…DE Trey Flowers' sack of QB Joe Flacco on the first Ravens drive came on 3rd-and-6 and with Flowers playing in a nose tackle position, rather than on the edge, where he normally lines up. At the snap, he engaged the Ravens' center, while LB Dont'a Hightower shot the A-gap between the center and left guard. DE Chris Long occupied the left tackle. This created a gaping alley up the middle, and Flowers took it after he tossed aside the center. It appeared that Flowers stripped Flacco of the ball while he was dragging the QB down, but referee Ed Hochuli ruled that Flacco was "in the grasp" beforehand and thus, the play was dead at that point. Baltimore punted, setting up the first of a couple brilliant Patriots special teams plays in this quarter.
…We don't normally examine special teams plays, but we'll start with a dandy, courtesy undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones. On New England's second series, their second three-and-out of the night, Ryan Allen hung a high kick that dropped around the Ravens' 15-yard line. Baltimore's return man signaled for a fair catch and had plenty of room to make it, but at the last second decided to step aside and let the ball hit the turf.
Co-captain Matthew Slater was the closest Patriot to the ball, just a few yards behind where it landed. Slater was the gunner on that near side of the field, so, it's not surprising that he got there first. Meanwhile, Jones, the gunner on the right (far) side, had gotten great position on the inside of the Baltimore vice guy and came racing in to assist. He was at least six or seven yards away from the ball, but because he was still running full-speed, while Slater had held up so as not to strike the return man and incur a penalty, Jones was able to beat Slater to the bouncing football. At around the 1-yard line, Jones dove and with two hands, shoveled the ball back toward Slater, who was trailing and in the perfect place to collect the ball and down it at the 1. Fantastic effort by Jones to make it all the way across the field in the first place, then to control his body to keep the ball in play.
…That, of course, led directly to the first points of the night. On the very next play, Baltimore tried to run out of its own end zone. After the Ravens o-line and QB Joe Flacco made their pre-snap blocking calls, the Patriots front seven made a quick adjustment, realigning a few players at the line of scrimmage. This might have caused some confusion when Flacco snapped the ball, because DT Malcom Brown wound up being blocked by FB Kyle Juszczyk, rather than an o-lineman. Brown overpowered the smaller blocker and stuffed RB Kenneth Dixon in the end zone. A couple other Patriots swooped in to assist and make sure Dixon didn't escape.
…Another big special teams play to examine: Shea McClellin's blocked field goal. He was the middle linebacker on the Patriots' block team as Justin Tucker set up for a would-be 34-yard attempt. He had a clear path a few yards in front of Baltimore's long snapper (NFL rules now dictate that you can't line defenders up directly on the long snapper). McClellin timed his run up to the line of scrimmage just as holder Sam Koch signaled for the ball to be snapped. McClellin leapt over LS Morgan Cox right as he snapped the ball, never making contact with the player, because if he had, that would have been a penalty.
As soon as he hit the turf with both feet, McClellin sprang up again to throw his body in front of Tucker's kick. He swallowed up the ball and kept the Ravens off the scoreboard for the moment.
If the play looked familiar, it's because former Patriots LB Jamie Collins did the same thing on an extra point attempt last season at Indianapolis. After the game, McClellin told me he was approached by the coaching staff, who felt he was best suited to replicate the Collins play. McClellin recalled watching Collins perform the feat on television that night, and has been studying film of the Ravens special teams units so that he could work on his timing for the jump-block. Tremendous job.
…Rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell's latest touchdown was a simple route – a short in-pattern from the 6-yard line – but it came when the Ravens decided to blitz, which opened up a space for him right at the goal line. He got in front of the defender, who had no chance at making a play on the ball. Fairly easy result.
…Safety Devin McCourty's interception on a deep Flacco pass was little more than McCourty putting himself in the proper position. He and Patrick Chung were playing a double zone in defensive backfield and Flacco's pass was on target to intended receiver Mike Wallace. Problem for him was, McCourty beat him to the spot of the ball as it reached the ground.
…Didn't at all like the play-calling by OC Josh McDaniels on the ensuing Patriots possession when they got into a 1st-and-goal at the Ravens' 2. I would've liked to see them pound LeGarrette Blount, even if he only gained a yard each time, they'd have had a few chances to get in the end zone. Instead, they ran with the smaller James White, who lost two yards, then they threw two consecutive passes from spread formations. If the Patriots were looking to throw, a play-action pass out of a run formation would have been my preference.
Instead, on third down, Brady forced a pass into the end zone when no one was open and it was picked by safety Eric Weddle. Perhaps a case of overthinking the obvious. This series could have put New England ahead 23-0; instead, they saw a 10-point swing in the other direction when Baltimore chipped away with a field goal just before halftime.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…Much like Flacco's INT earlier, Tom Brady's TD throw to TE Martellus Bennett was an on-target throw with a defender in great position, but Bennett made the better play on the ball and simply outmuscled the smaller defender, LB Zachary Orr, as the two men fell to the turf with the ball.
..Obviously when the Ravens punted on their next possession, rookie return man Cyrus Jones made a horrible mistake by approaching the ball when he'd already decided not to field it. He got dangerously close and it cost him by hitting his foot. Baltimore recovered inside the Patriots' 5 and had the makings of a comeback within reach. No excuse for that poor decision by Jones. He needs to know better and keep himself away from potential disasters like this.
…The Ravens scored quickly with a simple stack formation of three receivers to the right of the formation. One of them, TE Darren Waller, slipped into a hole in the back of the Patriots end zone and Flacco found him. Nothing at all complicated about the execution of this play.
…A Slater fumble on the ensuing kickoff was just poor ball security by him. He only had one hand on the ball as he plowed into two Ravens coverage men.
…When the Ravens again got into goal-to-go because of that turnover, it looked like either Dont'a Hightower or McCourty was supposed to have responsibility for the back flaring out of the backfield, Dixon. Neither man followed him, however, leaving the responsibility to deep safety Chung, who had to come from way behind the play in the middle of the field and had no chance of catching up to Dixon, who caught the dump pass in the flat and waltzed into the end zone.
…WR Chris Hogan's play of the game was his wide-open 79-yard touchdown catch. Baltimore was playing a zone defense, and it appeared that Weddle was playing too far to the other side of the field as the lone deep safety. The other Ravens defenders seemingly just stood around and watched while Hogan raced past them, unsure who might be in the best position to mark him.
Afterward, Hogan revealed that he had an option to run either a corner route or a go on that play, and that he and Brady read the defense the same way. This was crucial, because if Brady had read the corner route, he'd have thrown to a spot where Hogan wasn't and the pass might've been picked off by Baltimore. Instead, it clinched the win.