The Ravens exploited the Patriots defense like only they could

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By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

If there's a silver lining to the Patriots defense getting arguably a failing grade on their first major test of 2019, it's that no other offense across the league can exploit them like the Ravens did on Sunday night.

No other team has Baltimore's combo of a mobile quarterback who can beat you with his arms and legs, excellent and cohesive offensive line play, effective power running, and three tight ends who can all take the field and catch a pass on any given play. The Patriots threw a variety of defensive packages at them with the full range of coverages, but it didn't matter early in the game and didn't matter enough late in the second half.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson made a few big plays, as he's become known to do. But more importantly, he protected the football and made good decisions as Baltimore re-adjusted to the Patriots' adjustments. From early in the second quarter until halfway through the third, it looked as if the Pats defense had settled in after allowing 10 points and 133 yards in the first quarter then a Mark Ingram 53-yard run and Gus Edwards touchdown on consecutive plays to start the second.

But once the Patriots clawed back to a 24-20 deficit, Jackson turned it back on and the Ravens' tight end depth took back over. The Patriots had found combinations in the front-seven that limited the run, but the Ravens simply went back to their tight ends in the passing game. Mark Andrews one-on-one against Terrence Brooks is a mismatch, and Jackson took advantage on a big third-and-5 conversion where Andrews high-pointed the ball over an unsuspecting Brooks and kept their drive alive.

Andrews and the Ravens' other big weapons, Ingram and Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, were mostly limited after the first quarter. So Jackson continued to move the ball with the other guys. He kept the drive zipping with a completion to Patrick Ricard, a combo fullback/defensive lineman who slipped into the flat uncovered and picked up eight yards before getting gang-tackled. Four plays later, the Ravens faced a fourth-and-4 and head coach John Harbaugh, who's made the most fourth-down attempts in the NFL this season, unsurprisingly went for it again. Jackson wisely looked the way of Willie Snead, who got way open after Jason McCourty got picked about four yards upfield.

From there, just about everything they'd tried throughout the game worked for the Ravens. Brown catches and runs for 16 yards after finding an opening in the Patriots' zones for a slant. Jackson keeps it and wiggles his way out of the pocket for an 11-yard run. And finally, the Patriots commit to covering the Ravens to the right but Jackson hits a wide-open Nick Boyle to the left, resulting in an easy touchdown and the moment the Ravens began to pull away for good.

Safety Devin McCourty credited the Ravens with forcing the Patriots' hand and dictating the game after getting rolling on the ground early.

“They were able to really run the ball, and because we struggled stopping the run, it pretty much gave them control of the game - possession, down-and-distance, they got to be comfortable all game,” said McCourty. “We got them in a couple of third-and-longs, we were able to get off the field. But for the majority of the game I think they were able to play on their own terms, and that’s what probably hurt us the most, just having control of the game.”

For the second straight week, the Patriots had problems stopping the run and got burned by two-tight end sets in the red zone. But there's maybe no better team in the league than the Ravens who have the personnel and coaching to exploit both of those deficiencies throughout a game. And if they get a performance like that out of Jackson with no turnovers and few glaring mistakes, they may be the hardest offense in the NFL to stop.

That doesn't mean the Pats won't shore up their areas of concern, or wouldn't find a way to get revenge on Jackson if these teams meet again in January. That game would still probably be in Foxboro. But it's clear now that the Patriots defense will play better against teams that rely more on their passing game and wide receivers.

Games loom against Deshaun Watson's Texans on the road, the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes back, and the Cowboys with their offensive line and running game. But do any of those teams have the combination that the Ravens possess? Considering the matchup problems on display Sunday night, it's fair to wonder if the Ravens offense has emerged as the biggest all-around challenge the Patriots defense will face.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].