In the aftermath of the Patriots’ first loss of the season at the hands of Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, there are three glaring questions about New England’s defense:
1. How did Jackson, Mark Ingram, and the Baltimore rushing attack pile up 210 rushing yards?
2. How do the Patriots go about fixing the problems that the Ravens exposed in their run defense?
3. Can another team replicate Baltimore’s game plan and have similar success?
We’ll answer those in order starting with the brilliant game plan from Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who schemed ways to feast on New England’s two-gapping system.
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With two weeks to prepare, Roman knew that the Patriots want to occupy blockers with their defensive line allowing their linebackers to flow to the ball and make plays.
In a typical zone-read scheme, the Patriots would hold up the lead blockers allowing their linebackers to catch up to the play. So, the Ravens used gap-read plays instead.
Gap or man-blocking presents the runners with distinct reads based on the defensive structure and blocking patterns after the snap, a much better strategy against a two-gapping defense.
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On the first gap-read run, the Ravens ran a lead play presenting tight end Nick Boyle with an isolation block on Dont’a Hightower in the hole. The Ravens pin Pats nose tackle Danny Shelton inside with a combination block and Jackson reads defensive linemen Adam Butler to his right. Butler widens at the snap to play a quarterback keeper by Jackson, so Lamar gives the ball to Ingram, who has a huge hole and a 14-yard gain.
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A few plays later, Baltimore ran the same concept to the opposite side. This time, the Pats send linebacker Elandon Roberts on a run blitz, and he attacks the running back, but Jackson is reading defensive tackle Lawrence Guy. Guy crashes down towards the back, so Lamar keeps the ball running behind the lead blocker for an 18-yard gain.
The Ravens presented the Patriots with a series of no-win scenarios, especially for their two-gapping assignments, where no matter what they did, crash, or stay, Lamar had an answer. Plus, Jackson’s ball-handling at the mesh point was excellent, making it difficult for the Pats linebackers to read who had the ball.
After a 53-yard run by Ingram on a zone scheme, Baltimore went back to their gap running game to punch the ball into the end zone.
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On Gus Edwards’s 12-yard touchdown, the Ravens used a duo blocking scheme with double teams on the interior. The initial read for the running back is to hit behind those doubles, so the Pats linebackers flow to the inside, and Edwards walks into the end zone around his left tackle.
Now that we’ve gone over how the Ravens ran all over the Patriots, that brings us to how the Pats fix the issues moving forward.
On the one hand, Baltimore’s rushing attack came in averaging a league-best 204.1 rushing yards per game, giving their entire schedule issues with their ground attack.
But on the other hand, they exposed a weakness in the Patriots’ personnel that’s somewhat concerning as we head towards the playoffs. New England is built to be a 3-4, two-gapping defense. Do they have the versatility to play a different way when that strategy doesn’t work?
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Last February, the Patriots unveiled a one-gaping penetrating front with six players across the line of scrimmage against the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl. The strategy was a deviation from their typical two-gaping ways, but they still executed it flawlessly.
If teams try to gap-block against New England and copy the Ravens, a reasonable solution would be to start shooting gaps and penetrating those man blocking schemes.
In theory, the Patriots could one-gap from an odd front with three-down defensive linemen, but they might need to play more even fronts with four down linemen, something they’ve done less than five percent of the time so far this season.
Yes, they could improve their techniques and simply out-play teams from a two-gapping system by dominating at their craft. Still, schematically, versatility to transform into one-gappers is easier.
Belichick always preaches having a versatile front that can morph week-to-week based on the game plan, so we’ll see if this group can give the coaching staff the option to go that direction.
Lastly, and to answer the final question, it’s worth noting that the Ravens have the perfect personnel and scheme to expose the weaknesses in New England’s defensive front.
How many teams have an elite running quarterback, a dominant run-blocking offensive line that can block gap or zone plays, a running back that can do both too, and three versatile tight ends? The answer is not many.
Some teams can take pieces of Baltimore’s plan, such as their next two opponents in Philadelphia and Dallas, but those teams can’t install the modern version of the veer system that Baltimore runs mid-season and run it with the same effectiveness.
If the Patriots play the Ravens again, they’ll be ready with a much different plan that will likely involve more aggression and getting upfield to attack Lamar Jackson and company.
THE JULIAN EDELMAN-MOHAMED SANU DUO
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots showed some life with a hurry-up attack exclusively out of three-wide receiver sets centered around Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu.
In all, the Patriots went no-huddle on 52 percent of their plays on offense, which was their highest rate in a game in over five seasons, according to Pat Thorman.
The pace was blistering, but more importantly, the concepts they used led to Edelman and Sanu combining for 20 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown on 25 targets.
Let’s start with a crossing combination off of play-action. The Pats are in a condensed formation with Edelman and Sanu next to each other to Brady’s right. The backside vertical route by Dorsett is also crucial in the spacing of the play.
As Brady gets to the top of his drop, the defense pushes downfield to his left, with Dorsett clearing out the boundary and the slot defender eyeing Edelman in the middle of the field.
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With the left sideline clear, Sanu runs a shallow crosser underneath the defense, giving Brady an easy completion and New England a first down.
Later on, the Patriots tried to hit a shot play down the field off of a flea-flicker. The play is designed for Edelman and Sanu to work off of each other on intersecting crossing patterns over the middle of the field, known as a deep mesh concept.
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The Ravens defense takes away Brady’s deep options, but the hook/curl defenders drop too far downfield to get underneath Edelman’s route, leaving Sanu open on the intermediate crosser.
Here’s one last example of how Edelman and Sanu worked in tandem to make plays against the Ravens defense. The Patriots motion Sanu into the backfield, where he becomes the second component to their “follow” concept with Rex Burkhead. The idea behind the follow concept is to flood the boundary, making it difficult for the defense to cover both players on the action. As a second option, the Patriots add a backside dig route for Edelman over the middle.
The linebacker in the middle of the field vacates his zone to focus on Sanu, leaving a bubble of space for Edelman over the middle.
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As we roll the play, Brady sees the linebacker buzz towards the flat as he drops, and at the top of his drop, he goes immediately to Edelman, who is wide open on the backside dig.
With Edelman and Sanu, the Patriots have two versatile playmakers that can run routes from multiple alignments and work the area of the field between the numbers.
Now two games into Sanu’s Patriots career, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is installing play designs for the duo that make it difficult for defenses to account for both players.
When the Patriots return from the bye, they’ll likely have even more plays installed that involve both Sanu, Edelman, and hopefully rookie N’Keal Harry.
If Sunday night was any indication, the duo has the potential to be lethal in the second half of the season.