Sunday Night Football Preview: Can Lamar Jackson Lead the Ravens Past the Unbeaten Patriots?
In one of the most anticipated games of the 2019 NFL season, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots travel to M&T Bank Stadium to face Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots' historically great defense gets its first true test against the uniquely talented Jackson, and it will be fascinating to see how Bill Belichick chooses to deploy his defense.
The public is hammering the Patriots' side of the spread, with 81% of the bets and 80% of the money coming in on New England (-3), per oddsFire. When bettors decide to back the Ravens, they are clearly choosing the moneyline, as 53% of the bets and an equal 50% of the money is coming in on Baltimore (+150) to win outright. With an over/under of 45.0 the public is leaning toward the over, with 58% of the bets and 56% of the money supporting the over.
The spread opened with the Patriots favored by 6.5, so there has been significant action on the Ravens' side to get us to where we are now, with the Patriots favored by 3. Do our projections see this as a close game where the Ravens have a chance to win outright? Or will the Patriots remain undefeated in their march toward yet another Super Bowl appearance?
Passing Game Preview
New England actually enters Week 9 with a mediocre passing offense, according to our metrics.
The Patriots' offense ranks 19th in the league with 0.11 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back in 2019. Tom Brady came out of the gates hot to start the year, posting Passing NEP per drop back of 0.35 or higher in each of his first three games. Since then, Brady's Passing NEP per drop back has ranged from -0.34 (Week 4 at Buffalo) to 0.24 (last week against Cleveland). Overall, Brady has performed better at home, with seven touchdowns and one interception in Gillette Stadium. On the road, Brady has thrown six touchdowns and three interceptions, with a lower yards per attempt and Success Rate, as well.
The pass-catching options for the Pats have been limited this year, with only six players topping 10 receptions, one of those being the recently released Josh Gordon. Of the remaining five players with at least 10 catches, two are running backs and none are tight ends. Julian Edelman remains the primary chain-mover in this offense, with 53 reception on 79 targets. His 87% Reception Success Rate leads the team, and Edelman has more than twice as many targets as the Patriots' second-most targeted wide receiver (Gordon).
James White is the clear second option, with 42 receptions on 52 targets. He has a better catch rate than Edelman, but a much lower Success Rate, at 62%. Jakobi Meyers and Phillip Dorsett actually lead the Patriots in Reception NEP per target with 0.84 and 0.81, respectively, though they have been clear secondary options behind Edelman, White, and the running game. The recently acquired Mohamed Sanu played on 54% of the snaps in his New England debut last week, turning five targets into two receptions for 23 yards. On the year, Sanu has an 80% Reception Success rate, making him a dependable piece.
The Ravens enter the week with the 20th-ranked pass defense, allowing 0.16 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. Baltimore's secondary looks to be returning to full strength ahead of the matchup, however, with Jimmy Smith coming back from injury. After the trade for Marcus Peters, the Ravens lined up Marlon Humphrey in the slot in Week 7, giving the Ravens a much better trio of cornerbacks than they had earlier in the campaign.
Humphrey has been the Ravens' most dependable corner this year, and his matchup in the slot against Edelman will be an interesting battle to watch. If Humphrey can slow down the Brady-to-Edelman connection, it could derail this Patriots offense. With safety Earl Thomas expected to play, as well, this is a pass defense that is likely to improve on its early-season struggles.
The Ravens' offense ranks as the 17th best passing offense in the NFL, at 0.12 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back. After lighting up the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals in the first two weeks, the Ravens' passing attack has come back to earth, as Jackson remains a bit of a work in progress as a passer. The return of Marquise Brown should give the passing game a needed boost, as Brown is the Ravens' primary deep threat and remains second on the team in targets despite being out of action with an ankle injury since Week 5.
This passing game runs through the tight ends, however, as Mark Andrews leads the team with 55 targets, and both Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle have been involved, as well. The three tight ends have combined for 93 of the Ravens' 215 total targets, good for 43% of the team's target share. Miles Boykin and Willie Snead led the Ravens in Reception NEP per target, but at just 13 and 22 targets, respectively, they remain afterthoughts to Brown and the tight ends.
The Patriots' pass defense is the clear strength of the team, allowing a staggering -0.24 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back, ranking behind only the equally dominant San Francisco 49ers defense. The third-ranked passing defense (Carolina Panthers) isn't even in the same ballpark, giving up -0.07 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. And while the Patriots have faced an often-discussed soft schedule to start the year, these numbers are opponent-adjusted. No matter how you slice it, this passing defense has been dominant.
Outside of a big-play touchdown from Golden Tate in Week 6, there is very little to take from past matchups to provide hope for the Ravens' passing attack. There is a sliver of optimism for the Ravens' tight ends, with four of the top six Reception NEP per target rates against the Patriots coming from tight ends. Dawson Knox's three receptions on three targets for 58 yards from Week 4 is the standout example, which should show just how dominant this New England pass defense has been.
Rushing Game Preview
New England has disappointed on the ground this year with -0.07 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry, making them the 23rd-ranked rushing offense. Sony Michel has soaked up 140 carries and produced -0.11 Rushing NEP per carry to go along with a 34% Rushing Success Rate. White has been even worse on the ground, with -0.34 Rushing NEP per carry. Rex Burkhead has produced 0.04 Rushing NEP per carry, but injuries have limited him to 27 carries on the year. He looks set to play this week, however, and should continue to work his way into the offense behind Michel and White. Overall, this is more of a volume-based rushing attack that is simply a compliment to the passing game.
The Ravens come into the game with the league's sixth-worst run defense, allowing 0.08 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry. Much of that damage came in Weeks 3 and 4 at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs and Browns, however, and the Ravens held Chris Carson to 65 yards on 21 carries in Week 7 in Seattle. With the Patriots' struggles on the ground in 2019, this doesn't look to be as exploitable of a matchup as the numbers would suggest. The Ravens lost linebacker Pernell McPhee for the season in Week 7 but otherwise are relatively healthy heading into Sunday night.
Baltimore features the league's best rushing attack, producing 0.19 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry. Of course, much of this comes from a non-traditional source, as Lamar Jackson is an elite rushing quarterback. On 73 carries, Jackson has torn apart defenses with 0.61 Rushing NEP per carry and a 63% Rushing Success Rate. Mark Ingram has been the Ravens' leader in carries with a respectable 0.11 Rushing NEP per carry and a 45% Rushing Success Rate on 99 attempts. But Jackson is the star of this running game, as no player with 50 or more carries has even topped 0.20 Rushing NEP per carry, putting Jackson's 0.61 rate in a class by itself. This will be the deciding matchup of the game, and teams around the league will no doubt watch closely to see how Belichick defends Jackson.
Defensively, the Patriots have the league's 13th-ranked rushing defense, allowing -0.02 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry in 2019. It's hard to know exactly how that translates to a matchup against the Ravens, though, as Jackson is truly a one of a kind running threat. The Patriots come into the matchup at full strength defensively, and stopping the run will be their number one priority.
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