FOXBOROUGH, MA — the New England Patriots delivered their best performance of the season in Sunday night’s upset victory over Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.
For the first time in months, the pieces on Bill Belichick’s chess board finally fit together in a way that offers some optimism about the Patriots’ fortunes over the last seven games of the season.
Belichick’s coaching and personnel decisions are receiving plenty of criticism of late, understandably so, but now a blueprint that works on both sides of the ball is coming together.
Following last week’s win over the Jets, my biggest concern in the second half of the season was on defense, where it just didn’t feel like the Pats had the personnel to fix their issues.
Sure, Belichick would coach them up as he always does, but the Pats defense ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric through nine weeks and were the worst early-down defense in football.
The poor early-down results trickled into their typically stingy third-down unit because, on average, opposing offenses only needed to gain three yards on third down to move the chains.
However, on Sunday night, the Patriots held Baltimore to a modest 0.09 EPA per play and a success rate of 54 percent on first and second down. Not perfect, but a huge improvement.
New England’s defense produced a negative EPA per play against the run for the first time in weeks (-0.11), holding the fifth-best rushing attack in the NFL to only 4.1 yards per rush.
We’ll get into how Belichick put the pieces together, but it was young players Terez Hall, Kyle Dugger, Chase Winovich, and Josh Uche that seemed to spark the turnaround.
We’ll also discuss the other side of the ball where the Patriots continue to be a prolific rushing offense that could move the ball on the ground against a top-five run defense.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots improve to 4-5 on the season with a 23-17 win over Baltimore:
1. Patriots Early-Down Defense Finds a Formula vs. Ravens
The Pats struggles’ on first and second down mainly stemmed from abhorrent defense against outside zone-heavy schemes and poor middle of the field coverage off play-action.
Although things weren’t perfect, Belichick found a group of athletes that finally gave New England’s defense some speed in the middle, basically shutting down the Baltimore rushing attack.
The #Patriots have used different combinations but we are basically seeing:
Will – Winovich
Jack/$ – Phillips
Mike – Hall
SAM – Simon
Nickel – Dugger
With Uche coming in on passing downs for Simon, that should be their group moving forward.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 16, 2020
Belichick rolled with a unique blend of hybrid safeties at linebacker spots and a more versatile role for Winovich while continuing to integrate Terez Hall and Carl Davis into the game plan.
On Baltimore’s second play from scrimmage, we started to see the new mix of players pay dividends. Above, rookie safety Kyle Dugger excellently caves in Ravens tight end Nick Boyle’s lead block on a halfback toss. Dugger forces running back Mark Ingram to go inside the kick-out, and new nose tackle Carl Davis runs down the line to help Dugger make the stop.
By putting their best athletes on the field, the Patriots, for the first time all season, were a fast and physical defense to the ball against the run.
Here’s another negative play forced by the Patriots defense on first down. This time, the Ravens are running their patented GT counter read scheme with two backside pullers. Thanks to Uche taking on one of the pullers, Jackson gives the ball to the running back, and a whole swarm of Patriots are there to collapse on rookie J.K. Dobbins.
There’s still room to improve on covering between the numbers, but the foundation was set on Sunday night.
Now that the Pats found a group that can physically, mentally, and athletically flow to the ball on early-downs, it becomes more about fine-tuning than personnel shortcomings. Thank goodness.
2. Pats Offensive Line Fuels Rushing Attack in Rain Storm
We’d be remiss not to mention the torrential downpours at Gillette Stadium throughout Sunday night’s game, and the Pats offensive line took full advantage against a good run defense.
Baltimore’s run defense came into this weekend as the top-ranked unit based on DVOA, but that didn’t stop New England from running at will.
Things got predictable late due to the weather and score, which ultimately hurt the Patriots’ efficiency on the ground (4.4 average, 0.09 EPA per play). But at times, they were dominant.
In this play, the Patriots are running counter lead with right guard Shaq Mason pulling to kick-out the edge defender and fullback Jakob Johnson leading through the hole. On the play-side, the scheme counts on a strong double-team block to reset the line of scrimmage, avoiding penetration to the puller, and Joe Thuney and Isaiah Wynn take poor Justin Madubuike for a ride. From there, all Damien Harris had to do is follow his blocks.
Along with the line and fullback, the Pats also got contributions from their wide receivers as blockers, mainly Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry.
