Film review: Pecking away at the Ravens weak link

LaFell beat frequent Brady target Rashaan Melvin for the game winning touchdown. Elsa/Getty Images
There's no doubt that we witnessed a playoff classic last night. There are playoff games and there are "Patriots become the only team in NFL to overcome multiple 14 point deficits to win a playoff game, and do so against the hated Ravens, with Tom Brady breaking his boyhood idol Joe Montana's record for postseason passing TDs in the process" playoff games. When a game-long individual battle between Steve Smith and Darrelle Revis winds up being a footnote to the game story, you know it was an interesting contest.

Naturally such a back-and-forth affair had a number of intriguing X's and O's subplots within the game. I wrote extensively about Baltimore's tactical approaches in my scouting report prior to the game, where I noted that injuries had left the Ravens secondary as a potential weak spot to attack on defense.

I anticipated then that New England would try to force Baltimore into playing a lot of nickel by using their hurry up package featuring two tight ends (Tim Wright, Rob Gronkowski), two receivers (Brandon LeFell, Julian Edelman), with Shane Vereen in the backfield. While the Patriots did attempt to spread out the Ravens overmatched secondary, they chose to do so with a third receiver (Danny Amendola) rather than Wright. Amendola played a season high 37 snaps and rewarded the Pats faith in him by catching 5 of his 6 targets for 81 yards and two touchdowns, while Wright only played 3 snaps in the win.

Overall, the game plan was relatively simple on offense. Spread them out and dink and dunk Baltimore's soft zones to death, targeting some of the lesser players injuries had forced into the lineup. With a whopping six defensive backs already on injured reserve, the Ravens were low on options next to Ladarius Webb at corner. Starting next to Webb was Rashaan Melvin, a midseason pickup from the Dolphins practice squad. Slot cornerback duties were split between Matt Elam, a second year safety and 2013 first round pick who was benched earlier in the season for his poor play in coverage, and Anthony Levine, a safety known primarily for his special teams play.

Brady knew he'd have mismatches to exploit in the passing game, and he went to work on Saturday. Elam only managed 15 snaps (six in coverage) before getting benched, and it was easy to see why. Brady targeted Elam three times in his six snaps in coverage, completing two of them for 26 yards and a touchdown. Elam also missed two tackles in that brief span, including an ugly whiff on Danny Amendola's game-tying second quarter touchdown. Replacing Elam with Levine as least made the slot somewhat competitive again, as Levine allowed 3 catches for only 28 yards in his 24 snaps.

The real target of Brady's wrath was Melvin, the former Dolphin turned surprise starter. Brady essentially ignored Webb, targeting the veteran star only four times all game. Instead, Brady ruthlessly went to work on the unproven Melvin, targeting him a whopping 19 times. The results? 15 completions (78.9%) for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. Those included the two biggest plays of the game: Julian Edelman's 51 yard bomb to Danny Amendola, and Brandon LeFell's 23 yard game-winning touchdown.

Quite simply, Brady picked on Melvin no matter who he was covering. Baltimore kept Melvin on the right side of the field, allowing the Patriots to mix and match their personnel to get whatever matchup they wanted on him. As a result, Edelman, Amendola, LeFell, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Michael Hoomanawanui all had at least two catches against his coverage, and Gronkowski, LeFell and Amendola each had over 50 yards against him.

Need further evidence of just how much "attack #38" was part of the game plan? Brady attempted 21 passes to his left, the side of the field Melvin was manning, and only 5 to the right side patrolled by Webb. When throwing to the left, Brady/Edelman completed 18 of 22 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns. When throwing to the right, Brady completed only 2 of 5 passes for a mere 19 yards.

However, Melvin wasn't helped by the amount of soft zones the Ravens ran. At 6'2" and 193 pounds, Melvin has desirable size and length for a corner, and is built to play physical, press-man coverage. However, Baltimore clearly didn't have enough trust in their secondary to man up, and often had the defensive backs giving sizable pre-snap cushions to Brady's receivers.

Vereen utilized Melvin's 10 yard cushion here for a 14 yard gain

Brady took advantage of the big cushions allowed on this 2nd-and-8 play, hitting Amendola for a 7 yard out
Lefell (outside LWR) took advantage of the cushion on this play, getting an easy 11 yard catch for another first down
That worked right into New England's favor. Brady has spent the past few years feasting on the high-efficiency, short passing game. With Baltimore conceding that much space pre-snap to the Patriots receivers, those quick-hitting routes often became easy completions. 33 of Brady's passes traveled less than nine yards past the line of scrimmage, with the quarterback completing a ridiculous 28 of those (84.8%) for 233 yards.

The sheer volume of those short passes also paid dividends on the aforementioned two biggest plays of the game. Edelman's touchdown pass was such an effective play because the set up looked exactly like one of the quick WR screens that have been a staple of the Patriots playbook for years, right down to the presence of Rob Gronkowski out in front as a blocker. Edelman with the ball in open space with Gronk as a lead blocker is bad news for any defense, and Melvin made the read to come up hard in "run" support before even processing that Amendola had sprinted past him.

As you can see, the action was very effective in drawing the attention of Baltimore's safeties. Will Hill has already charged upfield in run support, while backside safety Darian Stewart has also taken a few steps towards Edelman. Neither is in position to defend the play if Amendola gets behind Melvin, which is about to happen because Melvin is peeking into the backfield at Edelman as well. All that's left to complete the play is execution, and Edelman's throw hits the wide-open Amendola in stride. A brilliant play that was dialed up at the perfect time.

