FOXBOROUGH — After their win over the Ravens, most of the discussion was about the Chargers’ unconventional “quarters” package with seven defensive backs that stifled quarterback Lamar Jackson.
However, the LA defense didn’t change all that much from what they did over the last month of the regular season when they were primarily a dime defense.
Against Baltimore, all they did was substitute safety Jahleel Addae in for starting linebacker Jatavis Brown who landed on injured reserve this week due to an ankle issue.
The real key behind stopping the Ravens’ unconventional and potent rushing attack, something the Patriots will need to be cognizant of this week, was Los Angeles picking up on Baltimore’s tendencies on film.
In his postgame column, The Athletic’s Sam Fortier wrote the following paragraph:
“Afforded a second look at film of the Ravens in three weeks, Chargers defenders saw that Baltimore’s offense, though complex, seemed to change little week to week. They solved parts of it and picked up clues, like left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s feet. When Stanley set them about even, it was a run, and when he set his left foot further back, it was a pass ‘almost 100 percent’ of the time.”
As Fortier described, the Chargers defense solved the puzzle against Baltimore and anticipated most of the Ravens’ plays by using those tells to their advantage.
For example, on this third-quarter sack by defensive tackle Justin Jones, the Chargers weren’t fooled by the play-action fake because of the feet of left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Stanley set his left foot further back, telling the defense this was a pass, and the second level players on the defense didn’t even react to the play fake dropping into coverage instantly.
Without deception, the Ravens offense, which relies heavily on complex option plays and play-action, was ineffective.
“There’s a certain element of that every week when you study your opponent as much as players and coaches do in this league. You see a lot of that. A lot of film study and trying to find tendencies about formations, plays, individual tips and so forth and so on,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said.
“Each game, each player, each unit has their own characteristics of keys and so forth. I think that’s part of football. There are certainly tendencies. I’ve never coached against a good team that didn’t have tendencies; I’d say pretty strong tendencies. Usually, that’s what makes teams good teams is they do something, and they do it well, and they can continue to do it even though you have some anticipation of what they’re going to do.”
Unfortunately for the Chargers defense, although Belichick acknowledged that like any team the Patriots have their own tendencies, none of them appear to be as obvious as the tackle setting his feet a certain way for a pass or run.
And the Patriots offense, led by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, is aware of the fact that they need to avoid tipping their hand to keep opponents off-balance.
“That’s always something you have to be conscious of, is whether or not you’re creating a tendency that somebody could pick up on, whether that be schematically, or something smaller than that that may be a specific position group would notice – you know, a defensive line group or what have you,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
“We try to do the best we can at identifying the things that we’ve put on tape and being aware and alert for anything that we’ve shown too much or that has become a pattern. And then you try to do what you can to complement that or break those tendencies if you can throughout the course of the year.”
As for the players, the Patriots’ offensive line communicates with each other and the defense to make sure they aren’t tipping any plays.
“You definitely try not to give anything away, any tips or tells,” said center and co-captain David Andrews. “It’s good when you have teammates that will be like ‘hey man, I saw this.’ Our defense does a great job of that saying ‘I knew it was this because of that’ so they do a good job of keeping us on our toes. It’s a good relationship between teammates. It’s always a big challenge to stay basic and not give any hints.”
“We try to take the same kind of stances regardless of the play. Some plays we are in a two-point [stance] other plays we are in a three-point [stance], but I don’t think we tip our plays as far stances or anything. Honestly, I don’t think we change it up too much. We try to keep everything the same as far as that goes,” swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle added.
Waddle hit on a critical difference between the Patriots and Ravens’ rushing attacks; Baltimore’s running game is usually from the shotgun or pistol and wants to get on the perimeter.
The Patriots, on the other hand, typically run from under center attacking defenses from different angles and utilizing different blocking schemes.
Furthermore, the Patriots’ play-action passing game usually starts with Brady under center, unlike Baltimore, and New England is one of the best in the league at using blocking actions that mirror their runs.
Defensively, defensive end Trey Flowers explained to me his approach when studying other teams tendencies to pick up on tells.
“You can definitely look into a game and understand the keys as far as an offensive lineman’s stance it may give it away a pass stance or a run stance. You can see certain types of keys like that with certain offensive lineman. Generally, once we get a key like that, it’s just about 100 percent, if not 90 or so. Sometimes you might get a guy that sets a certain way, and it might be a play-action pass,” Flowers said.
“You don’t spend a lot of time on it because ultimately you have to execute and try to stop the play, but it’s definitely something that can give you a heads up if they tip their hand one way or another. It’s something you might pick up on Friday or Saturday morning going through the film you might see certain tendencies.”
Flowers’ coaches had the same sentiment when it comes to gaining an advantage by sniffing out an opponent’s tendencies; ultimately, you still need to execute.
“I think some of those things are a little bit overrated,” Belichick said. “From our standpoint, we try to be balanced in what we do. We certainly have tendencies. Some of which we want to try to balance out. Some of which we know are our tendencies, but we do them that way for a reason, and we’re going to continue to do them that way.”
McDaniels added, “I think most importantly if you go out there and you execute and you play with good fundamentals, there’s going to be times where the other team has an idea of what you’re going to do, and you still do it well.”
As the Patriots and Chargers comb through every second of game film to prepare for Sunday’s Divisional Round matchup, both sides will try to gain an advantage any way they can.
For the Patriots, they’ll need to keep the Chargers defense on its heels if they want to avoid the same fate as Baltimore and Lamar Jackson.
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