Here, the Pats are running a crack toss play. Meyers and Harry get multiple Ravens defenders held up with their “crack” blocks to get the edge, and then Wynn and Johnson both make great blocks in space, escorting Harris to a 13-yard gain without much resistance.
The hallmark of a great rushing offense is running the ball when the defense knows it’s coming, and the Patriots are doing just that.
3. Pats RB Damien Harris is the Real Freakin’ Deal
Although the blocking up front deserves plenty of credit, Harris is also getting more than what is blocked on several occasions.
Let’s start with Harris’s ability to run through contact. In the play above, the Pats are blocking fullback lead, where Johnson will block the MIKE linebacker to lead the way. However, right tackle Michael Onwenu loses his block, forcing Johnson to take Onwenu’s man on the line of scrimmage rather than reach the second level. Without a lead blocker, Harris drives through three Ravens defenders and carries them to a first down.
Along with excellent contact balance and power, Harris also has great vision and solid burst.
On Harris’s longest run of the night, the Pats are blocking fullback lead once again. This time, Harris follows behind Johnson, who gets up to the MIKE initially to manipulate the second-level of the defense. With the defense converging on Johnson in the B-gap, Harris smoothly cuts inside to the play-side A-gap, where he runs through an arm tackle and into the secondary.
Here’s another example of Harris’s vision and burst. On this run, the Pats are blocking fullback wham, where Thuney lets his man through to Johnson so he can climb to the linebackers. The Ravens shut down the point of attack, but not without cost, as Harris sees Matthew Judon lose his edge and bounces the run outside for another chunk gain.
Analytics nerds say that very few running backs matter because most are a product of their blocking, but Harris is adding a noticeable amount of production on top of his blocking.
The 2019 third-round pick brings power, tackle-breaking abilities, vision, and an extra gear to the Pats backfield. He’s the perfect early-down ball carrier for their offense.
4. Pats Rookie Safety Kyle Dugger Needs All the Playing Time
After a week of lamenting on recent misses in the draft, Belichick, probably with a smirk, let his top picks from the 2020 draft loose.
Dugger played a decent amount until he injured his ankle. Now healthy, he played 54 snaps this week and was constantly around the ball.
We already highlighted Dugger’s edge-set on Baltimore’s opening drive. He also blitzed a few times and almost came up with an interception that Belichick nearly challenged.
On the stat sheet, Dugger led the Patriots with 12 total tackles, seven of the solo variety, and was exactly what the doctor ordered as a physical second-level defender that flies to the ball.
The expectations for Dugger is he’ll play a lot down the stretch, as the Pats version of Jamal Adams or Derwin James. He’s got that kind of talent.
5. Pats QB Cam Newton Does the Little Things in Win Over Ravens
If it takes us to number five to get to Cam Newton, that’s honestly a great thing for the Patriots.
Newton, whose sole focus according to the quarterback was to keep the offense ahead of the chains and avoid turnovers, had the perfect amount of weight on his shoulders this week.
In previous games, New England was asking too much out of Cam, especially given the supporting cast. But now it feels like he’s finding a rhythm as a cog in the machine.
The Pats quarterback only attempted 17 passes but went 13-of-17 with a completion percentage over expected of +11.0, meaning his downfield accuracy was solid.
Here are two plays that show excellent progress for Newton. First, the Pats dialed up “Charles Barkley” for a 20-yard reception to tight end Ryan Izzo. The design, which has the backside guard pull to simulate a run while sending the tight end on a crossing route upfield, is a New England staple. Newton gets the linebackers to bite on the fake and quickly puts the ball on Izzo, showing a much better feel for under-center play-action over the last few weeks.
Here’s another solid quarterback play. This time, Newton is pressured into a rollout when Judon beats Izzo. Instead of getting greedy, as we’ve seen at times, Cam gets on his high-low read with Meyers crossing and Johnson releasing into the flat. On that side of the field, the linebacker falls underneath Meyers’s route, so Newton dumps it off to his fullback for a first-down reception.
Although the Ravens were another defense that wasn’t afraid of New England’s downfield passing attack or lack thereof, Newton executed the play-calls soundly and made it work.
The performance was nothing special, but it still feels like a step in the right direction; for the second consecutive week, Newton made positive plays and didn’t hurt his team by turning it over.
6. Pats WR Jakobi Meyers Continues Upwards Trajectory
If we didn’t know, now we know; Jakobi Meyers is a legitimate problem for NFL defenses.