On LeFell's touchdown, Melvin attempts to play tight coverage up on the line of scrimmage, anticipating more of the short stuff that Brady had been killing him with all game. Instead, LeFell easily beats him to the outside and goes vertical. Melvin does a good job of using his length to at least contest the throw, but Brady drops a dime into LeFell's breadbasket for the go-ahead score.

A final benefit to New England's short-passing approach was that it helped negate what everyone (myself included) was the mismatch that could swing the game: Baltimore's pass rush against New England's inconsistent offensive line. The Patriots were far from perfect up front on Saturday, but Brady's ability to get the ball out quickly limited how long the line needed to hold up in protection, something that clearly benefited a line that was reshuffled once again when starting center Bryan Stork was forced out with a knee injury.

The scheme helped, but the players on the line deserve credit for executing against a tough opponent. The gamble to New England's spread-it-out approach was allowing Brady to spend the majority of the game with just five in protection. This meant Sebastien Vollmer and Nate Solder had to deal with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs without help for most of the game, a challenge that both stepped up and met. Dumervil was practically invisible, managing just a measly two hurries, and while Suggs made a few plays, he was far from the dominant wreaking ball that he's been in past matchups between these teams. New England's entire game plan falls apart if the line is unable to hold up by itself in protection, and the ability of their tackles to hold up despite two very tough assignments was key for the offense.

Josh Kline also deserves some credit, as the second year guard was thrown back into the fire after Stork's injury. The last time we saw Kline, he was getting his lunch money taken on the field by the Jets Sheldon Richardson, but the Kent State product held his own on Sunday, giving up a mere hit and hurry in his 35 pass blocking snaps. The Pats may need Kline to continue to step up if Stork's injury proves serious enough to keep the rookie out for multiple weeks, as Kline appears to be the best of an uninspiring group of options to fill in at right guard when Ryan Wendell moves to center.

Interesting as it was, this game plan was just the latest example of the Patriots coaching staff putting it's players in the best position to succeed. New England is notorious for morphing week-to-week, adjusting their schematic approach to contend with their opponent's strengths and attack their weaknesses. Why waste valuable downs trying to run into the brick wall that is the Ravens front when Rashaan Melvin and Matt Elam are there for the taking in coverage?

Simply ignoring the run isn't going to be a winning tactic against many opponents, and it almost certainly won't be the game plan this week against the Colts. However, against opposition as daunting as Baltimore's defense, it's imperative to create and exploit whatever advantageous you can generate. The Patriots found Baltimore's weak-link and attacked it from start to finish, and their success in exploiting Baltimore's secondary depth was the difference in the game.

Other notes:

  • The Patriots short passing game calls for players who can create yards after the catch, and any open field runner is more effective when good blocking in front of them. That often means good blocking from the receivers on the outside, a skill that Bill Belichick clearly values when evaluating that position. Belichick has talked before about how size and physicality as a blocker was one of the things that attracted the team to free agent Brandon LeFell this offseason, and LeFell showed up big on Danny Amendola's first touchdown. Amendola does a nice job breaking the tackle of Elam, but he doesn't get to the end zone without a great block by LeFell on Melvin. Edelman also showed up in this department, throwing a key block on safety Darian Stewart to make Tom Brady's early touchdown run possible. 
  • Speaking of blocking from receivers, Steve Smith Sr. was an animal all game. While he was largely held in check by Darrelle Revis after a few early plays, Smith was throwing his body around looking to punish Patriots defenders all game as a blocker. You don't have to like him, but you have to respect the tenacity Smith plays with, and it was on full display this game.
  • One lingering concern for this team should be ball security, as the Pats were very fortunate that Brady's second quarter interception was their only turnover of the night. The Pats recovered fumbles by Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and had a Shane Vereen fumble overturned by replay. Any one of those plays swinging the other way could have widened Baltimore's early lead and made it much more difficult for the Pats to come back. Give Edelman credit for enduring god-knows-what at the bottom of that pile to redeem himself and recover his own fumble despite being surrounded by four much larger Ravens on the play.
  • One of Baltimore's most dangerous X factors is return man Jacoby Jones, who is a threat to break a big play whenever he touches the ball. With the cold making it too difficult to simply avoid Jones with touchbacks, Stephen Gostkowski adjusted by emphasizing hang-time over distance, giving the coverage team extra time to get down the field and gum up whatever space Jones would have to work with. The approach worked, as Jones was held to 24.7 yards per return with a long of just 29, both figures below his regular season average of 30 yards a pop. The Pats did an even better job with their punt coverage, smothering Jones for just 6.7 yards per punt return.
  • An interesting note on the "deceptive" formations New England ran to drive John Harbaugh and his defense crazy. The unconventional tactic of keeping an ineligible receiver in the slot obviously created enough confusion on it's own, but the Patriots maximized the tactic's chances of success by factoring in their own personnel tendencies. Vereen sees plenty of snaps split out into the slot, as he was on two of those plays, and Vereen stepping back as he did on the play mimicked the quick-hitting, swing-out passes that are staple of the Patriots offense. Look at how the action sucks in Terrell Suggs, who apparently misunderstood the referee's clear call that #34 is inelgible"

    Michael Hoomanawanui was out of place as an eligible receiving "left tackle", but it wasn't a strange sight to defenders to see #47 on the end of the line as a blocker. Hoomanawanui has spent 354 of his 480 snaps this season in as a blocker and only had three receptions on five targets during the regular season. It's not surprising that the Baltimore defense paid more attention to Vereen than Hoomanawanui when scrambling to identify coverage assignments.