FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the New England Patriots’ defense looked most vulnerable this season — they haven’t looked vulnerable often — the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson sliced through them early and late in an early-November victory.
Jackson is one of the NFL’s top playmakers. Not far behind him is the next quarterback the Patriots will face: Houston’s Deshaun Watson.
“He’s an exceptional player who can do it all. He has a strong arm. An accurate arm. He’s a tough kid who will get hit and get right back up and continue to find ways to lead his team,” safety Duron Harmon said leading into Sunday’s road game at NRG Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
“We have to do a good job of just trying to keep him in the pocket, and make him beat us from being in the pocket. Don’t let him run around, because when he’s scrambling and running around, that’s when he’s at his best.”
The same could be said of Jackson, who is the leading candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player honors. Having recently faced him could help the Patriots on Sunday against Watson.
“There is some carryover, but I would say it’s a little bit different,” Harmon said. “Lamar Jackson, when he gets the ball in his hands and he’s running, there’s no other quarterback out there like him. Deshaun Watson has some of those characteristics, but when he’s scrambling, he’s just looking for where he can throw the ball down the field. He’s trying to make the big play with his arm, rather than his legs, but he can run and will run if he needs to.”
Watson is 249-of-361 passing this season (69%) for 2,899 yards, with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has 58 carries for 301 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s one of those guys that can make every throw. You watch him, especially when they go empty [formation], that he can see the field so clear,” safety Devin McCourty said. “As guys spread out, the middle opens up and he can run. But if somebody shoots inside a blocker, he can escape outside, and once he escapes, he can run. But he also can take a couple steps up, see who commits to him, and drop a ball over your head for a big gain.
“So it’s a game for us where everyone has to be disciplined. For us, on the back end, you don’t want it to happen but there are going to be some plays in the game where we have to cover for 8-10 seconds. Because he’s that good.”
The most recent time the Patriots faced Watson, in the 2018 season opener, it was Watson’s first game back from a torn ACL that had cut short his rookie season. Watson looks much different now, according to Patriots defenders, with coach Bill Belichick identifying his proficiency on deep passes.
That has shown up particularly in prime-time games. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Watson has more touchdown passes than incompletions on throws 30 or more yards down the field in seven career prime-time games; he’s 11-of-16, with six career touchdowns. Two of those long touchdowns came in a victory against the Indianapolis Colts last Thursday.
Overall, Watson has 17 career touchdown passes in prime-time games, against just three interceptions.
“He’s always been a big-time player, even when he was at Clemson. When he played in big games, you got the best from him. It’s the same now,” Harmon said. “We know we’re going to get his best game and we plan to give him our best game as well.”