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Sauce Gardner vs. Rashod Bateman is the key duel of Jets-Ravens

Sauce Gardner, NY Jets, Rashod Bateman, Ravens
Sauce Gardner, New York Jets, Getty Images

NY Jets CB Sauce Gardner vs. Ravens WR Rashod Bateman: Let the battle commence

It’s so nice to finally be able to talk about a game – you know, a game that matters, not a pre-season game where the biggest question is how long the starters will play or if they will play at all.

There are quite a few storylines around the New York Jets‘ season opener this Sunday. Can the Jets defend Lamar Jackson? Who’s going to cover Mark Andrews? How are the Jets going to stop the Ravens’ run game considering they had one of the worst run defenses in the league last year?

We’ll get to all of those through the week, but first, I wanted to just consider an isolated matchup between the Jets’ #1 corner and the Ravens’ #1 wide receiver: Sauce Gardner versus Rashod Bateman.

Jets fans are familiar with Gardner and his success throughout this year’s pre-season. But let’s talk a little bit about Bateman.

A first-round pick in the 2021 draft (27th overall), Bateman arrived in Baltimore among much hype and fanfare. The Ravens are a franchise starved of a star wide receiver who they had drafted and developed. Steve Smith Sr. has been the most notable wide receiver for the Ravens over the past decade and he didn’t arrive until he was 35 years old. You may point to Marquise Brown, but he never hit the heights the Ravens expected and is now plying his trade in Arizona with Kyler Murray.

Bateman’s first year didn’t really go to plan. The Baltimore offense took a step back from 2021 and a bigger step back in comparison to the offense we saw in 2019. Bateman struggled with an ankle injury that limited him to just 12 games. His injuries didn’t always overlap with Lamar Jackson’s meaning the pair have played just 184 passing snaps together, a tiny sample size.

Although it may not have gone to plan, it was far from a wasted season. Bateman still recorded 46 catches for 515 yards and one touchdown, a base to build upon.

Look beyond the simple numbers and you’ll see some other areas which will excite Baltimore fans.

Bateman had the team’s highest success rate (percentage of targets that yielded a result considered “successful”) on third down at 53.3%. That was higher than Mark Andrews (51.5%) and over 20% higher than the team’s top receiver, Marquise Brown (32.4%).

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Bateman only had 15 third-down targets in comparison to Brown’s 37. It was clear that Jackson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman prioritized getting the ball to Brown in those situations despite his lethargic success rate at converting them. With Brown out of the picture in 2022, it’s reasonable to presume that Bateman will receive significantly more looks on third down.

On third down, defenses often find themselves in man coverage. While I’m not a fan of pigeon-holing Sauce as a man corner (because he’s proficient in both man and zone), the best corners earn their money on third down. Gardner’s sticky coverage will be tested by Bateman, who is far more talented than he appeared at times in 2021. By all accounts, he has been giving star cornerback Marlon Humphrey some problems during camp.

One of the issues Baltimore had last year is that they restricted Bateman to just one side of the field. They failed to move him around to create mismatches. If they leave Bateman with Sauce then I know who I’m backing to win that battle more times than not.

The rumor out of Baltimore is that the team has installed new looks and new variations to the playbook to try and get Bateman more isolation plays and diversify what he’s asked to do. Greg Roman said they plan to showcase his talent more. Part of that will be his ability to win one-on-one. In 2021, Bateman had a 66.7% contested catch win rate (10/16), which ties him for 14th-best in that category among wide receivers who had at least 50 total targets.

All the excitement about Bateman in Baltimore is equaled by the Jets fanbase’s expectations for Sauce. Over the course of the pre-season, Gardner dropped into coverage 24 times and wasn’t targeted once. That’s a small sample size but his coverage has been outstanding throughout pre-season, within the games, and through camp.

We don’t know for sure who Sauce will be at the NFL level. Nevertheless, his debut battle with Bateman is going to be an interesting one. You have a player who was renowned in college for winning one-on-one against a player who shut down those situations throughout his time at Cincinnati.

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