The game plan was sound. The execution was mostly positive.
The Patriots offense gave it a good run Sunday night against the Ravens, despite playing with a shorthanded lineup. Given the circumstances, the offense had one of its better performances of the season.
They just lost in the most un-Patriot-like way possible: by making a few too many mistakes. That was too much to overcome in a hostile environment in Baltimore.
The neutral-zone penalty by Shilique Calhoun on a Ravens field goal attempt put the Patriots in an early hole. But the offense also had a horrifically slow start, going three-and-out on the first three possessions before being bailed out by Cyrus Jones’s fumbled punt. Tom Brady’s first four pass plays went incompletion, incompletion, incompletion, sack. The Ravens led, 17-0, before the Patriots knew what hit them.
The Patriots came roaring back in the second quarter, and had a chance at the end of the half to tie the score at 17-all. On third and goal from the 6 with just 16 seconds left, the Patriots caught the Ravens off-guard by handing off to James White around the right end. It was perfectly blocked, and White’s defender slipped to the ground, giving him a clear path to the end zone.
But White got tripped up in Marcus Cannon’s feet, fell down at the 1½-yard line, and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
The Patriots had a chance to draw within 17-16 or even take the lead in the third quarter, until Marlon Humphrey returned Julian Edelman’s fumble for a touchdown. It was the Patriots’ sixth straight no-huddle play, and perhaps Edelman was tired.
And the game essentially ended on Brady’s punt-erception early in the fourth quarter. This play exemplified why it’s not easy to integrate a new player into the lineup; Mohamed Sanu pulled up short, Brady thought he was going deep, and Brady heaved an easy interception for Earl Thomas.
The Patriots can get away with these mistakes against the Browns and Jets. But to beat a good team on the road, they have to play closer to perfect.
Other observations about the Patriots offense after watching the All-22 tape:
■ The game plan was fascinating, and one I don’t think we have ever seen from the Patriots before. They are usually the kings of substitutions and personnel packages, constantly subbing players in and out of the game.
But Sunday night, nine players played every snap: Brady, the five linemen, Edelman, Sanu, and Ben Watson. A 10th, Phillip Dorsett, played 66 of 67 snaps, giving way to Jakobi Meyers for just one snap. The only players to substitute were running backs James White, Sony Michel, and Rex Burkhead, who played about evenly.
The Patriots did this because they went no-huddle and up-tempo all night, letting Brady call the game from the line of scrimmage and forcing the Ravens to simplify their defense (at least attempting to). Officially, the Patriots ran 38 of their 65 plays out of no-huddle — basically any time the ball was kept in play and the clock was running.
I liked the tactic, given the circumstances; it was a loud environment, and Brady had only four healthy receivers, one tight end, and four running backs (Brandon Bolden played only special teams). And if the plan was to let Brady run the offense from the line of scrimmage — calling audibles and hot routes and making a million changes before the snap — it makes sense that young receivers Meyers and N’Keal Harry wouldn’t be involved.
■ The problem with the no-huddle is that when it doesn’t work, it puts your defense right back on the field. The Patriots’ first drive took 28 seconds off the clock. The second drive lasted 1:48, and the third drive just 1:25. The Patriots trailed, 17-0, at that point, and if not for Jones’s fumble, they could’ve been in a deeper hole.
■ Brady had one of his worst games against the blitz in the last five years. The Ravens came after him with 18 blitzes, the second-most he has faced this season, and Brady completed just 8 of 17 passes for 67 yards, with an interception and a sack. His 33.2 passer rating against the blitz was his third-worst of any game since the start of the 2015 season. And he averaged just 3.94 yards per attempt, his second-lowest number in the last five years.
In the first half, the Ravens blitzed Brady on just about every third down, forcing two incompletions, a sack, and a holding penalty. Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale did a great job of confusing the Patriots offensive line by disguising who was rushing and who was dropping. Twice on third downs he was able to create four-on-three rush situations, getting a free rush for Thomas to force a Brady throwaway, and creating an easy sack for Patrick Onwuasor.
When the Patriots finally got to the goal line, Martindale toyed with Brady, calling a three-man rush instead of a blitz on third down. Brady still rushed his throw, and threw incomplete to Edelman over the middle.
■ Brady hit a few nice throws against the blitz, converting a third down with an 11-yarder to Sanu and hitting Watson for 18 yards. But the interception in the fourth quarter came against a five-man blitz, and his intentional grounding came against an all-out seven-man blitz. I disagree with that penalty call, however, as it looked as though Brady had a miscommunication with Dorsett, and was not intentionally throwing the ball away.
■ The Ravens backed off their blitzes in the second half, at least on third down, and started sprinkling them in more on first and second down. But the no-huddle attack kept the Ravens in more of a zone defense, and Brady feasted over the middle to Edelman and Sanu.
Edelman had another unbelievably tough performance, taking some big hits over the middle and making one huge third-down catch despite having two defenders draping him and a third in the area.
■ The offensive line did much better in the third quarter, as the Patriots ripped off consecutive plays of 6, 6, 11, 18, 7, and 8 yards after the Edelman fumble. The Patriots were rolling in the second half, and could have used another possession. But Brady threw his interception with 12:47 left, and they didn’t get the ball again until 3:12 remained and the score was 37-20.
■ Brady had a rough first quarter, missing badly on his first few throws. And he almost got Sanu sent to the hospital with a high pass in the second quarter.
But he was an absolute maestro at the line of scrimmage for most of the game, moving his pieces around and finding the matchups. Late in the second quarter, you see Brady motion several times to White out wide, then bring Watson into the formation for extra pass protection, then set the blocking up front, then throw a perfect sideline fade to White for 30 yards.
■ Watson had only four catches for 28 yards, and his wide-open drop on a deep post in the fourth quarter was a back-breaker (Brady’s throw could have been a little higher, though).
But Watson had a good game and played a valuable role. Brady put him in motion a lot and used him as an indicator to sniff out whether the Ravens were in man or zone coverage.
Also, since the Patriots used shotgun/five-wide for much of the game, Brady often motioned Watson into the line of scrimmage to provide extra pass protection, which he did well.
And Watson may be one of the best pick-setters in the NFL. On Sanu’s 4-yard touchdown, the Ravens had four defenders covering three receivers on the left side, and Watson set a legal screen 1 yard off the line of scrimmage that took out two Ravens at once. This gave Sanu plenty of space to run a quick out and catch the ball on the goal line.
In the third quarter, Watson set another great, legal pick to help spring Edelman for a 9-yard gain on third and 3.
Watson does a lot of the dirty work for the Patriots, like a big man in basketball setting screens and working the boards.
■ The Patriots’ screen game was money. They hit them for 16 yards to White, 12 yards to Michel, and 16 yards to Burkhead, though it was a third and 25. The Patriots’ screen game was noticeably subpar in 2018, and I’d bet they made it one of their top priorities this season.
■ Considering Sanu has been here only two weeks, for him to play all 67 snaps, and to operate in a no-huddle, up-tempo offense, and to catch 10 of 14 targets for 81 yards and a touchdown, is a remarkable accomplishment and bodes well for his future in New England.
The miscommunication with Brady on the interception was regrettable, but otherwise Sanu showed great hands, had solid blocks in the run game, and always falls forward and gets extra yards, which you love to see.
Sanu is under contract through 2020, and should be a solid No. 2 receiver for the next couple of seasons.