BALTIMORE, Md — the New England Patriots are no longer perfect falling to the Baltimore Ravens by a score of 37-20 on Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
Overwhelmed by a Baltimore rushing attack led by a legitimate MVP candidate in quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens took it to the Patriots defense, and it was New England that couldn’t overcome its self-inflicted wounds.
The Patriots made three costly mistakes that led to points for Baltimore: a neutral zone infraction on a field goal attempt (four points), an offside penalty committed by Dont’a Hightower on third down (seven points), and Julian Edelman’s fumble (seven points).
On the road against a good team, the Patriots know first-hand and better than anyone that you cannot shoot yourselves in the foot and expect to win games against good competition.
Although the loss was disappointing for everyone, Patriots defensive tackle Lawrence Guy passionately explained to CLNS Media what makes New England different than the rest.
“It’s as simple as this, they came out here and played a better game of football than us. We have to watch that film, understand what we need to fix and fix it. That’s the best part of being here, the best part of our brotherhood, that we understand that we are going to take accountability for our mistakes and accountability for our play, and we are going to get better. We won’t hold our head down and point fingers and blame people; we are all to blame for it, so we all need to get better, and we are all going to continue to do that.”
There’s nothing good about losing, it sucks, but the Patriots learn from losses better than any other team, and that’s how they avoid having losses linger.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots fall to 8-1 on the year:
1. Ravens Expose the Boogeymen and Patriots Run Defense
The most demoralizing aspect of Sunday’s loss was that the Patriots defense knew Baltimore wanted to run the football. They game-planned for it all week, and we got to the game, and they couldn’t stop it to save their lives. It’s infuriating to watch, so imagine how it feels to play against a team that’s imposing its will and running the ball down your throat.
“They had a couple of wrinkles here and there which we expected. But ultimately, they out-played us today, and we have to go back to the drawing board,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said.
Baltimore’s 210 rushing yards mostly came from designed runs, not Lamar Jackson scrambles, and it was running back Mark Ingram that truly gashed them averaging 7.7 yards per rush.
On Ingram’s longest run of the day, a 53-yard outside zone handoff, the interior of the Patriots’ defensive line got dominated. The key block on the play was by Ravens right guard Marshall Yanda, who is an absolute force and might be the best guard in football. Yanda reaches Danny Shelton, completely overtaking him and pushing him off the ball. By reaching Shelton, Yanda allows center Matt Skura to immediately climb to Ja’Whaun Bentley at the second level. Ravens left guard Bradley Bozeman turns Adam Butler out of the hole as well, and Ingram is off to the races. The block by Yanda was the type of stuff that makes O-Line nerds like me lust after a big ugly.
For the Patriots, the struggles of the run defense is becoming a bit of a theme these last two weeks. Although, along with the conditions, the Pats conceded some yards on the ground to the Browns by design.
Still, the blueprint on this defense is now out, and that’s to run the football right at them on the interior as Baltimore did on Sunday night. The Patriots will need to adjust and get stouter upfront.
2. Ravens Passing Game Stretches Out Patriots Defense
Along with a devastating rushing attack, the Ravens had an excellent game plan through the air. Jackson only threw for 163 yards, but his patience helped him protect the football and pick up yards where the Pats were vulnerable, which was in the flats and running across the field.
Entering Week 9, teams only had a positive EPA play on passes of 20 or more yards on 19 percent of attempts against the Patriots defense, which was the second-best mark in the NFL.
The Ravens did their homework, and dinked and dunked their way to 37 points along with their rushing attack, with Jackson only attempting one pass of 20-plus air yards on initial viewing.
Baltimore tight end Nick Boyle’s first career touchdown was a great example of Baltimore’s plan. The Ravens ran play-action with the tight end coming in motion into a wheel route, taking the defense that direction. Then, Jackson went back across the field to Boyle on the crosser for the score.
The Patriots defense came into the game with eight completions to force interceptions on deep passes, so Baltimore stayed away from testing the secondary and threw it short.
