FOXBORO — Bill Belichick knows it's coming. He might not know exactly how or when. But he knows it's coming.
There's going to be a play or two or more that pop up over the course of a given game that his team has seen before — a play that maybe his team has had trouble defending in the past. And Belichick knows they'll have to be ready for it.
"We see, I would say, copycat plays every week," Belichick told WEEI's "Ordway, Merloni and Fauria" program this week. "Some teams are more of a copycat team than another. Some teams will just kind of stick to their system. Everybody does that to a degree. There are some plays that are repeat plays from an earlier game. Not necessarily the last game but an earlier game in the season if it's something similar to what they do or they feel they can do."
It happened during New England's loss to Houston over the weekend.
Given that the Patriots defense has been one of the best in football throughout the season, there likely haven't been many plays for offensive coordinators to point to and scream gleefully, "THAT'LL WORK AGAINST THE PATRIOTS!"
But one of those looks availed itself in the Patriots' loss to Baltimore back in Week 9. It was a relatively rare formation that the Ravens were able to run with a rare talent at quarterback in Lamar Jackson. The Texans must've perked up when they saw it help the Ravens run through Belichick's defense on film.
Interesting stuff from Bill O’Brien here. The Texans borrowed from Baltimore to get one of their touchdowns last night.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 2, 2019
Borrowed... then added.
Check out this first-quarter play from the Ravens game. Pistol. Three TEs. Read option run to the weak side. Ingram gets 14 yards. pic.twitter.com/4XIn2zgQS7
The Ravens ran out of the Pistol — with a running back aligned behind a quarterback in the shotgun. They also used an inverted wishbone look with two tight ends aligned as fullbacks and one tight end as an in-line player on the end of the line of scrimmage.
They used it successfully on multiple occasions that night in Baltimore.
Later in the first quarter of the Ravens game. Same look.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 2, 2019
Pistol. Three TEs. Read option run. This time Jackson keeps it for another chunk gain. pic.twitter.com/qZDFw1WmlT
Not every team would be able to execute a similar style of play. First and foremost, most teams don't have a quarterback with great mobility to be able to carry out the option (or option fake) the way Jackson did for the Ravens.
Houston's Deshaun Watson isn't all that far off as an athlete, though. And the Texans, like the Ravens, had three tight ends to run out there for that 13-personnel (one back, three tight ends) grouping.
Now flash forward to Sunday night against the Texans.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 2, 2019
Patriots see the same look on the second play of Houston’s second drive. Pistol. Three TEs. Read option run to the weak side. Looks like the Ingram play from Week 9.
Patriots defend it well. Only a three-yard gain. pic.twitter.com/t1Cqa3FLJc
The Patriots handled that copycat play well the first time around. They limited Texans running back Carlos Hyde to a gain of three. It was much better than when Baltimore's Mark Ingram ran for 14 on the same play the month before.
But then the Texans threw a wrinkle into the Ravens look. They faked the inside handoff. But not for Watson to run, as Jackson did in Week 9. They faked the handoff for Watson to keep . . . then throw.
That was an adjustment off the copycat play that the Patriots hadn't yet seen.
Now here’s the Texans wrinkle...— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 2, 2019
Patriots have seen backs take it from this look. Have seen a quarterback keep. This time, Watson keeps it — but to throw.
Patriots have the Hyde run covered. They have the Watson run covered. They don’t have the TE covered. Touchdown.
"That showed up [Sunday] night," Belichick told WEEI when asked about the Texans borrowing from Baltimore.
"That's been showing up all year though, and it's certainly shown up in the past. It's not uncommon at all. That's what a lot of offensive coaches will do. They'll take things that are successful — either plays or concepts — and if it matches up with their personnel and the way they want to attack you, sure. You'll see those again."
The question is whether or not there are other teams who can take these Baltimore-style looks and add them to their plans for attacking the Patriots defense moving forward. Specifically, do they have the personnel?
The next team on the Patriots schedule, Kansas City, has an athletic quarterback (who dealt with a bad knee earlier this year), Patrick Mahomes. In theory, he could do something similar. But the Chiefs might not have the beef required at tight end to pull it off. They have fullback Anthony Sherman. They have a blocking tight end in Blake Bell. But star tight end Travis Kelce is closer to a big receiver than a true dual-threat (receiving and blocking) tight end so it may prove difficult for the Chiefs.
The Bills are the other team on New England's schedule with a mobile quarterback, Josh Allen. They also have three capable blockers at tight end in Lee Smith, Dawson Knox and Tyler Kroft. Additionally, Buffalo has an offensive coordinator that knows the Patriots intimately in former Belichick assistant Brian Daboll. It would come as little surprise if what the Ravens used against the Patriots — and what the Texans sprung on them — pops up again in Week 16 at Gillette Stadium for an important AFC East showdown.
"That's why it's so important to watch the film after the game, to correct the mistakes, to go through what happened in the game," Belichick said, "so if they do come back up again, at least you've got an understanding of how you want to handle those situations.
"Sometimes those things reappear. Sometimes they don't. Hopefully if you anticipate it's going to be a problem going forward, that's what you do. There was some of that in the [Texans] game. I wouldn't say an inordinate amount. Certainly the running game had a lot of elements to the Baltimore running game, but that really wasn't a big problem in the game. The bigger problem for us was second down."
Belichick was right about that. The Patriots largely had the Houston running game swallowed up Sunday, allowing fewer than 3.0 yards per carry.
But in tight conference games late in the season, the difference can be one play, and the Texans got the Patriots for one crucial touchdown that helped them win it — thanks to a little help from Baltimore. And now the Ravens control their own destiny as the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
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