In what was supposed to be an absolute slaughter of the Patriots by the Ravens in Foxborough, Bill Belichick once again showed that he has at least a little bit of an idea about how to coach. Sunday night’s matchup was one of the more interesting of 2020. We don’t want to draw too many conclusions from one game, especially one played in the pouring rain. That said, some of the core elements of the successful approach used by the Patriots will likely continue to be used by other defenses against Baltimore for the remainder of the season.
Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman has done a great job of utilizing Lamar Jackson’s unique talents. He also does a great job of dictating to defenses. His main mechanism for doing this is to get his big personnel groupings on the field to force defenses to match up with big personnel of their own. But then he uses plays and concepts that utilize Baltimore’s speed. The Ravens had success with this approach in last year’s 37-20 win over New England.
Bill Belichick had an answer on Sunday night, though. First, he played with 5 or 6 defensive backs for the majority of the night. Second, Given the weather and the strength of the Patriots’ secondary against the pass, the biggest threat to the Patriots was Baltimore’s ability to generate big plays on the ground (Entering Week 10, the Ravens led the NFL in runs of 20+ yards). So of course, Belichick tried to make the Ravens play left handed by taking away what they do best. To do this, his mission was clearly to prevent the Ravens from getting to the outside to generate those explosive plays in the running game.
Below was Baltimore’s 2nd offensive snap of the night. They aligned with big personnel and 7 blockers in the core of the formation. Did the Patriots respond by jamming 8 defenders in the box? No. They aligned with 5 defenders inside from tight end to tackle. But look at those other 3 defenders near the line of scrimmage.
They were clearly protecting against any runs to the outside. The Ravens ran an outside zone to the left anyway. Rookie safety Kyle Dugger (#35), making his first start, did a great job of forcing Mark Ingram back inside, where you can see 9 other defenders in pursuit.
That’s great team defense (which might sound boring but is always the best way to successfully defend the run).
Below is another example highlighting Belichick’s approach. Notice the wide alignment of outside linebackers John Simon (#55) and Chase Winovich (#50).
The Patriots had just 4 defenders in the middle from tight end to tackle this time. They were all but begging the Ravens to run the ball inside. Baltimore again called for an outside zone run.
Safety Adrian Phillips (#21) did a great job here of fighting through the trips bunch traffic to force this run inside. Again, this was great team defense. The Ravens picked up just 3 yards on the play.
It’s fair to say that Belichick was probably not upset with allowing a 3-yard run to a Lamar-Jackson offense. In fact, with his approach, Belichick was basically saying “take as many 3, 4, and even 5-yard runs inside as you want. You’re not getting to the perimeter.” Sometimes, the genius of Belichick isn’t that complicated. It’s not always about fancy disguise or tricking the offense. Often, it’s flat out telegraphing with alignment that he is taking away what an offense does best. This was certainly the case in Week 10.
Belichick doesn’t deserve all of the credit, however. The Patriots did a great job of executing his plan. Safeties Kyle Dugger (#35) and Adrian Phillips (#21), in particular, did an excellent job on the outside against the run, as you can see on the two plays above. You can see another example below, with Phillips taking on a pulling guard to force the run back inside.
That probably wasn’t a pleasant snap for Phillips, but it was necessary.
Chase Winovich also showed up repeatedly on Sunday night. He didn’t just make tackles. He also played to his responsibilities and contributed to New England’s sound team defense (sensing a theme?). Here he was (#50, right side) forcing an outside run back into the teeth of the defense.
I count about 10 Patriots in the area around the ball carrier.
This offseason, we wrote about how the Bills Defense successfully handled the Ravens’ escort motion, one of the staples of their running game. Belichick seemed to have a similar answer for that too. The Ravens have a tendency to run the ball in the direction of this type of motion. Below, you can see Winovich (#50) respond to the escort-motion man by attacking the opposite edge of the formation.
Between Winovich’s reaction and Dugger (#35, right side) again protecting the outside, any option of bouncing that run to the perimeter was eliminated. Edwards was forced to stay inside, where the backside of the defense played with good discipline to prevent any big cutback lanes. Edwards did pick up 5 yard here. But as we mentioned previously, the Patriots were willing to take that all day. Big running plays to the outside were the only way that the Ravens could dominate this game, and Belichick was dead set on not allowing that to happen.
The Ravens finished the night without a run of more than 11 yards. With their big-play rushing attack neutralized, Lamar Jackson was left to try and win with his arm against bad weather and a very good secondary. He didn’t have a horrible night. But Jackson is a different quarterback and the Ravens Offense is not quite the same when the threat of big plays on the ground is neutralized.
The better defenses in the league will continue to try and find ways to keep the Ravens’ running game from being its explosive self. For Baltimore to take the next step, Jackson is going to have to be a lot better through the air than he has been this season. The Ravens will need to get more comfortable with the uncomfortable.
For the Patriots, count them out at your own risk. Despite their deficiencies in talent compared to previous seasons, they are just starting to gel. This is a common occurrence in New England late in the season. Don’t be surprised to find them in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt as we enter the home stretch of 2020.
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