3. Patriots Finding Their Offensive Identity?
One positive takeaway from an ugly loss was that the Patriots offense found something that works with the re-introduction of the hurry up and one personnel grouping. The Patriots ran all 65 plays out of 11-personnel or three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back. That was the game plan, along with the up-tempo, going into the contest, according to the players.
As Belichick would say, last year was last year, and this is this year. Last year, the Patriots’ best bet offensively was to go heavy and run the football out of 21-personnel with fullback James Develin on the field. The Patriots no longer have a fullback or tight end that can dominate in the running game (Gronk), or an offensive line that opens up crater-sized holes. If that’s the case, why be something that you are not?
Instead, the Pats adjusted, spreading out the Baltimore defense with pass catchers forcing the Ravens defense to match it with lighter personnel. Now, they can run the ball against sub defenses with lighter boxes and rely on the playmakers such as Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, James White, and others. In many ways, the approach reminded me of the 2010-2011 era Pats but with 11-personnel instead of two tight ends.
Spread them out, go fast, and run the ball against light boxes; that should be the Patriots offense the rest of the way.
4. Tom Brady Is Still the Freaking Man
Brady’s night was far from perfect with a poorly timed interception and another near-pick on the goal line, but once again, he did some things that make you wonder if he’s a football cyborg. Along with excellent ball placement on several throws, Brady does things both before and after the snap outside of throwing the football that makes him great.
Let’s start with a terrific adjustment to a blitz that the Ravens sent at Brady early, resulting in a sack and a few quarterback hurries. After seeing it a few times, Brady adjusted, calling in tight end Ben Watson into the protection giving the Patriots six blockers against Baltimore’s six rushers. With a hat on a hat, Brady stands tall in the pocket and lays a jump ball up for James White, who made an excellent catch over Earl Thomas. Seeing the blitz pre-snap and knowing how to solve the problem is what separates Brady from other quarterbacks in the NFL.
Along with gamesmanship before the snap, Brady once again reminded us that he’s one of the very best at maneuvering in the pocket to avoid defenders and make plays down the field. On the play above, he dodges and ducks around the edge rush and steps into a pocket of space to complete the pass to Edelman. Brady’s pocket movement is simply magnificent.
Lastly, there’s pinpoint accuracy on the throws themselves. Here, the Patriots ran a flea-flicker designed to take a shot down the field. Baltimore played it well, so Brady worked to his underneath option in Sanu on the crosser. Brady drops a dime perfectly in-stride to Sanu from the opposite hash at a terrible angle. I had a great view of the throw from my seat in the press box, and the TV broadcast doesn’t do it justice; that throw was absurd.
As Brady said after the game, the Patriots offense needs to be better in the red zone, but Patriots fans can rest easy knowing the quarterback isn’t the problem.
5. Mohamed Sanu’s Development a Silver Lining in Loss
On the shortlist of positives, Brady has something brewing with new acquisition Mohamed Sanu. Sanu caught ten of his 14 targets for 81 yards and a touchdown in his second game with the Patriots, and his precise route running and timing with Brady was on full display. Sanu runs routes with excellent technique in his breaks and understands the little details of the position, which will make Brady very happy.
Here’s an example of Sanu’s advanced route-running savvy that doesn’t look like much but is crucial for quarterbacks. Sanu runs a five-yard in-cut on third down with Watson and Edelman clearing out the coverage. As he breaks across, Sanu sees the slot defender drop into his route path, so he curls his route in front of the defender back to the quarterback and then points his body upfield as he receives the pass to set himself up for yards after the catch. Brady hits him in stride, and Sanu gets across the sticks for the first down. Sanu’s subtle route adjustment kept him away from the coverage and created a pocket of space for him to turn upfield after the catch.
On Sanu’s first touchdown with the Patriots, the suddenness into his break set up a pick play the Patriots ran on the goal line out of a stack alignment. Sanu is in the stack with Watson, who sets a screen for him to get Sanu a free release. When he gets to the top of his route, he freezes, holding the corner long enough for him to explode into the flat.
After tonight’s game, it’s easy to see why the Patriots traded for Sanu based on the way he runs routes, his technique at the catch point, and the ability to create after the catch. He’s a perfect fit.
