After some terrible performances coming out of their Week 5 bye, the New England Patriots have shown some strides recently on the offensive side of the ball. They will need more of that this week — and probably some major improvements as well: the Patriots are going up against the top scoring defense in the NFL on Sunday night, when they face a Baltimore Ravens unit that has surrendered an average of just 16.0 points over its first eight games this year.
The Ravens’ point total on the defensive side of the ball is not the only aspect that is impressive. The unit coordinated by Don Martindale also ranks second in the league in third down defense (32.3%), third in turnovers (14), and fifth in yards given up (2,599). On top of it all, it also fares well in advanced statistics: Baltimore is second in EPA per play (-0.095), fifth in DVOA (-17.0%) and seventh in success rate (42.2%). This is a pretty good defense.
So, what can Cam Newton and company do in order to challenge a Ravens D that is among the game’s elite? Let’s find out.
Be ready for the blitz
One week after facing Gregg Williams’ multiple-look defense with the New York Jets, the Patriots will have to face another unit that has made a living out of confusing opponents to make life hard for them pre- and post-snap. One tool that the Ravens frequently like to use in order to do that is bringing extra rushers from various alignments: Baltimore’s blitz rate of 42.6 percent is the second highest in the league through nine weeks.
Using the blitz is generally walking a fine line. While you do create openings in your coverage areas by sending additional players to attack the pocket, those could manufacture a numbers advantage up front or challenge an offense’s communication and reactionary skills — two areas that the Patriots have had some troubles over the first half of their regular season.
They obviously will need to be on top of their game in order to keep Martindale’s blitz packages from having too big an impact on the game.
Take advantage of Baltimore’s aggressiveness
The blitz is not the only core feature of Baltimore’s defense — a unit that is built similarly to the Patriots’ in that it uses plenty of so-called amoeba looks that do not give away its intentions before the snap. This aggressive style of play suits the Ravens’ personnel on this side of the ball: its players at all three levels of the defense are not shying away from trusting their instincts to make quick-hit decisions in the versatile scheme.
This has generally worked very well for the Ravens thus this season far in combination with Martindale’s blitz-heavy scheme. However, it could also create some opportunities for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to install counter plays aimed at exploiting this aggressiveness and getting the ball out of quarterback Cam Newton’s hands quickly.
While short patterns such as slants or quick outs could be a substantial part of the offense to get Newton into a rhythm against a scheme that is difficult to dissect, New England could also turn to one of its favorite tools on Sunday night: the screen game. With James White and Rex Burkhead among the better receiving backs in the NFL, McDaniels could opt to implement different scheme concepts as a counter versus the Ravens’ second-level defenders in particular playing aggressively.
Just take a look at this play from the team’s Week 8 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:
As can be seen here, off-the-ball linebackers Patrick Queen (#48) and Chris Board (#49) were both pressing forward after the snap. While Board stumbling certainly helped the Steelers get the play off cleanly, the call itself was aimed at exploiting the defense’s attack: Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger (#7) delivered the ball quickly, with the route combination in front of him clearing space for running back James Conner (#30) underneath. Left guard Matt Feiler (#71), meanwhile, was serving as a lead blocker at the second level.
The play gained 13 yards, which may not be a lot but is enough to keep the offense in manageable down and distance situations against a defense capable of making the big play. While screen plays are a bit of a gamble at times — they can turn into negatives if not executed properly — the Patriots have shown an ability to run them effectively behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and with a shifty set of receiving backs at their disposal.
Apart from the screen game, McDaniels could also use misdirection to challenge Baltimore’s instincts especially at the off-the-ball linebacker positions: making Patrick Queen and company think could help slow their pursuit to the ball down.
While jet-sweeps, end-arounds and other unusual play-calls could be implemented, the play-action game will likely be the Patriots’ bread and butter to set up a successful aerial attack. Such an approach would not be a new one: through nine weeks this season, New England is using play-action passing on 36.8 percent of its dropbacks — the second highest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN’s Matt Bowen.
The Ravens have a seasoned defense well-versed when it comes to adapting to play-fakes, but that does not mean they are impenetrable. The following play from last week’s game versus the Indianapolis Colts is a good example for the linebackers’ aggressive approach hurting them:
The Colts were in a shotgun look, with the right side of the offensive line indicating run after the ball was snapped by moving in a zone-like fashion. The linebackers, as they were taught, read their keys and moved up the field to fill the gaps. This, however, created an opening underneath that Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers (#17) and wide receiver Zach Pascal (#14) exploited on a crossing pattern: with the zones open, the two hooked up for a 20-yard gain.
Patrick Queen and fellow rookie linebacker Malik Harrison (#40) pressing towards the gaps after the snap contributed to the play being a success. Safety Chuck Clark (#36) being left in no-man’s land also did that: he originally was in man coverage versus tight end Jack Doyle (#84), but remained in his zone after the motion with Queen taking over the assignment. Clark did not drop deep enough, however, creating a hole in the Ravens’ Cover 1 defense behind him.
While minor breakdowns such as this one are rare, the Patriots should try to force them by challenging the defense with pre-snap motion and play-fakes.
Run behind the left side of the line
The Ravens’ interior defensive line will miss one of its core pieces on Sunday night with Calais Campbell out because of a calf injury. Given that the veteran was Baltimore’s top down-lineman in terms of playing time so far this season — he was on the field for 307 of a possible 538 defensive snaps (57.1%) — his loss will undoubtably be felt. In turn, however, the Patriots might get chances to attack a run defense that is among the best in the NFL in most statistics.
Not only is the unit ranked first in carries (180) and eight in yards against (814), it also leads the NFL in DVOA (-34.9%) and EPA (-0.229) versus the run. Furthermore, it checks in at the sixth spot in success rate (35.5%). New England has its work cut out for it when it comes to moving the ball on the ground, but Campbell’s absence should make things easier for the offense.
While the 34-year-old has lined up all over the formation when healthy, there is one noticeable area in which the Ravens’ run defense has inexplicably struggled so far: the unit is noticeably worse when defending runs behind the left guard as this graphic from Sharp Football Stats illustrates:
All in all, Baltimore has surrendered 249 yards on 34 carries when opponents opted to test the team in this direction with six runs gaining more than 10 yards. Sample size is not an issue here either, as opposing offenses have attacked this part of the field more often than the others.
This should bode well for New England considering that the team a) will not have to face Calais Campbell, b) has one of the NFL’s best left guards in Joe Thuney, and c) has a terrific pulling guard on the right side of the formation in Shaq Mason. All those factors put together could create openings for the Patriots to establish a presence on the ground versus one of the best run-stopping defenses in the NFL.
Get into the red zone
Granted, this may sound a little bit weird: getting into the red zone and thus favorable scoring position is important every single week and a big factor when it comes to determining winners and losers. That said, it might be even more important versus Baltimore considering that the team has had a hard time keeping teams from scoring once they reach the are inside the 20-yard line: only one defense — the New Orleans Saints’ — has a worse stop rate in that part of the field.
All in all, Baltimore’s defense allowed opposing offenses to drive into the red zone 18 times so far this season. Of those trips, 14 ended with touchdowns for a rate of 77.8 percent (the Saints are checking in at an even 80 percent, for comparison; the Patriots stand at 60). While teams have had problems getting this far to begin with — the Ravens’ 18 defensive red zone trips are clearly the fewest in the NFL — they did find succeed once they did.
New England’s offense has reached the opposing red zone on 27 occasions this season so far: 15 of those journeys were converted into touchdowns for a success rate of 55.6 percent — a number that jumps to a slightly better 58.3 percent with Cam Newton under center. Needless to say that making it to the red zone and ending such drives with touchdowns instead of field goals (or, worse, turnovers) will be a key for New England.