The key to an unlikely victory for the Patriots over the Ravens

Phil Perry
·5 min read

Perry: Patriots' upset hopes hinge on this key area originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It's easy to get lost in the numbers sometimes. This week might be one of those times if you're not careful. 

For instance, if you take a quick glance at the statistics for both clubs, you might think the Patriots and Ravens are in the same class in some critical areas.

Defensively, they both allow 4.5 yards per carry this season, placing them right up against the bottom-third of the NFL. They've both forced 14 turnovers, placing them in the top-five in that category. 

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Offensively, they both average 7.1 yards per attempt through the air, marking them as below-average passing games. They both average right around 5.0 yards per carry -- the Ravens check in at 5.1; the Patriots sit at 4.9 -- which puts them near the top of the league. They both run more than 50 percent of the time, an anomaly in today's game. And they're only separated by one spot in offensive DVOA (Baltimore is 23rd, New England is 24th).

There are critical differences, of course, which would help explain why the Ravens sit at 6-2 and the Patriots at 3-5 in the standings.

The Patriots have 15 giveaways this season. The Ravens have 10. Bill Belichick has noted many times how often the turnover ratio correlates to wins and losses, and the Ravens are the only team in this weekend's Sunday night tilt that are in the black there.

The other massive statistical difference? It's about defending the pass. The Patriots are last in the league with 8.8 yards allowed per pass attempt. The Ravens are second in that category (6.4). 

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John Harbaugh's team looks like a particularly bad matchup for the Patriots. 

They love to blitz, blitzing at the second-highest rate in the NFL, per Sharp Football (42.6 percent of snaps). Against the blitz, while the Patriots have backs who are totally adept at blitz-pickup, Cam Newton is averaging just 5.1 yards per pass in 2020. When not blitzed, his yards-per-attempt number is up to 8.5.

The Ravens, with talented corners in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, have also done particularly well against No. 1 receivers. Having seen players like Odell Beckham (22 yards), Tyreek Hill (77 yards) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (67 yards) this year, Baltimore has on average held No. 1s to 5.5 catches for 69.0 yards.

For the Patriots, their default No. 1 would be Jakobi Meyers, who has seen 30 targets over the last three weeks and has clearly developed a rapport with Newton that has made the veteran more comfortable behind center. But posting well over 100 yards, as he did against the Jets, seems unlikely.

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So what does that mean for the Patriots' path to victory? 

They are seven-point underdogs at Gillette Stadium for the first time in almost two decades. But even if it doesn't look good, there is one meaty key to an unlikely win.

The Ravens offense has become a bit predictable. More than a bit, perhaps. Lamar Jackson told Rich Eisen this week that teams have started calling out their plays before snaps. But you don't need to know formational tendencies to know the Ravens like to run on first down this season. 

Rush to Judgment

Baltimore's rushing yards per game this season, which rank 1st in the NFL.

170.1

Baltimore's passing yards per game this season, which rank 31st in the NFL.

176.9

Variation

Double

According to Sharp Football, Jackson ranks 33rd out of 36 quarterbacks with only 33.3 percent of his passes coming on first down. That wouldn't be such a bad thing if all those runs were picking up chunks of yardage, but the Ravens are averaging just 3.9 yards per play on first down -- 23rd in the NFL. 

That's leading to a lot of second and third-and-long situations for Baltimore, and Jackson is averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt (completing 55.6 percent) on non-first down passes needing seven yards or more. 

Stop the run on first down . . . Force Jackson to throw on second and third-and-long . . . Have a fighting chance.

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The Patriots have had more than their fair share of issues against opposing running games this year.

They've been forced to use practice-squad players along their defensive line and at the linebacker level. They have two rookie 'backers in Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche trying to work their way into the mix. Ja'Whaun Bentley has been expected to take on a major role in his third season. Beau Allen, signed to be the team's top nose tackle, hasn't played this year and will remain on injured reserve. Their tackling in the secondary has been hit-or-miss.

But if they can somehow win on first down -- getting Lawrence Guy back after he missed Monday night would be key -- then they can be competitive. At least that's what the numbers would tell you.