Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Play Action Deadly For Ravens In Patriots Dominant Victory

The Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots have had some epic battles in recent history.

The Ravens have been viewed as more of a bunch of tough guys that win with their defense and running the football while the Patriots just kind of morph into whatever they need to be in order to compete with their opponent, and the results have usually been one-score affairs that raise the collective blood pressure of both fan bases.

That was the case on Monday night when the Ravens visited Foxborough on the weekly, nationally televised showcase of the National Football League - the fans got another nail biter, a drama-filled encounter that saw one team take a big lead, squander it, then deliver a decisive dagger just when things looked hopeless.
Chris Hogan hauls in a perfect Brady rainbow

But don't let the 30-23 final score fool you - the New England Patriots dominated the Ravens, and only the final score was close.

Coming into the contest, the Ravens sported the top defense in all of football, ranked first against the run and fourth against the pass, holding nine of their twelve opponents under 65 yards rushing and all but one foe under the 300 yard passing threshold, and that figured to hold, particularly since New England was missing their top offensive target in tight end Rob Gronkowski and their steady slot man in Danny Amendola...

...but Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady shredded Baltimore's secondary for more than 400 yards through the air and power back LeGarrette Blount punished the Ravens' run stoppers for 72 yards and a touchdown - setting career highs in both scores and rushing yards in a season as New England had their way with the stout Baltimore defense.

In fact, New England fell just shy of laying 500 yards of total offense on the proud Ravens' defense as Brady unleashed hell to the tune of 406 yards and three touchdowns - but it was the one pass that got away from him, a floater in the end zone intercepted by safety Eric Weddle, that started a string of errors that nearly doomed the Patriots or, at the very least, made the game a lot closer than it needed to be.

Up 16-0 and poised from the two yard line to tack on another seven and put the game, essentially, out of reach, Brady threw across his body to the left corner of the end zone, getting nothing on the throw due to no follow through whatever, Weddle picked it off cleanly and started in motion a series of Patriots' gaffes that allowed the Ravens to stick around and Patriots' fans to reach for the Xanax...

So instead of going into the room at halftime down 23-0, the Ravens managed a field goal to trail just 16-3, then followed up on their good fortune by taking advantage of two Patriots' special teams turnovers in the second half to close the gap to just three points with just over six minutes to play in the game and the Patriots' offense in a scoreless funk.

Clearly, impetus was on the side of the Baltimore Ravens - but just when you think you've got the Patriots on the ropes, they seem to be able to flip a switch and shut down the other guys' momentum.

Against the Ravens on Monday night, flipping a switch meant calming down and just running the offense that prior to the trifecta of errors was pretty much moving up and down the field at will - and that is important to remember going forward. Without tight end Rob Gronkoswki, the Patriots' offense is forced into a dynamism that puts more players in a position to make more plays.

Two plays come to mind immediately that sets the template. The first was an intermediate crosser that James White, who was split wide and isolated on a linebacker, took for 66 yards right up the seam. Not only is that a release route that Gronkowski has run a thousand times - and that tight end Martellus Bennett ran to perfection in the game as well - but because the big man is not on the field, the free safety reduced down into the box to double the slot and Brady got White the ball on an angle that helped him run right past him...

...but on the play that turned out to be the gamer, a wide open Chris Hogan glided underneath a perfect Brady bomb at midfield and then engaged the thrusters, easily outracing a stunned Ravens' secondary to break the spell that the Patriots had induced on themselves in the blink of an eye, 79 yards up the seam as Hogan split the safeties, both biting on the play action and causing a full ten yards of separation.

Why did the play action have such a devastating impact? The Patriots' commitment to the running game has been a refreshing development since the start of the season, a very viable protection plan initially designed to shield the wet-behind-the-ears quarterbacking tandem of third-year clipboard holder Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett during Brady's four-game suspension.

But a curious thing happened along the way. The running game was so successful - 135 yards per game worth of successful, even given that the Patriots' opponents knew the run was coming - that head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels realized that they had a serious weapon on their hands and kept making it an integral part of the game plan for every game since.

And even though Brady returned in week five and has been playing at an All Pro level, it has been the threat of a running game that has helped along the way, the play action freezing linebackers and safeties alike, producing big plays and demoralizing opposing defenses - and the effect the running game has had on New England's offensive line can be directly attributed to this phenomenon... the line has allowed just one Brady sack in the last three games, and just twelve sacks total in the nine games he has started - a far cry from the absurd 42 times that the Greatest of All Time was sacked last season - that sack coming on one of Baltimore's 12 blitz's. For the game, the Ravens were able to only pressure Brady on 15 of his 39 dropbacks, and if one were to eliminate pressure off the blitz, it means that in standard pass rush instances, Brady was pressured just three times.

After Hogans' touchdown gave the Patriots a little breathing room with a ten-point lead, the defense held the Ravens to a field goal the rest of the way, and Blount did what Blount does, hammering out crucial yardage in the four-minute offense to close out games, a reality not lost on McDaniels.

"We feel like it is our (the offense's) responsibility to finish the game on offense with the ball by getting as many first downs as we need to get." McDaniels said in a conference call on Tuesday, adding, "We always talk about trying to be a tough football team, and I think there's no better measure of your toughness on offense that you ability to run the ball when the other team knows you're going to run it."

That toughness was front and center on the Patriots' final possession, as Blount picked up 18 of his 72 yards on four bruising carries, running over linebackers and safeties with collisions clearly audible above the din of the cheering crowd - encapsulating the resolve of a team that overcame a series of misfortune that would have buried just about any other team, but was taken as a challenge to the Patriots, who never back down from one.

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