NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
He’s been a special-teamer. He’s been a dimeback. He’s been a nickelback. He’s been a cornerback. And while his role in Foxborough began as a minute one, