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Film room: What happened to the Patriots’ run defense against the Ravens?

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Related: Patriots vs Ravens advanced stats: New England’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day against the run

NFL: New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots took their first loss of the season in a tough Sunday night game in Baltimore. The Ravens did things to the Patriots on the stat sheet that New England’s previous opponents had not gotten even close to: they dominated time of possession 37:01 to 22:59. They won the penalty battle with only four compared to the Patriots seven. They were perfect in the red zone, going 4-4 while the Patriots went 2-4.

And, of course, they dominated on the ground to the tune of 213 total rushing yards on 38 attempts for a high 5.6 yards per carry. I decided not to look at the offense this week because there’s a ton to unpack on the defensive side of the ball and I believe that’s where they lost the game. They let Baltimore sustain very long drives in which the Ravens burned the clock and tired the defense out.

It wasn’t all bad; the pass defense played solid and held quarterback Lamar Jackson in check for the most part, besides a few crazy scrambles. However, when your defense is on the field for that long and you are getting run over on the ground, there’s not much your pass defense or offense can do to make up for it.

Let’s take a look at how the Ravens dropped 37 on New England...

1. Patriots abandon base defense early on

A lot of the talk about how Bill Belichick would handle Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense before the game focused on if the Patriots would match the heavy tight end/fullback sets with base personnel or sub packages like the Los Angeles Chargers did last year. We saw pretty early that it wasn’t going to be base.

The Patriots in base 12 times on Baltimore’s first three drives (first 16 minutes), but for the rest of the game and the remaining five Ravens possessions, New England only went to base twice and when they did, it was their 4-4-3 (four defensive linemen, four linebackers, three defensive backs) package against Baltimore’s 22-personnel group (two running backs, two tight ends).

This change was certainly interesting, as it appeared that the Patriots and their 4-linebacker packages were too slow for Jackson and the Ravens’ dominant rushing attack. Instead, the team went almost exclusively to its big nickel package (three safeties plus two cornerbacks) even when the Ravens had heavy personnel in the game.

2. Linebacker blitzes allow the Ravens to get to the edge

The Patriots were constantly sending a linebacker up the middle in one of the A-gaps pre-snap. This tactic seemed to be used to prevent the Ravens from getting strong double teams up front on gap/power runs.

Gap/power runs (examples in diagrams), which the Ravens excel at running, are all about getting double teams at the point of attack. They are used to wash the defensive line down, creating a huge alley for the pullers and/or lead blockers to carve a path for the runner to follow. If a linebacker blitzes just before the snap though, the offense can’t make an adjustment or kill the play, and they lose their double teams, minimizing the strength of these runs.

Here’s an example where the Patriots didn’t blitz a linebacker in the A-gap and got gashed by a strong double team on the nose and lead block by the tight end:

Here you can see the strategy in effect as the Patriots’ linebacker blitzes were able to neutralize the Ravens’ inside running game. Because of these linebacker blitzes, Baltimore could not wash the defensive linemen down with double teams, which led to plenty of one-on-one sheds by New England’s front-seven and unblocked linebackers and safeties.

However, because the Patriots were constantly sending a linebacker up the middle, they were also losing a defender flowing to the ball since that blitzer would be engaged with a Baltimore offensive lineman. Thus, when the Ravens attacked the edge in the run game, the Patriots were easily outflanked:

The same was true in the passing game. Since the Patriots continued to play man coverage and were also blitzing a linebacker, they were also leaving a linebacker to cover the running back one-on-one, which the Ravens took advantage of:

3. Reach blocks lead to big runs

Another area that the Patriots struggled in was zone runs where the Ravens offensive linemen “reach”-blocked against New England’s defensive linemen. The Patriots were two-gapping often in this game, meaning their defensive linemen were reacting to the play post-snap and then shedding one way or the other. That can be dangerous when facing a zone run, however, because the offensive line can easily cut off any front-side penetration.

4. Ravens identify and beat man coverage

As I’ve showcased in my articles this season, the Patriots have gone to their dime or quarters packages and played Cover 1 on almost every third down. The Ravens were ready for this tendency and had man coverage beaters ready to go on third down (and one fourth down). We saw Stephon Gilmore get beat a couple times, a ton of rub routes, and a couple of bad plays in coverage by Terrence Brooks that led to the Ravens going 5-10 on third downs, by far the best anyone has done against the Patriots this year.

Conclusion

This loss shouldn’t be looked at too seriously considering the Patriots now go on a bye week before facing their next tough opponents. The team won’t see nearly as many running plays with options for the quarterback to run like they did against Baltimore. That being said, there are some core run defense issues that were put in the spotlight on Sunday night that teams will certainly try to attack going forward.

Probably the biggest concern is how the Ravens were able to stay on the field for so long. New England has been the best team in the NFL by far at getting offenses off the field, whether that be with third down stops or turnovers, and they didn’t get enough of those two things on Sunday. The Ravens kept the chains moving and were always in manageable down and distances. That led to some sloppy mistakes later in the game that probably were signs of fatigue.

This is a defensive-based team now in 2019, so the Patriots cannot be putting their offense on the field for only 23 minutes and expecting them to put up 37 points. We will see how they do after the bye, but for now, they are still an elite defense and will win games because of it, but they have got to be prepared for opponents who can run the ball to control the clock because that is an extremely tough way to win games with this roster.