Coming off his 12-catch, 169-yard performance last week, Meyers led the Patriots once again with five catches for 59 yards and was by far their most dynamic receiver.
There’s so much of Julian Edelman’s game that’s carrying over to Meyers’s role, starting with the “burst” corner route above that’s becoming a weapon in Jakobi’s arsenal. Meyers beats Ravens corner, Marcus Peters, by selling an inside release on an over or post route, and then loses Peters at the top of the route by breaking on the corner pattern.
Along with “burst” corners, Meyers is also creating chunk plays with deep in-cuts, as the one here is similar to the catch he had to set up the game-winning field goal last week. The Patriots run Meyers from a reduced split in tighter to the formation, giving him more space to operate. He widens at the snap as he comes off the line aiming right at the corner, gets the defender to respect the vertical release, and then loses him at the top for 19 yards.
Then, there’s situational awareness and execution. The Pats ran a spot concept with a vertical clear-out and flat route stretching the zone defense on this play. Meyers sits down at the sticks and falls backward over the first-down marker for a massive conversion.
The Patriots are getting explosive plays in the passing game, in more ways than one, as well as heady situational play from Meyers. He’s a complete possession receiver right now.
7. The Michigan Men: Chase Winovich and Josh Uche, Edge-Rushing Duo
Pats fans got a glimpse of their new pass-rush duo with Belichick finally playing 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche (21 snaps) and 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich together.
Winovich appears to be out of Belichick’s doghouse playing 65 plays on Sunday night after returning to a full-time role against the Jets and deserves credit for his versatility.
The second-year linebacker played 13 snaps in the win at inside linebacker, where he’ll probably continue to see more time on early-downs to get him away from the point of attack.
New England could use more talented players at the second level of their defense; playing Wino there is a win-win, and he’ll still play plenty as an edge rusher, where he drew a holding call and had a few other disruptions.
Joining Winovich as another star of the game among the Michigan alum was rookie Josh Uche, who finally made his way into the game plan after a stint on IR and a few warm-up games.
Here, Uche shows off some of his burst as a pass rusher that drew praise in the draft process, going with a hesitation rip move to record his first career sack. The little hesitation at the snap gets the right tackle to stall a bit out of his stance, respecting an inside move, and then Uche accelerates by using a rip move to soften the edge as he turns the corner.
The Patriots still leaned on veteran John Simon as an early-down edge-setter, but it was great to see Uche play in more obvious passing situations. His pass-rush ability is a major plus.
8. JC Jackson, Pats Secondary Bounces Back Without Stephon Gilmore
After a disappointing performance last week, the Pats secondary had a much better go of it against Lamar Jackson and an admittedly struggling Ravens passing attack.
Baltimore had success throwing between the numbers at times, but Jackson did more harm than good every time he targeted a Pats cornerback on the outside.
Before the half, Pats cornerback JC Jackson showed terrific awareness and discipline to stay over the top of speedster Hollywood Brown on a little stutter-and-go, intercepting the pass. With only 13 seconds to go before the half, Jackson smartly knows that the only thing he can’t allow is a pass over his head; a short throw does no damage there.
Jackson also tried a deep ball to Brown in the first quarter against Jason McCourty. Brown ran an out-and-up that time, and McCourty stayed over the top with ease.
New England’s cornerbacks are the strength of the defense despite last week’s performance and should add the reigning DPOY in the coming weeks.
9. Pats Offense Rides 21-Personnel Grouping
The Patriots played out of 21-personnel with a fullback, running back, and tight end on nearly 63 percent of their offensive plays on Sunday night. McDaniels also sprinkled in 17 snaps on 11-personnel and four snaps of their “pony” package out of 20-personnel. The Pats OC was dealing at times in this one, dialing up his Rolodex of running plays and a trick play while incorporating play-action heavily into the passing game. That’s how it should be.
10. Play of the Game: Jakobi Meyers’s 24-Yard Touchdown Pass to Rex Burkhead
In training camp, Meyers would have some fun after practice taking part in quarterback throwing competitions. To be honest, it was ugly, and it looked like a longshot that he’d ever attempt a pass in a game.
Well, Meyers did attempt a pass, and what a freaking dime! The Pats sent Burkhead on a wheel route opposite the toss out to Meyers, and the Pats wideout dropped it in the bucket to Rex with pressure in his face. I mean, come on, Edelman would be proud.