the Wing T. They were new to me at Alabama. I’ve seen teams run them on film. Some teams do it right. Some teams do it in interesting ways. You can’t really ever tell if it’s an RPO, or a play-action sometimes. It’s kind of an interesting play.”

Jones pushed for RPOs to become more a part of the Patriots offense earlier this offseason, he said.

“Yeah, I think, definitely,” he said. “Other teams were doing them too around the league, and having good production. So I think, like I said, every offense has their core plays and you don’t necessarily want your RPOs to be your core plays, which they’re not . But it’s always good to have that extra flavor you can have in there.”

The Patriots seemed to lean into some of Jones’ favorite flavors last week. The result was not necessarily a point explosion. But it was better. And maybe with another week of refining, it’ll continue to trend in that direction.

Let’s dig into five more games within the game for this week.

The matchup that will win the first half

Ravens WR speed vs. Patriots DBs

Patriots defensive backs know what the Ravens receivers want to do. They want to run, run, and run some more. They are built to run.

That particular position group is loaded with burners like Devin Duvernay, Rashod Bateman and Demarcus Robinson. And Jackson is doing his best to utilize their strengths. He currently leads the NFL in average depth of target (12.0), allowing Duvernay (68 yards on three targets of 20 yards or more down the field) and Bateman (55 yards on those types of targets) to flash their explosive potential.

The Patriots are used to seeing speed on the field. They just took on Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle back in Week 1 in 100-degree heat. But the Ravens have a stronger-armed quarterback with a greater affinity for chucking the long ball. And Jackson’s ability to scramble (more on that later), may encourage defensive back eyes to peer into the backfield occasionally.

Curran’s Week 3 preview: Jackson poses a huge problem for the Pats’ defense

If that happens, and if one of these receivers accidentally gets cut loose early in the game, that could allow this one to get away from New England early. Put a cork on those explosive-play threats while keeping Jackson in check? Should be a tight one going into halftime.

One more thought on this particular matchup: Stamina could be a factor. Patriots corners and safeties understand that the Ravens will be running deep routes and executing scramble-drill plays as often as they can with the hopes of wearing down their defensive opponents.

Will the Patriots have to dip into their reserves by going with rotations at those positions at times? Does that give Jackson an opening against an inexperienced defender he might not have against a starter? And how do the injuries to Jalen Mills (hamstring, questionable) and Kyle Dugger (knee, questionable) affect those rotations?

The matchup that will surprise you

Patriots defense vs. Ravens tight ends

According to Pro Football Reference, the Patriots were the best team in football in limiting the statistical production of opposing tight ends last season. On 86 targets, they allowed just 440 yards on 46 grabs — both of which ranked New England at the top of the league in terms of slowing tight ends.

The Patriots allowed a touchdown to tight end Pat Freiermuth last week, and the test doesn’t get any easier in Week 3 with Mark Andrews and rookie Isaiah Likely coming to Foxboro. Andrews leads all tight ends in receptions (14) and he is second in yards (156) behind only Travis Kelce. Likely showed impressive receiving chops all through training camp. (Neither is a bruiser. The Ravens leave those spots to Josh Oliver and Nick Boyle.)

With Dugger dealing with a knee injury and questionable for this one, the Patriots won’t have a full complement of answers for Baltimore’s middle-of-the-field threats.

But with Jabrill Peppers ready to step in, and with Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty ready to help slow down Baltimore’s No. 1 option, the guess here is that the Patriots will try to scheme up a plan that forces Jackson to go somewhere other than to his tight ends.

The matchup that will bring you joy

Christian Barmore vs. Tyler Linderbaum

It’s not that Linderbaum is not a good player. He was a first-round pick (No. 25 overall) back in the spring for a reason. His athleticism is exceptional for the position and he had a tremendously productive career at Iowa under former Belichick assistants Kirk and Brian Ferentz.

But Linderbaum is also light. He’s listed at 305 pounds, but it’s worth wondering if that number isn’t a little inflated. He checked in at the combine this year at 296 pounds (fifth percentile among combine offensive linemen over the last two decades).

That should make for a good matchup against the strength the Patriots have along the interior of their defensive front. Against the run, someone like Davon Godchaux should be able to control the point of attack and make plays at or near the line of scrimmage. On third down, if the Patriots can scheme up one-on-ones for Barmore on the Ravens rookie, the results could be game-changing.

