What’s that saying about facing Bill Belichick — he makes you play “lefthanded”? That he takes you out of your comfort zone, and makes you beat him in ways that are new to you?
Sunday in Baltimore, Belichick and the Patriots met their match.
Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman did a brilliant job of getting the Patriots’ No. 1 defense out of its comfort zone and playing in a completely different style. Watching the 37-20 loss on the All-22 tape, you can see just how uncomfortable the defense was for much of the night trying to defend Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
The Ravens showed formations that the Patriots never had to defend before this year. Jackson operated exclusively out of the “Pistol” formation, with a running back lined up directly behind him, which, as Belichick explained last week, makes it difficult to discern which way the play is running.
The Ravens used an “Offset I” formation out of the Pistol, putting fullback Patrick Ricard in the backfield. They put a tight end in the backfield, creating a wishbone formation. And they ran the read-option play all night, a running play the Patriots haven’t had to defend much this season.
The Patriots were so preoccupied with containing Jackson and his speed that it left them completely out of sorts for much of the night. They often brought eight, nine, or even 10 defenders into the box to defend the run, leaving no second line of defense — a tactic that bit them on Mark Ingram’s 53-yard run, and Gus Edwards’s subsequent 12-yard touchdown run. In fact, many of the Ravens’ big runs came against eight defenders in the box.
Roman disguised his plays so well that Patriots defenders many times didn’t know where the ball was. On Marquise Brown’s 26-yard “catch” on an end-around toss in the first quarter, Patrick Chung, Elandon Roberts, and Stephon Gilmore were completely frozen, and Dont’a Hightower was pointing to his left at Jackson, not even noticing that Brown had the ball and was jetting around the edge for a big gain.
On several other plays, the Patriots had defenders overrunning gaps or keeping their attention on Jackson long after he had gotten rid of the ball.
And on one play in the first quarter, the Patriots even knew what was coming — Hightower timed the snap perfectly, Devin McCourty knew which way the ball was going — yet Ingram still picked up 13 yards and a first down on an option pitch.
Everything about defending the Ravens was unusual, so I don’t know if this game is a harbinger of things to come for the Patriots defense. But they had to play a completely different style to defend Jackson’s athleticism and Roman’s scheme, and it got them totally out of sorts.
Other observations on the Patriots defense after watching the tape:
■ This was a tough game for the “Boogeymen,” most notably Hightower and Jamie Collins. Hightower led the Patriots with 13 tackles, but the Ravens did a great job of putting him in pass coverage and taking advantage of his lack of speed. Hightower was a step too slow on crossing passes to Nick Boyle and Ingram in the fourth quarter that helped the Ravens burn the clock.
And Collins, who finished with four tackles, was undisciplined on the edge of the defense. On Jackson’s touchdown run on the opening drive, Collins bit hard on the read-option fake, leaving the left side wide open for Jackson to waltz into the end zone. Collins also got crushed by the running back on that play, for good measure. And on Brown’s 26-yard end-around, Collins got completely wiped out of the play by Ricard.
■ One of the Patriots’ big adjustments was moving Collins from the outside to inside linebacker in the second quarter. He was simply not disciplined enough to stay in his lane and set the edge, and they moved him inside to see whether he could run blitz right up the middle and chase down ballcarriers sideline to sideline.
John Simon and Kyle Van Noy played on the edge for most of the final three quarters, and did a much better job of containing Jackson and Ingram. Simon, in particular, did an excellent job of not biting on the read-option fakes and containing Jackson. But Jackson is so fast that he was still able to pick up a 6-yard gain around the left side, even though Simon played it perfectly.
■ The Patriots played a traditional 3-4 defense for the first two series, with beef up front (mostly Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, and Adam Butler), Van Noy and Collins at outside linebacker, and Hightower and Roberts at inside linebacker.
But from the second quarter on, they switched to a 4-2-5, with Van Noy and Simon playing defensive end, and Collins and Hightower as the primary linebackers.
The Patriots tried disrupting the Ravens’ run game by shooting a linebacker right up the middle on run blitzes. It worked in the fourth quarter, when Ja’Whaun Bentley dropped Ingram for minus-2. But when Collins tried it in the third quarter, Jackson simply ran an option pitch to the right, and Ingram picked up 6 yards. It was as though the Ravens had an answer for everything.
■ The Patriots played it safe with their pass defense all game. They used a healthy dose of zone coverage, and I counted only three blitzes all game. They were mostly preoccupied by containing Jackson, and after showing an exotic defense on the first series — showing Cover 1 before the snap but dropping into Cover 2 — they didn’t do much of the “amoeba” defense to confuse him.
Jackson’s one sack came against a Cover 2 zone defense, with him contained in the pocket and not knowing where to go with the ball.
The one time they came out in the “Cover 0” look — no deep safety, and man coverage across the board — Devin McCourty blitzed, and Jackson calmly hit Mark Andrews for 18 yards with a beautiful fade pass over Terrence Brooks in coverage.
■ Jackson had a few plays where he didn’t see wide-open receivers and missed out on big gains. But he more than made up for it with his athleticism and calm demeanor in the pocket. If he can stay healthy, he’s going to be a force in this league.
■ The Ravens’ first third down of the game perfectly encapsulated why Jackson is such a difficult player to defend. On third and 5, Hightower came screaming up the middle on a stunt, and got right in Jackson’s face. But Jackson slipped away, threw the ball while being dragged down — and threw it around a spying Jonathan Jones — and completed a 6-yard pass to Brown.
Any of the other eight quarterbacks the Patriots have faced this year would have been sacked in that situation.
■ Jones, the fastest player on the Patriots defense, was the spy on Jackson for most of the night. In the first half, the Patriots had Jones spying in “depth” — standing back around the first-down marker, and making sure Jackson didn’t break off any huge runs.
In the second half, they brought Jones up to the line of scrimmage more often, and had him drop out and play the short-middle portion of the field. Jones made only one tackle, but he kept Jackson contained.
■ The Ravens gave the Patriots a taste of their own medicine, running “rub routes,” or pick plays, all game long. On one third and 2, the Ravens sent Andrews in motion and had him run a simple swing route to the left side. Chung followed Andrews the whole way, but had to wade through so much traffic that he couldn’t get to Andrews in time, allowing for an easy catch and a first down.
Ingram made a similar 11-yard catch on second and 8 in the fourth quarter, getting open thanks to a questionably legal pick by Willie Snead against Hightower.
And on the key play of the game — the Ravens’ fourth-and-4 conversion late in the third quarter — Seth Roberts sure looked like he committed a blatant pick 3 yards off the line of scrimmage, allowing Snead to break free for a 7-yard catch. The officials didn’t flag it for offensive pass interference, and Belichick didn’t challenge it, perhaps knowing that the odds of getting a pass interference non-call overturned on replay are slim.
■ And the Patriots uncharacteristically did themselves in with penalties. The defense bent a lot on the first two drives, but stopped the Ravens on third down both times. Yet the deficit was 10-0 instead of 6-0 because Shilique Calhoun jumped offsides on a field goal attempt when the snapper lifted his head.
Hightower also jumped offsides on a third-and-4 play late in the game that negated a defensive stop. And Jason McCourty got flagged for illegal use of hands midway through the fourth quarter, negating another third-and-7 stop and giving the Ravens an automatic first down.
The Patriots usually are on the receiving end of these crucial plays. But the Ravens flipped the tables on them.