It’s not as if this hasn’t been said a thousand times already, but what makes the Patriots so impressive under Bill Belichick and his coaching staff is how versatile they can be with scheme and personnel on both sides of the football.
They have switched back and forth between a 4-3 and a 3-4 defensive front all season, mostly because of injuries, and have done so fairly seamlessly. In some games they play mostly press man coverage, in others they drop off into zone. One week on offense, Shane Vereen is the featured target. The next, the Patriots are running a lot of four-receiver sets and feeding the ball to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Austin Collie.
And then you have a game such as Sunday’s 41-7 blowout win over Baltimore, in which the Patriots unveiled a new running game to neutralize a size disadvantage along the offensive line. The Patriots were undersized with 308-pound Logan Mankins at left tackle and 295-pound Josh Kline at left guard, so they switched from their power blocking scheme to a zone blocking scheme, which favors athleticism over bulk and could help negate the beefy defensive front of Arthur Jones, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Terrence Cody, and others.
The Patriots broke out the old “stretch” run play that Peyton Manning and the Colts ran for years, in which the offensive line would all flow one way, and the running back would plant, cut, and go upfield against the flow of the defense for a big gain. The Patriots hadn’t run it much, if at all, this season, but LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley pounded the Ravens for 130 yards on 31 carries, mostly out of the stretch play.
The Ravens hadn’t allowed a team to rush for 100 yards in five straight games, but the Patriots’ ground success was yet another example of how Belichick is consistently one of the best game-planning coaches in the NFL.
Before we break down the rest of the game, we feel compelled to add a note about Sunday’s officiating, headed by referee Ron Winter. We generally don’t like commenting on the officials, but we’re all professionals here, and this felt like a really poor display by Winter and his crew.
Overall, four calls were reversed by replay: Amendola’s fumble, the spot of the ball on Logan Ryan’s second interception, Dennis Pitta’s catch along the sideline, and Jacoby Jones touching the end line on a kickoff. The officials also took forever to pick up a flag on a sack of Tom Brady, changed a penalty from false start to encroachment, and called a phantom false start on Ryan Wendell.
The end of the first half was atrocious, as the final 3:05 of game time took 16:34 in real time.
It took Winter 3:45 just to overturn Amendola’s fumble, adding more fuel to the belief that a centralized replay system would be much more efficient. The crew called six penalties in the final stretch, including four in a row, killing all semblance of entertainment.
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ Just an all-around impressive day in the run game, especially for Mankins, Kline, and Wendell, who helped the Patriots rush for 70 yards on 15 carries to the left side (4.7-yard average). Blount and Ridley were equally impressive in running through traffic. Of Ridley’s 54 yards rushing, 31 came after contact, an encouraging stat for someone working on his ball security. And we counted 26 yards after contact for Blount, who had 76 yards total. Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain and safety James Ihedigbo each missed a couple of tackles.
■ Dan Connolly had a decent game against Ngata and Chris Canty, paving the way for 40 yards on eight carries behind him and doing a nice job of getting out in front of Brandon Bolden for a 12-yard screen pass.
Mankins struggled a bit against Suggs in one-on-one situations, as Suggs finished with two quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, and a sack. And on his first touchdown, Blount ran right behind fullback James Develin, who did a nice job all day as a lead blocker.
■ One disappointing performer was Marcus Cannon, who struggled with Canty and Courtney Upshaw in run blocking and had two penalties for 15 yards in the second quarter.
■ The Patriots went with their heavy formations, with Michael Hoomanawanui playing 64 of 67 snaps, blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan playing more than Amendola (31 snaps to 30), Develin contributing 23 snaps, and Collie playing just 1.
Not only did the Patriots bully the Ravens in the run game, but they were liberal with their use of play-action passes, which gained some big plays — Edelman’s 34-yard pass interference, a 17-yarder to Edelman over the middle, and a 15-yarder to Aaron Dobson over the middle among them.
■ We counted eight Ravens blitzes on 28 drop-backs by Brady, but six of them came in the first half. They learned their lesson after Brady hit a wide-open Amendola for 34 yards in the first half. The Patriots scored only 6 points in a 47-minute stretch before tacking on three late touchdowns.
When the Ravens had the ball . . .
■ Some interesting tactics by the Patriots. They played mostly zone defense (deep Cover 1), with Aqib Talib manning the left side of the formation and Ryan strictly on the right side. Knowing Joe Flacco loves to throw the deep ball, Devin McCourty (and then Duron Harmon after McCourty suffered a concussion) played 30-40 yards off the ball on most passing plays, and Flacco finished 0 for 6 on passes longer than 20 yards, including two that should’ve been intercepted by McCourty.
The Patriots also spent a lot of resources (Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Brandon Spikes) covering the flats and check-down routes, knowing that Flacco loves to dump the ball off to Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
■ Flacco completed only 8 of 20 passes to his wide receivers, and made some absolutely horrible decisions. He never saw Hightower with the underneath coverage on Jacoby Jones streaking across the field, and Hightower should’ve had an easy interception (Ryan cleaned up the mess).
On fourth and 3 in the third quarter, Flacco had Pitta wide open in the flat for an easy first down but inexplicably threw a deep corner route to Jones, and the ball was knocked down by Ryan (his best play of the day, over the two interceptions).
Flacco played with a slightly sprained knee, but didn’t seem to have much problem stepping into his throws. His problems were mental.
■ An awesome game for Kyle Arrington, who had a team-high eight tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass defended, and his second career sack (in consecutive weeks). He also made an incredible play on a first-quarter run by Pierce. Arrington, who weighs 190 pounds, pushed right tackle Michael Oher, listed at 315, 6 yards into the backfield, disrupting the run and forcing Pierce to reverse field.
■ Another solid game for Spikes in the run game, and Hightower as well. On the fourth-and-1 stuff inside the 5, Spikes and Sealver Siliga left the center uncovered, appeared to goad Flacco into an audible to a run up the middle, then crashed the middle of the formation right before the snap, allowing the Patriots to stuff Rice for no gain.
Special teams . . .
■ Matthew Slater was an absolute animal on punt coverage, beating two defenders off the line of scrimmage, sprinting 60 yards downfield, and stopping Jones cold in his tracks for a 2-yard gain.
■ The Ravens did a better job of kicking away from Edelman than the Patriots did of kicking away from Jones. Edelman returned only one of four punts for 11 yards, with one going out of bounds, one fair catch, and one touchback. Jones was able to return four of seven punts for 36 yards but with a long of 22. Stephen Gostkowski did hit 6 of 8 kickoffs for touchbacks, but Jones did average 30.5 yards on two kickoff returns.
■ Justin Tucker’s missed 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter was karma for John Harbaugh’s decision not to go for it on fourth and 5. A successful kick would’ve brought the Ravens only within 17 points.
Game balls . . .
■ LG Josh Kline: Maybe not the best performance on the line, but an impressive effort against Ngata from a rookie and former practice squad player making his first NFL start.
■ RBs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley: Kept the chains moving, converted in the deep red zone, and, most important, protected the football.
■ WR Julian Edelman: Not only caught 7 of 11 passes for 77 yards, but kept bouncing right back up after getting popped repeatedly over the middle.
■ DE Rob Ninkovich and DT Sealver Siliga: Combined for 10 tackles and two sacks, and collapsed the pocket all game.
■ CB Logan Ryan: Now has five interceptions this season, and is showing impressive awareness and ball skills for a rookie.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin