By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
While continuing to battle injuries, the Patriots found a way to make things work personnel-wise against the X's and O's juggernaut that is the Baltimore Ravens.
The main adjustment was an increase in playing time for younger players. While players being inactive or on IR may have forced Bill Belichick's hand into some of the moves he'd been hesitant to make in recent weeks, once put in place they worked out advantageously.
We'll get into a few positions where this happened, but first here are the full snap counts from Sunday night:
For the first time in his career, Damien Harris was the true feature back. On Sunday night, he received more snaps than Rex Burkhead and James White combined, and rewarded the coach's trust with a career-high 121 yards.
Harris had a much more versatile assignment than usual. In past weeks, Harris has gotten the ball more often than not when he's on the field, like when he had 16 carries on 20 downs played against Buffalo. He was handed the ball on 22 of his 32 snaps against the Ravens, a signal that the team has building faith in his pass protection ability.
Keep in mind Harris was dealing with a pair of injuries in the game, both a long-standing ankle issue and a chest injury that knocked him out of the game last week. The fact that Harris was healthy enough to perform the way he did is going to lead to a very interesting decision for the Patriots' coach staff in the coming days.
Harris assumed the main running back role in early October, when Sony Michel went on IR with a quad injury. Michel began practicing again the first week of November, meaning the team has until the 26th to officially activate him, or he will be out for the year. How will the team balance Michel's return with Harris' emergence. They can only keep the 2018 first-round pick in roster limbo for one more week before they end up between a rock and a hard place.
Will Michel find a smaller role upon return, despite running well before the injury? Or will Damien Harris wind up back where he was in 2019, buried on the depth chart? Having multiple options at a position isn't necessarily a bad problem to have in the NFL, but given how the Patriots rely on the running game this year, how they handle it will be key going forward.
After a few rough performances against the run and the loss of defensive tackle Beau Allen for the season, many were worried what the Patriots were doing to do in the middle of their defensive line. Sunday's matchup against a ground and pound Ravens team was circled as the prime example of a game that could exploit that weakness.
Instead, the Patriots used their versatility up front to counter the Ravens' aggressive nature. 6-foot-5, 320 pound Carl Davis who was signed two weeks ago as a possible nose tackle replacement, was used early on to anchor the defensive line. On each side of him were hybrid tackle/ends Lawrence Guy and Byron Cowart.
Later in the game, when the Ravens were more likely to throw, the Patriots replaced Davis with Adam Butler, and shifted Guy to the middle. Guy played 53 percent of the teams snaps, and was effective, despite dealing with elbow, shoulder, and knee injuries.
By staying big up front and moving their usual defensive ends back to linebacker (more on that in a second), the Patriots forced Baltimore to play bully ball in slippery conditions, something they were not prepared to do.
With this performance in the books, and the addition of waiver pickup Isaiah Mack still pending, the stock is rising quickly on the Patriots' defensive line.
After weeks of keeping their young edge rushers and linebackers on the bench, the Patriots got the group involved on Sunday, and in a big way.
Chase Winovich (along with John Simon) was moved back to a more traditional outside linebacker role. Whereas the two usually play in a three point stance, both were standing off the ball Sunday night, with Winovich really roving around the formation. Early on, they had him coming off both edges, and even taking a few snaps at middle linebacker next to Terez Hall. In total, Winovich was on the field for all but one snap against the Ravens. His 98-percent usage rate vastly surpassed his previous season high of 75 percent against Seattle.
While Winovich played nearly wire-to-wire, the Patriots spelled John Simon with Deatrich Wise and rookie Josh Uche. Based on past games, those snaps likely would have gone to Shilique Calhoun, but he was placed on IR on Saturday.
Uche game up with a big play late in the first half, sacking Lamar Jackson on the first play of a one-minute drill. Later in the game, he saw some snaps at MIKE linebacker, subbing in for Hall. Between Winovich and Uche playing somewhat out of position at middle linebacker, and Hall playing in just his second NFL game, their performance may have been the surprise of the night, and another example of versatility paying off for the Patriots.
Overall, this game saw the Patriots break a number of trends in their front seven that seemed to be a long time coming. Bill Belichick's hesitation to play younger players was put to the side as injuries and the opponent's scheme forced his hand. Will we see a similar personnel approach as the Patriots move beyond the Ravens and veterans get healthy? That's the question of the week as we look ahead to a matchup with the Houston Texans.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].