Barmore has the quickness to get around athletic linemen, the size to overpower smaller linemen, and the over-80-inch wingspan to drive his blockers back and create negative plays. Linderbaum is PFF’s No. 32 center in football this season when it comes to his pass-blocking grade.

Getting to Jackson and taking him down, of course, are two different things. But Barmore told me this week that in Year 2 he’s been working on taking proper angles and finishing plays when he gets into an opponent’s backfield.

He knows he has to be almost like a basketball player at times. Don’t fall for ball fakes. Stay on the ground even when quarterbacks pump to get out of trouble. He’ll also watch the hips of an athletic passer — as opposed to the football itself or the quarterback’s eyes — almost like he’s guarding a good ball-handler on the perimeter, since the hips tell the story of where a quicker player is about to go.

Barmore’s second-year approach could pay dividends Sunday.

The matchup that will take years off your life

Calais Campbell vs. Cole Strange

Strange has been impressive through two weeks, holding his own against some powerful interior defensive linemen in Miami and Pittsburgh. How he stood his ground during several reps against Steelers veteran Cam Heyward was particularly impressive last week. And Strange’s ability to recognize stunts in the trenches in these first two games has helped him not to look like a rookie.

But the tests will keep coming on a weekly basis for Belichick’s first-round pick. This week, it’s the 36-year old Campbell, who’s still getting the job done and seeing a boatload of work. He’s played 86 snaps in two weeks and already has a quarterback sack and another quarterback hit on the young season.

Dealing with Campbell’s length and power on the defensive right side of the line could provide Strange a headache at left guard. But he’s so versatile that any number of Patriots could end up seeing Campbell by the game’s end.

Under pressure this year, Jones is completing 33.3 percent of his passes for 4.7 yards per attempt with a pick for a quarterback rating of 76.1. Those are significant drop-offs from his numbers when kept clean: 71.7 percent completion rate, 7.7 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, one pick and a rating of 98.7.

Jonesing for a clean pocket

Mac Jones’ completion percentage under pressure

Mac Jones’ completion percentage with no pressure

“Tremendous player,” Belichick said this week of Campbell. “He can do it all. Starting with the kick blocking. He’s a real force on the field goal block. He’s ruined a lot of kicks there. But his length is impressive. He’s very athletic, very smart player, instincts, reads things well , good pass-rusher, quick, strong, long. In the [Richard] Seymour mold, that kind of length and quickness combined with strength, athleticism, experience, and intelligence.

“He’s a really good player. He’s a problem. He can play a lot of spots. He generally plays three-technique. But he can play shade on the nose, certainly play five-technique, all the other ones in between. Good pass rusher. He’s a good football player.”

The matchup that will decide the game

Patriots’ discipline vs. Lamar Jackson’s speed

It’s an “art,” Dietrich Wise told me. Containing while pressing. Pressuring while containing. There’s a balance that the Patriots will try to strike Sunday between bottling up Lamar Jackson and bothering him.

The plan for Jackson, across the league, used to be to force him to win from the pocket. Drive back his protection, tighten his space, prevent him from scrambling, and turn him into a drop-back passer. But that can’t be the plan anymore. Jackson is the second-highest rated quarterback in football when playing from a clean pocket, according to Pro Football Focus (132.1).

Can’t let him play from the pocket. Can’t let him scramble. But if there is a way to pressure him, go for it. His yards-per-attempt figure when facing pressure through two games this season is 4.8, which ranks him near the bottom-third of the league. His 81.5 rating under pressure isn’t bad — it’s 14th in the NFL — but it’s a steep drop for him compared to the alternative.

So… blitz? Yes, no. He averages 12.1 yards per attempt against the blitz this year, which is tops in the NFL. His 148.1 rating against the blitz is first, and his 75 percent completion rate ranks sixth.

How to strike that balance, then? Games? Stunts? Even running past the quarterback every once in a while — once deemed a Cardinal Sin at One Patriot Place — if it means there’s a possibility of tracking him down from behind while he surveys the field?

Whatever the Patriots do, they’ll have to make sure they back each other up in order not to allow Jackson explosive gains with his legs. Matt Judon put it this way: “If I think I’m going to try to make a play, just give a hootie hoo to my teammates and let them know so they can cover me.”

It’s more art than science. The discipline. The pressure. The hootie hoo. If the Patriots don’t put it all together, from start to finish, this one could slip through their grasp.

Prediction: Ravens 23, Patriots 21

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