By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Here’s the question with Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sunday night. Is he going to look more like Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen?
Sunday night marks the 48th time since 2001 (including playoffs) that Bill Belichick’s Patriots faced a second-year starting quarterback when Jackson takes the field in Baltimore. In the case of Jackson and others over the years, Hollywood would script Belichick as not just the protagonist but the underdog. The wily veteran outsmarting the electrifying young star.
But Belichick has simply made a mockery of such a matchup on the way to building his monolithic legacy, leaving most chapters with little drama. The Patriots are 39-8 against sophomore starting QBs since 2001, and the’ve won 14 straight. The last second-year QB to win? Ryan Tannehill for the Dolphins in 2013.
Belichick hasn’t lacked legitimate challenges. Patrick Mahomes exploded in the second half of both games against the Chiefs last season. Mark Sanchez infamously put a career-best performance together in the Jets’ upset win in the 2010 AFC divisional round. But contrast that with Allen, who posted an utterly uninspiring line of 13-for-28, 153 yards, no touchdowns, and three picks in Week 4 at Buffalo.
The Patriots’ boogeymen claimed their latest victim last Monday night in Jets QB Sam Darnold, who posted an outrageous 3.6 passer rating. For all intents and purposes, it was the lowest of the low for second-year QBs against Belichick. (In 2007, Kellen Clemens started for the Jets but left the game with an injury after throwing a pick-six on his first and only attempt. His rating was 0.0, Mr. Blutarsky.)
But Jackson is certainly a very different kind of quarterback from everyone the 2019 Patriots defense has faced. Perhaps their biggest challenge yet. He’s already the most dangerous running QB in the league with 6.9 yards per carry while averaging 11.9 rush attempts per game. He’s ripped off six runs over 20 yards in seven games so far. He’s also made 25 completions of 20 yards or more through the air, despite averaging just 30.7 pass attempts per game.
Throw the Ravens’ league-best ground game on top of Jackson’s dual-threat explosiveness, and the Patriots defense has their most challenging opponent yet.
“I think it’s a combination of everything,” said safety Devin McCourty on Wednesday. “If [Jackson] was just a runner, then you would change your game plan and not worry about the pass. If he was just a passer, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal to try to make sure you keep him in the pocket. But, I think it’s his ability to do both things at such a high level that makes it tough, and then it’s the scheme that they run. Everything is not something that you see every week, so now you’re trying to prepare for something that you can’t replicate in practice. We don’t have anybody that can throw the ball and run the ball like he can, so it’s very tough to prepare for him.”
The Patriots’ best hope may be to keep Jackson in the pocket and hope he can’t burn them with a deep ball or long scramble. He’s still posting just a 63.3 completion percentage and has five interceptions. He’s also fumbled four times and gotten away with three of them. If the Patriots continue their trend of forcing a absurd amount of turnovers, Jackson could become the latest young passer to flounder in his first encounter with Belichick.
But, especially if the Ravens can get their running game rolling with Mark Ingram and one of the league’s best offensive lines, Jackson and the Baltimore offense still give the Patriots defense more to prepare for than they have all season.
“Yeah, he’s a major problem and everybody’s had trouble with him,” said Belichick on Jackson. “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.”
More Notes From Foxboro for Thursday…
Brady back on injury report
Tom Brady has an issue with his throwing shoulder, which landed him on the first injury report of the week as a limited participant. Never ideal.
This explains the return of QB Cody Kessler, who re-signed with the Patriots earlier this week. The likelihood is that he will run the scout team offense while Jarrett Stidham will take more reps with the main offense to help ease Brady’s workload.
Elsewhere, tight ends Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo both practiced in a limited capacity on Wednesday, an upgrade from being non-participants last week. They both appear closer to returning with a knee injury and concussion, respectively. Five carryovers from last week remained on Wednesday’s injury report, but all were limited.
Ben Watson: Fullback of the future???
One of the bigger questions for the Patriots’ offense in the second half of the season is how they plan to utilize the fullback position. Debate the importance of fullbacks if you want, but they certainly want to use one and right now they don’t really have one.
So tight end Ben Watson has had to be one of the players to rotate in and out of a FB role, which he’s done in each of his two games back. He lit up when asked about playing fullback as he replied with a delighted “Yeahhh”. When asked if he had any experience at the position, he hit us with a “Nooo” in the same exact tone of voice.
Watson may not be an actual FB, but he is a confirmed football player.
“It was one of those things where, you know, you’re called to do a lot of different things on this team, and you do your best at it, and that’s what I did,” said Watson.
What about getting the handoff at the goal line, like James Develin used to do?
“Now that would be great, we’ll have to talk to Josh [McDaniels] about that,” joked Watson. “But if I’m in there on the goal line I will plead my case to get the ball. Inside the line. I don’t wanna take too many hits.”
It’ll be interesting to see if the Patriots simply use Watson more at fullback, if not rotate all of the tight ends in that role. Or perhaps they decide to dramatically reinvent their running game. The Pats did run a lot of plays with two tight ends on the line of scrimmage, so there could be more of that approach as well moving forward.
Gilmore named defensive player of the month
Stephon Gilmore had a relatively quiet September by his extremely high standard, but October belonged to “The Gilly Lock”. The reigning First-Team All-Pro cornerback has earned AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors after grabbing two interceptions and seven passes defensed in four games.
It helped that opposing quarterbacks have made the terrible, severely dumb mistake of targeting Gilmore repeatedly. In October he made them pay dearly for it. He’ll be the main key to limiting the Ravens’ deep passing game, where players like dynamic rookie wideout Marquise “Hollywood” Brown can burn you if you’re not careful.
“You’ve got to play their receivers tight and everybody’s got to trust each other,” said Gilmore. “As long as you build that trust and everybody’s doing their job, we’ll be OK.”
More Notes From Foxboro coming Friday.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.