Welcome to another edition of Behind enemy lines, where I ask opposing SB Nation site managers questions regarding the upcoming opponent. Today, I was joined by Pats Pulpit Managing Editor Bernd Buchmasser.
1. Here’s a two-part question to begin. A lot of talk about this defense has strangely come from a negative aspect, stating the Patriots have yet to play a top-tier quarterback or a highly-ranked offense. Would you agree? In that same vein, would you say this matchup against the Ravens is their first big test of the season?
I think the Patriots have faced a formidable offense before: the Pittsburgh Steelers’ before Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season. Now, were they as good as the Ravens are at the moment? That is hard to tell, but Roethlisberger is certainly a capable quarterback in his own right — and definitely better than the others New England has played so far this season. With that being said, I think the storyline about the Patriots having not yet played a top-tier offense is certainly legitimate because they frankly did not. However, that should not change the fact that the defense has dominated no matter who it went up against.
The numbers speak for themselves: the Patriots defense has allowed only 5.0 points per game, leads the NFL in time every meaningful efficiency statistic (yards, plays, time, points per drive) and has registered a league-high 25 takeaways. It has allowed just four touchdowns all season — the same number the unit itself has scored. Realistically, is there anything more you can expect from a defense regardless of opposition?
2. Who is the main cog on defense, the one who allows this team to produce such a high volume of success? If there isn’t a singular player, who could you point to as the most important players?
The Patriots under Bill Belichick always pride themselves on building a deep team across the board, and this defense is no exception. Just look at the fact that 11 different players have registered at least one takeaway, or that nine have at least one sack so far this season. It is therefore hard to point at one single player as the catalyst for New England’s success simply because the unit as a whole is playing so well right now and has very good chemistry and communication.
That being said, there are some players who stand out: Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots’ defensive on-field signal caller, is a tone-setter at linebacker while Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr. are big play threats at the position. Stephon Gilmore has a solid case as the NFL’s best cornerback, while safety Devin McCourty is leading the NFL with five interceptions. Those five guys are certainly at the core of New England’s defensive success, but they are far from the only ones contributing.
3. The Ravens’ success has revolved around QB Lamar Jackson, both in the running and passing game. The first few weeks he was airing out touchdowns and lately he’s broken free and racked up over 100 yards rushing. Which do you see Belichick and the defense focusing on eliminating?
New England’s primary focus will likely be to try to eliminate Jackson the runner before focusing on Jackson the passer, for one simple reason: the Patriots can trust their secondary to win its overage matchups most of the time. That’s not saying it will on Sunday night, but the group has been used that way over the first eight games of the season and held its ground every single week. I would therefore expect New England to play plenty of 3-3-5 looks to cover the gaps up front and try to keep Jackson in the pocket while sprinkling in plenty of zone looks to help in case he does get to the perimeter as a runner.
Ultimately, it all comes down to this: the Patriots have had some issues against the run the last few weeks and cannot afford to let Baltimore run all over the place, and have time-consuming drives that put added pressure on a New England offense that has yet to really find its identity despite leading the NFL in scoring through eight weeks.
4. The Patriots offense is first in the league in scoring, though some may argue they don’t appear as well-oiled as years past. If the defense can’t shorten the field, could we see some struggles from the 16th ranked offense in total yards?
That is certainly possible, considering that the offense has had its fair share of ups and downs recently and has shown an inability to string enough positive plays together to march down the field on a consistent basis. Why has that been the case, you may ask? It’s difficult to point at just one area, but [points at just one area] the Patriots’ offensive line certainly is a big reason for this: the unit is missing center David Andrews, who was placed on injured reserve before the season even began, and is still without left tackle Isaiah Wynn — all while right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon have been nursing injuries this season as well. All in all, the unit has yet to start properly functioning as one unit. Getting Wynn back to replace a widely inconsistent Marshall Newhouse should help, but this move will not happen before Week 12. If the Ravens can therefore attack New England’s O-line and Newhouse in particular, they should be able to disrupt the team’s offensive rhythm.
5. Who should Ravens fans take note of on both sides of the field?
On offense, there’s this former sixth-round pick called Tom Brady…
Seriously, though, I think one player Ravens fans should keep an eye out for is wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. A former first-round draft pick by the Colts, the 26-year-old has grown into one of Tom Brady’s favorite receivers since the club acquired him in 2017. If Baltimore decides to focus on Julian Edelman as the skill position player to take away, Dorsett could be the beneficiary.
Defensively, as noted above, there are a lot of players capable of impacting the game. I would name strong safety Patrick Chung, however, as a guy who could play a big role both as a run defender — Chung serves as a safety/linebacker hybrid in New England — and when it comes to slowing down tight end Mark Andrews.
I’ll also name a third player here, namely kicker Nick Folk. The veteran was just signed by the Patriots this week to replace a struggling Mike Nugent (who himself replaced an injured Stephen Gostkowski). If the game is as close as is expected, Folk could literally be the difference between a New England win or loss.