After the Los Angeles Chargers flooded the field with defensive backs and made Lamar Jackson's life difficult in a playoff game last January, more than a few people in and around football speculated that the NFL had "figured out" the Ravens' new quarterback.
Remember that? The idea was always a little vague for my tastes, but regardless, it wasn't true.
Seven games into the 2019 season, Jackson ranks 10th in the NFL in rushing and possesses a higher passing rating (94.1) than Philip Rivers, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. The 5-2 Ravens are in first place and Jackson is in the MVP conversation.
The Chargers may have handled him that day, especially early in the game, but looking back, that success could also have resulted from other factors such as a rough day for the Ravens' offensive line and sloppy ball security.
In any case, it's abundantly clear now that the league has NOT figured him out.
I bring it up because the New England Patriots are coming to town for a Sunday night game, led by a head coach, Bill Belichick, who is a renowned defensive mastermind.
Yes, he's mostly just a great coach, period, as his six Super Bowl rings attest. But his background is in defense. His teams are infamous for deploying effective schemes that take away an opponent's top weapon.
Well, Jackson certainly is the Ravens' top weapon – he is winning games with both his arms and legs, on plays that are both called and improvised. How will Belichick and the Patriots try to slow him down? Great question. It shapes up as fascinating football theater: Lamar vs. Bill, the video-game playmaker against the killjoy mastermind. Who wouldn't want to watch?
Belichick had high praise for Jackson earlier this week, which was no surprise. He is famous for praising opponents so abundantly before games that losing teams start to sound like Super Bowl champions.
But I don't think he was being disingenuous when he said Jackson poses "a big challenge." It's true. The Seattle Seahawks could only tip their caps after Jackson did them in two weeks ago. Seattle Head Coach Pete Carroll said his defense spent all week scheming to stop Jackson but he was too fast and elusive.
I'm sure Belichick has studied the Seattle game, and for that matter, every game the Ravens have played this season. Rest assured, he's coming in with a plan for Jackson. What is it? That's what everyone wants to know.
I've heard it suggested New England will copy-and-paste what the Chargers did in January and crowd the field with defensive backs who can better keep up with Jackson. I have my doubts about that.
If the Pats go light, the Ravens could ground and pound with their running game. They'll probably try to do that, anyway. Although Cleveland's Nick Chubb had trouble holding onto the ball in New England last week, he also gashed the Patriots for 131 rushing yards.
I've also heard it suggested the Patriots will heavily populate the edges of their defensive front with the goal of funneling Jackson's impromptu playmaking into the middle of the field. That sounds more like it, a realistic possibility.
One way or another, I'm pretty sure the Patriots are going to try to limit Jackson as a runner and force him to beat them with his arm. And whatever strategy is employed, it'll be up to the Ravens to recognize it and handle it, because the Patriots' options are almost limitless.
"Schematically, they do just about everything," Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said of the Patriots earlier this week.
Actually, it'll be up to Jackson to recognize what the Patriots do, sometimes before the snap, and handle it. Not easy. But an overlooked aspect of his skillset is his ability to see the field, a natural gift the Ravens love. It'll be put to the test like never before Sunday night.
The game is being billed as Jackson's first opportunity to go up against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, but really, Belichick is the one he's going up against.
Can anyone in the NFL figure out the Ravens' quarterback? We're about to find out.