Things to consider while celebrating Steve Belichick's business in the front, socially responsible indoor gathering of no more than 10 people from no more than three households while maintaining distance as much as possible, limited two hours and with one person designated to serve the food:
--I shouldn't have doubted them. You'd think that after all this time, I'd know better than to doubt them, but I did. I simply didn't see a reasonable path to victory in this one. The last time the two teams faced each other was this time last year. The Pats were 8-0 and dominating everyone in their path on defense. Then the most prolific running team in league history cut through them like Jesse Ventura's mini-gun through a rainforest canopy. I had people asking me about this game and I told I can't see how the Patriots can stop Baltimore without the guys who opted out, without Ju'Whaun Bentley, and with Adrian Phillips playing hybrid S/LB at 210 pounds when a much better defense couldn't even act as a speed bump. That'll learn me. Cam Newton has only been here half a season, and after the game he was saying, "I'm beginning to think (Bill Belichick) either has a Staples easy button, or a Buffalo Wild Wings button, or just a straight direct line to the football gods... he's like a football whisperer."
--And last night he got to witness first hand the might of Belichick's Weaponized Weather Machine [tm]:
Bear in mind, this clip is maybe 25% of the intensity of the rain that came through with a minute to go, Ravens ball, down by six and needing to go 87 yards for the win. The wind and rain were so intense, they almost blew the Froot Rollups off the expensive seats.
--Still, it wasn't just the elements that won this game. It was one of the classic Belichick game plans. Where he completely morphs his defense into something new and unexpected. Something the opposition didn't have on film because it's never been tried before. It was like one of his truly most inventive schemes. Like the one that beat the 2001 Rams or the 2003-04 Colts or the 2018 Rams. Only with the rain giving this one more of a romantic, "I game planned against you every day for a year," vibe.
--So what was this new, innovative approach? Great question. I'm glad I asked. It shows I'm paying attention. Answering will be the tricky part because I think it's one of those things that will taken apart and studied and taught in Football War College courses on tactics for generations to come. And not completely understood through my bloodshot eyes this morning.
--In order make sense of it, it'll help to go over how the Ravens have been getting so much production since Lamar Jackson became their quarterback. In essence, they run what looks like zone read, sounds like zone read and acts like zone read so you have to defend it like zone read, but very often isn't zone read. (I'll stop saying zone read right now.) It's base power, with straight dives or handoffs or a designed run by Jackson. With a double team on the playside and a pulling blocker from the back. What makes them unique is they'll run the base power with different backfield formations and motions, Pistol formations with a 311 pound Patrick Ricard and Nick Boyle (270 lb) alongside Jackson, plus with different blockers. They'll pull tackles and even tight ends. So the rapper isn't necessarily the guard and the kickout isn't necessarily the tackle. And sometimes it's two pullers from the backside. So it's a lot of the same plays teams have been running since single-bar facemask days, but in a completely different disguise. Plus you've got the added threat of Jackson running it outside, so they get you to widen your horizon. That's what happened in last year's game and the Ravens were hiting inside holes where there wasn't anyone there to block, and the ballcarriers were deep in the secondary before they saw another living soul.
--The way the Patriots countered it this time was with speed and athleticism. First of all, with Kyle Dugger, mostly playing up on the line of scrimmage in the slot as a sort of a "Robber" run force guy. When he wasn't taking on lead blocks and blowing them up, he was attacking the backfield. Like on the Ravens second possession, he came on a corner blitz off the edge, flushed Jackson from the pocket and Lawrence Guy was able to finish him off. In coverage, Dugger proved he's a sure tackler who puts the hammer down on receivers to limit their YAC to close to zero. For instance, with the game at 23-17 and Baltimore facing a 3rd & 12, Dugger hit and wrapped up Willie Snead to hold him to 10 and force a punt. Same with that one where for a second it looked like he'd ripped the ball away from Mark Andrews. And on the final possession he kept JK Dobbins in bounds with Baltimore out of time outs and effectively ended the game.
--In all Dugger led the team in tackles with 12, and it was for him what last week was Jakobi Meyers, his coming out party. His entry into polite society as a young gentleman of the world. He showed what we'd hoped to see when he was the team's first pick out of Lenoir-Rhyne. That whether he's facing the Wingate Bulldogs or the Barton Bulldogs (yes, the South Atlantic Conference has two teams with the same mascot) or the Ravens, talent is talent. And Kyle Dugger has it.
--This won't be my best transition ever, but here it comes anyway. While we're talking about dogs, Chase Winovich is all the way out of the doghouse Belichick put him in after he got flagged for daring to touch the person of Jimmy Garoppolo a few weeks back. And he was taken off the leash, both at his usual end spot opposite John Simon, but also as an off the ball linebacker, often in the middle, moving around before the snap and seemingly free to attack any interior gap according to his reads. When he'd drop down like that, it was typically Phillips who came up to the slot. And the results of the experiment? We're still in the clinical phase of the trials, but so far the data is encouraging.
--To deal with Jackson as an outside run threat, when Winovich and Simon were on the edge they lined up in, while not a Wide-9 exactly, maybe a Wide- 7 1/2. Let's call it a European-9. Far enough out to run the scrape-exchange to account for both the QB run and the toss, but not so wide as to leave the dreaded end-tackle gap that good running teams have always seemed to exploit against the Pats over the years. On passing downs, Winovich was joined by his Wolverines teammate Josh Uche, who saw the most playing time of his rookie season and made an impression. On 3rd & goal from the Pats' 6 when it was still a 7-7 game, Winovich shot the guard-tackle gap while Uche got around Orlando Brown Jr.'s outside shoulder to flush Jackson out of the pocket. Winovich ended up drawing a hold from DJ Fluker which was declined and Baltimore settled for the field goal. That was the kind of 4-point play that makes Belichick's heart grow three sizes. And exactly the kind of defensive stand that felt impossible after last year's blowout.
--What didn't seem impossible, in fact we should all be expecting it by now, was another great game by JC Jackson. Yes, he got lit up like that psycho Christmas house the neighbors all hate by the Jets a couple of times last week. But he put those behind him the way the great CB1s do and camp up with the interception that turned the game around. Whether he even needed a bounce-back game is debatable. But he had one. Last year the Ravens didn't have to throw against New England, and still Hollywood Brown had almost 1/3 of their receiving yards all by himself. Last night Jackson drew that straw and held him to two catches on six targets for just 16 yards. I don't know if it's physically possible to blanket a receiver any better than this under today's rules.
He got on Brown's inside hip. Used the sideline as an extra defender. Got his head around and racked the ball, which a lot of draft picks who've come through here could never seem to do. Believe me I'm all about getting Stephon Gilmore back. But if I could live in a world where JC Jackson draws the opposition's No. 1 every week if that is my fate.
--Other adjustments they made on defense: We saw a lot more off coverage from the corners than we're used to. Late in the game when the Ravens were in obvious passing downs we got two-man rushes and nine in coverage. I haven't seen the snap counts yet, but it felt like Terez Hall (Mike LB) and Carl Davis (NT) got majority of the run-stuffer reps against the interior of the Ravens line. Hall in particular has had decent back-to-back games given that last week I had to go back to a roster from training camp I was too lazy to throw out to even find out who No. 59 was. If you thought Davis and Hall would be holding down the fort in the middle of the defense against a team that had 3,300 rushing yards last year, congratulations. You're a better man than me and everything I know is wrong.
--I don't know what to say about Damien Harris. On the one hand, he's a revelation. He doesn't just hit holes and get what's there. He fights through contact. Makes people miss.
He's had six career starts and has gone off for 100+ in half of them. There are only three backs in the league with more 100-yard games. And every time he gets into the second level of the defense it feels like he's going to break one. And he doesn't need perfect :blocking or a numbers advantage to be productive
And this was while playing hurt. The reason I'm struggling over what to say about him is that, on the one hand, he's objectively really good. The unquestioned RB1 on a team built to run the ball. And obviously a real steal at 87th overall in last year's draft. My issue is, where has he been? For reasons I'll never be able to comprehend and will never have explained, they choose to redshirt a guy like him for a year. Despite the fact he went to Alabama so he was basically a pro already and should've been a plug & play back from Day One. Even as I say this, I realize my timing is stupid. A surprise win when you went in as a 7-point home underdog and got major contributions from Dugger, Winovich, Uche, Jackson and Harris is not the optimal time to bellyache about why the team is so patient when it comes to developing young players. It's just the frustration with seeing how good this guy is an how good he couldn't been last year. One of those "What do we want?" "Instant gratification!" "When do we want it?" "What do you think???" kind of situations.
--That said, the strength of this team is the offensive line. And overall they were exceptional. Facing this year's No. 1 defense, with extremely limited outside receiving threats, in obvious run sets (a lot of 2 RB, 1 TE looks) against loaded boxes, they nevertheless managed to out-rush the Ravens 173-115, average 4.43 per carry, convert 50% of their attempts on 3rd & 4th down and keep Cam Newton in a clean pocket when he did throw. Michael Onwenu did have a rare hiccup when he got beat for a sack by Matt Judon in the 1st. And late in the game, Wink Martindale blitzed fairly effectively on pretty much every down. He fired every round in his clip and then threw the empty gun. But the O-line held up, communicated well, released extra rushers to be picked up Jakob Johnson, James White or Rex Burkhead, depending, while accounting for their own assignment. And all the credit in the world should go to Dave Andrews for having no major snap problems when snap Baltimore's problems might have cost them the game. Handling those balls out of the shotgun must have felt like trying to hike a Hot Oil Wrestler, and he did it flawlessly. It shows how lucky we are to have him back from last season and his busted hand a few weeks ago.
--While I appreciate a gadget play that works as much as the next guy, and will never take for granted the chance to see a double pass from a wide receiver done to perfection:
… especially because I know it hurts John Harbaugh's soul like you destroyed one of Voldemort's Horcruxes and that's a pure good. But if I'm being honest, I get a lot more joy out of a straightforward play that is well executed. When you do such a good job of executing your blocks - especially Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers downblocking on the edge and White on Patrick Queen who'd motioned out with him, that Onwenu pulls out to lead an literally has no one to block.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "The rain on my car is a baptism. The new me. Ice Man. Power Lloyd. My assault on the world begins now." - Lloyd Dobler, "Say Anything"
--My sneaky favorite moment of the game was Belichick screaming at official Sarah Thomas. It was after a 3rd down stop that made it 4th & 1 and before the Ravens muffed the snap. I don't even know what he was mad about. I just respect the fact that he respects her to the point he will lay into her like he has every other official his entire life. That is respect through disrespect, which I'm sure is how she wants to be treated, rather than pandered to. If that's the case, I know she's not one of my in laws. If she was, she'd harbor resentment for that and I would come up at the next holiday gathering between my second and third glass of wine.
--I never thought one man could fill the holes in my heart shaped like James Develin and Sebastian Vollmer. But Jakob Johnson is just that man. A fullback and a German? He's the ultimate two-fer. Creating holes. Blitz pick up when needed. Converting that huge first down when he double clutched the ball as they were backed up to their own endzone. He's probably the only guy ever to come out of Stuttgart who has ever done any of those things, much less all of them. And he gets better by the week. If the world was a better place and had more respect for the finer things in life, I'd be able to make reference to the classic "Hogan's Heroes" when Hogan introduced Klink to the dance troupe Honey Hornburg & Her Stuttgart Steppers. Unfortunately, the Venn diagram of Patriots fans in 2020 and people who appreciate sitcoms about POW camps and zany, bumbling Nazis has a subset that may only include me. So I'll keep it to myself. But you're missing out and I pity your hollow and empty existence.
--Suddenly the Pats have won back to back games in dramatic fashion. The Bills lost in the most dramatic fashion of the season. The gap is closing in the division. The defense is a work in progress while the offense seems to have found itself. Young guys from the last three draft classes and recent UDFAs are starting to make major contributions. They have a chance to get to .500 next week and those football gods Newton talked about are delivering the 2-7 Texans who are in freefall and are GM'ed by the conniving weasel who is firing everyone and created a personal grudge when he tried to steal Nick Caserio away. Suddenly things are looking up thanks to this, one of the most unlikely wins in years.