Through eight games, the 2019 New England Patriots defense was making its case to be considered among the best defenses of all time. Through nine games, most people would probably scoff at the notion.
That isn't to say it's not a good unit, because they certainly are. But the talk of putting them beside the 2000 Ravens and 1985 Bears should dissipate after this year's Ravens took the Pats D to task on Sunday night, scoring 30 offenisve points after New England's unit had given up an average of 7.6 points per game to this point. They were especially vulnerable on the ground as the combination of Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram ran for a combined 176 yards, and as a whole Baltimore ran for 210.
We've caught glimpses of it before, but this was the first real sign that this New England defense has exploitable weaknesses-- teams can take advantage of them by stretching the field horizontally and pounding the rock. For all of the talent, they're really lacking in two areas: big bodies up front and elite athleticism (with the exception of Jamie Collins).
Unlike other top-tier defenses like the Niners or the Bears, the Patriots have built an elite unit with savvy, skilled veterans who are almost always where they need to be, when they need to be there. Stephon Gilmore is a good individual example of what the defense tries to accomplish as a whole. He's the best corner in the league, but not because he possesses a lethal combination of size, speed, and strength. He has enough of those traits to hang with all sorts of receivers, but the reason his assignments rarely get targeted is because he combines his athleticism with a deep understanding of what the offense is trying to do and what his teammates are doing around him. That works much of the time, obviously, but the Ravens knew they could beat him if they managed to get the ball to Marquise Brown while he was sprinting from sideline to sideline.
Even with how good Gilmore and the rest of the secondary has been, there's a very strong argument that the strength of this defense is the linebacking core. Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Dont'a Hightower range from very good to great regularly, and Elandon Roberts, John Simon, Ju'Whaun Bentley, and Chase Winovich help complement the starters' all-around skillsets quite nicely. The downside to carrying all those linebackers in tandem with a deep secondary is that depth at another position had to be sacrificed-- in this case, the defensive line.
Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, and Adam Butler are the only defensive linemen regularly in the rotation on any given Sunday. Last night, the Patriots chose to stick with only three down linemen and kept Collins and Van Noy on the edges as an effort to counteract the sideline-to-sideline speed that the Ravens possess-- which goes back to the advantage in athleticism Baltimore had all night.
And it kind of worked! Jackson only had 61 yards rushing on 16 carries. The problem was that Baltimore's offensive line was dominating the interior of the defense. Butler is more of a pass-rushing DT, so Shelton and Guy were essentially left on their own to try to hold down the middle of the line. It did not work, and Ingram finished the game with 115 yards on 15 carries. The line paved the way with some massive gaps that even I probably could've run through. It was clinical.
Not every team possesses both the athleticism, scheme, and interior power to take advantage of these weaknesses. Honestly, there might not be another team who can gash the Patriots like Jackson and Co. just did. It wasn't wire-to-wire domination, either, as Baltimore struggled to get much going in the middle third of the game. But if teams are looking for a blueprint on how to pick apart this vaulted Belichick defense, this game tape is where to start.