We love identifying football "blueprints." The Patriots seem to have had a "blueprint" for beating Cover 3 defenses over the years. They borrowed from other defenses and helped establish the "blueprint" for how to deal with the Rams offense in Super Bowl 53.
So would what the Patriots did to the Ravens qualify as a "blueprint" for dealing with the other mobile quarterbacks left on their schedule? They have Deshaun Watson and the Texans coming up this weekend. In Week 12, they host Kyler Murray and the Cardinals.
The answer is a definitive . . . maybe?
The Patriots are a game-plan team on both sides of the ball. Whatever is in the best interests of the team, Bill Belichick will tell you, they'll draw up. Each week there will be intricacies to deal with the skill sets of individual players on a given roster, personnel packages a coach prefers and schemes a team likes to run. The Patriots have to be ready to adjust to those.
Baltimore and Houston are very different teams, but against the Ravens, Belichick and his assistants may have found a basic formula that could help them this weekend against Houston.
First? Get speed on the field.
The Ravens have built a track team around the fastest quarterback in the NFL, and while Watson isn't quite the same kind of runner that Jackson is, the Texans are similarly quick offensively.
Will Fuller is among the fastest receivers in the NFL, and former Patriots wideout Brandin Cooks long was in the conversation. Kenny Stills ran a blazing 4.38-second 40 at the combine back in 2013. They can fly.
The Patriots would be wise to approach the matchup with the Texans as they did their matchup with the Ravens.
Against Baltimore, six of their top eight defenders in terms of snap counts were defensive backs. They turned to a new-look "big nickel" package -- what used to feature Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung -- with McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. In his first start as a pro, Dugger played a season-high 56 snaps and finished with a team-leading 12 tackles.
The Patriots also deployed their nickel corner -- and one of their fastest players -- Jonathan Jones quite a bit in various roles, including as a free defender who could track down Jackson during scrambles -- as the Ravens were forced to get away from some of their heavier personnel groupings (due to injury and to the fact that they were playing from behind).
The Patriots also got a little faster at the second level by using Chase Winovich as an off-the-ball linebacker for a significant portion of the game. His athleticism stood out as he flowed sideline-to-sideline, something inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo pointed out after the game.
"I think first and foremost," Mayo said when asked why Winovich could make the move off the line, "it starts with being a good athlete. Chase can run. He can tackle. He hustles on each and every play. His motor is one of his key attributes."
Having faster players at the second and third levels of the field should help in Houston, not only for obvious coverage-related reasons, but because of where the Texans are most effective in the run game. Houston averages just 3.9 yards per carry this season (26th in the league), but according to Sharp Football they average 5.1 yards per carry around the left edge (beyond the "C" gap off left tackle) and 5.7 yards per carry around the right edge. Of their 21 explosive runs this year, 10 came on runs around the edges.
The Ravens were even more explosive around the edge going into last weekend's game. They averaged 7.2 yards per attempt around the left edge and 6.9 yards per attempt around the right edge. They also averaged better than 4.0 yards per carry off tackle.
The Patriots had their issues protecting the edges against the run earlier this season, but had a plan specifically designed to slow those down against Baltimore that worked wonders. On early downs, they used a 3-3 front-six with three linemen and three linebackers that was then flanked on either side by edge-setting, contact-loving safeties Phillips and Dugger (and Jones occasionally). When runs spilled to the outside, those hybrid safety-linebacker types were ready to turn the play back inside as interior defenders pursued to swallow-up ball-carriers.
"Any time you have defensive backs who are good tacklers who can also come up and force the run, it kind of takes a little bit of the pressure off the interior of the defense," Mayo explained. "You look at our defense as a whole, we just gotta continue to get better on the edge. Having a guy like Dugg and some of those defensive backs on the outside, it definitely turns the ball back into the teeth of the defense. It's good to have those bigger bodies out there."
If the Patriots can slow down Houston's edge runs, borrowing from the plan they used against Baltimore, their meager rushing attack just might vanish altogether and make the Texans more one-dimensional.
The Texans are a different team with a different scheme when compared to Baltimore. They have a more accurate quarterback and a better complement of passing-game weapons so they don't run the football nearly as often on first down (42 percent) as the Ravens (64 percent). The Patriots likely won't want to play quite as much zone as they did against Jackson -- they were a heavy zone team on first and second down against Baltimore -- allowing Watson to find open space for his receivers to have catch-and-run opportunities.
The Texans aren't as likely to use two-back and two-tight end groupings as the Ravens on first and second downs -- Baltimore uses three-receiver sets less than half the time whereas Houston is in 11 personnel on 61 percent of those plays.
And the Texans don't have the same kind of running threat playing behind center. Watson averages about five carries and 25 yards per game rushing to Jackson's about 10 carries and 60 yards per game.
But Watson leads the league in quarterback non-designed scrambles (33), per Pro Football Focus, and when the Texans run what they want to run, they have the most success around the edges.
By getting more speed on the field, to chase sideline to sideline and spy the quarterback -- as they did against Baltimore -- they'll be better off.
By setting edges with their hybrid safeties -- as they did against Baltimore -- the Patriots may give themselves a better shot to run their winning streak to three.
Then against the Cardinals and their game-breaking running threat at quarterback the following week, a plan that may look even more similar to Belichick's Ravens plan might be in order.
What the Patriots found against Baltimore might not necessarily be a "blueprint" for them moving forward. But it was evidence that they can deploy faster personnel and succeed, that they can set an edge when they want to.
They'll need to do both the next few weeks.