By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The start of football season is still a few weeks away. That is, according to Bill Belichick’s calendar, which denotes that real games begin after Thanksgiving.
Not that the eight heretofore count for nothing. By winning each, the Patriots have completed half of their prescribed NFL schedule with a 2 1/2-game lead in pursuit of the AFC’s top seed.
Nor should any of them — as one-sided as all but one turned out to be — be taken for granted. After all, as Belichick also professes annually if not more regularly, nothing comes easy in the National Football League.
But sitting here in Baltimore the morning after turning back the clock, it’s as if time has fast-forwarded us to an unofficial beginning, usually reserved for post-holiday, when 60 minutes — and possibly more — of a November Sunday unfold with an almost January-like feel.
There’s still a long way to go to the playoffs. But we’re a lot closer than, say, about an hour away to the south, exactly a month ago when the Pats visited Washington. That’s where New England trailed for the only time this season, for fewer than five minutes, before routing the Redskins, 33-7, before a largely Patriots-partisan crowd.
Sunday night, blue-collar Baltimore City will be far more hostile than hospitable. As winners of three straight and 5-2 overall, the home-standing Ravens are off to their best start since 2014.
And Baltimoreans haven’t forgotten how that campaign ended — with a pair of 14-point leads relinquished amid a variety of formations and a wide-receiver touchdown pass on a frigid, Divisional-postseason Saturday at One Patriot Place.
More so, locals are mindful and heartened by the way the Ravens have looked of late by winning three straight and improving to 11-3 with Lamar Jackson as their starting quarterback. Coming off a bye, Baltimore trails only the Patriots’ offense in scoring (at 30.6 points per game) and leads the rest of the league in rushing (at 204.1 yards a contest).
Aside from finally ending the great debate over whether or not Joe Flacco is elite, Jackson’s rookie emergence created an offensive reinvention late in 2018. And led head coach John Harbaugh to make yet another switch on his staff, granting control of the offense to assistant Greg Roman.
Roman is Harbaugh’s sixth offensive coordinator since the (September) start of the 2012 season. Already in Baltimore the previous two years, Roman previously coordinated Jim Harbaugh’s offense in San Francisco, transitioning from Alex Smith to Collin Kaepernick, and Rex Ryan’s in Buffalo.
In his previous two stints devising plans and calling plays against the Patriots, Roman experienced a 2-3 record. One of those wins, San Francisco’s 41-34 victory in 2012, was clearly more impressive than the other, Buffalo’s 16-0 defeat of an injured Jacoby Brissett in Week 4 of 2016.
There’s also Harbaugh himself. Since his hiring in 2008, the Ravens have knocked off New England three times (and lost six times), including two playoff wins in Foxborough. With two weeks to prepare in the regular season, his teams have gone 9-2. They’re also 12-1 in prime time, including 11 straight home wins.
But those numbers being what they are, neither Jackson nor Roman nor Harbaugh have faced a Patriots defense like the one they’ll confront tonight. Statistically, the stingiest defense Baltimore’s gone against belongs to Pittsburgh. The Ravens beat the Steelers, 26-23, in overtime in Week 5.
In their 30-16 victory at Seattle two weeks ago — about which much has been made — Baltimore scored 14 points with its defense (interception and fumble returns) and Jackson completed just 9-of-20 passes for 143 yards.
Awaiting the 22-year old is a veteran-laden defense that ranks first in scoring (7.6 ppg) and total defense (234.0); whose red zone has been almost impenetrable (1 TD allowed on seven opponents’ trips); and whose playmakers have tallied 19 interceptions and 31 sacks.
Opposite the four quarterbacks drafted ahead of Jackson in 2018 — albeit with different characteristics in varying circumstances — the Pats held Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen to a .468 completion percentage with 13 sacks and nine picks vs. one touchdown pass.
All while continuing the Belichick-coached dominance over first- and second-year quarterbacks. Twenty-one in a row have lost to New England since Geno Smith won as a Jet in 2013.
The great unknown is how the Pats will try to defense Jackson and his assortment of running back Mark Ingram, speedy receivers Marquise Brown and Willie Snead and a tight end trio led by Marc Andrews. More zone? Or more zero coverages? Assign a spy to the QB? Or multiple spies? ‘Tite’ up front with big bodies to clog the middle? Flanked by speed on the edges and second level?
One thing is for sure, the Patriots must tackle better than either last Sunday, when Nick Chubb rushed for 131 yards for Cleveland, or late September, when Frank Gore gained 109 for Buffalo.
This we know too — and it’s something overshadowed in the week that was — Jackson’s own defense doesn’t yet resemble the kind that used to support Flacco and often gave fits up front to opposing offenses. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce remain stout against the run, but Baltimore misses Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley.
In 2018 they helped Don Martindale’s unit lead the league in fewest total yards allowed (292.9) and rank second in scoring defense (17.9), while recording 43 sacks. This fall, despite blitzing more than any other team — sending five or more rushers on nearly half of opposing drop-backs — the Ravens have just a dozen sacks (fifth fewest) and rank 26th in sack rate (4.78%). According to Elias Sports Bureau via ESPN, Tom Brady has been sacked just twice and thrown only one interception vs. the blitz this season.
Baltimore’s secondary — perhaps its best group on that side of the ball — added Earl Thomas in the offseason and Marcus Peters in-season. Between them, 54 career interceptions. But while Thomas intercepted Tom Brady once (2012) in three previous encounters with Seattle, Peters has gone three meetings without an interception as a Chief and Ram.
Granted, one can argue that’s not much of a history in either case. But undisputed is the fact that no coach-quarterback combination has been better in big moments — including, obviously, six Super Bowl titles — than Belichick and Brady.
Sixty more minutes — at least — are on the clock tonight. It should be a lot of fun. Even if the real season doesn’t start for a few more weeks.
You can hear Bob Socci on the call of the game on every game day for the New England Patriots, right here on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can also hear him on his own The Gridiron And Beyond podcast at 985TheSportsHub.com.