However, Sanu did fail to touch down Earl Thomas on Brady’s fourth-quarter interception leading to a big return, a sign that there’s always room for improvement.
6. Patriots’ Plan to Contain Lamar Jackson in the Pocket
Although nothing seemed to work defensively, the Patriots defense did a decent job of containing Lamar Jackson on scrambles on passing plays. Not designed runs, but plays where he takes off after scanning downfield.
The Patriots used two strategies: playing zone coverage with eyes on the quarterback from underneath defenders or spying Jackson with cornerback Jonathan Jones in man coverage.
Let’s start with the zone coverage scheme, which was their most common call. In their zones, the Patriots tend to match all vertical releases by the outside receivers like it’s man coverage. As you can see, Gilmore runs with his man up the left sideline. They then dropped two or three defenders into zones across the middle of the field with eyes on the quarterback. In this case, it was cornerback Jason McCourty and linebacker Jamie Collins, two of their faster players on defense. Along with a disciplined pass rush, McCourty and Collins forced Jackson to make a throw, and his pass gets deflected at the line of scrimmage by Adam Butler.
The Patriots also played man coverage in the secondary with a dedicated spy on Jackson. This time, the Pats show a two-high structure and then rotate into a single-high coverage with Jones at safety. When Jones rotates down, he’d usually play robber in the middle of the field hunting turnovers, but against the Ravens, he was rotating down to spy on Jackson. Lamar tries to run for the first down, and Jones and Hightower close quickly.
The New England defense gave up 37 points and was out-played by the Baltimore offense, but it wasn’t the scrambles by the quarterback that killed them on Sunday night.
7. Julian Edelman’s Would-Be Strong Performance Overshadowed By Fumble
Unfortunately for Julian Edelman, the Pats receiver’s day got washed away by one play in the third quarter. Edelman caught ten of his 11 targets for a team-high 89 yards, but his fumble on the opening drive of the second half was a killer.
The Patriots were driving with a chance to take the lead when Edelman lost the football, trying to fight for a few yards on a swing pass into the flat on a fake screen. Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor forced the fumble, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey ran it back for a 70-yard touchdown, the longest fumble return TD in Ravens history.
Edelman will have to face the music on his fumble, but he was nails the rest of the game beating multiple types of coverage and showing his usual toughness over the middle.
Like Brady, it was far from perfect, but Edelman is far from the problem.
8. Nick “Folking” Folk Perfect in His Debut
Another silver lining for the Pats was that newly signed kicker, Nick Folk, who replaced Mike Nugent this week, made all of his kicks, including two field goals and two extra points. However, let’s not get too excited, as Folk’s two makes were shorter than his extra points at 22 and 19 yards, but it was still good to see the ball go through the uprights. If Folk can make the easy ones, the Patriots will take that.
9. Patriots’ Offensive Line Was Steady Enough to Win
We are at the point now with the offensive line that staying afloat in a matchup is enough for me. Newhouse is still a weak link on the left side, and Ravens pass rusher Matthew Judon had his way with him as do most above-average pass rushers. Along with Newhouse, right guard Shaq Mason struggled a bit in the first half with a hold and two blown blocks early on. Mason is on my radar as a player that has regressed this season, although OL coach Dante Scarnecchia continues to downplay his struggles. We’ll see how the tape looks, but the offensive line felt like it was way down the list of problems on Sunday night.
10. Play of the Game: Lamar Jackson’s Juke and Scramble
Unfortunately, the play of the game this week has to go to the opposition and Lamar Jackson. The Patriots did a pretty good job of containing Jackson on scrambles, but he made a devastating cut on Kyle Van Noy to pick up 11 yards late in the third quarter.
The play was designed for Jackson to roll to his right and hit his running back leaking into the flat. The Pats defense shut that down, so Jackson reversed field and hit Van Noy with a dead-leg move to cut upfield and break contain. That’s one devastating cut in a tight space.
Jackson and the Ravens got the better of the Boogeymen on Sunday night, but we’ll see who gets the last laugh if these two teams meet again in January.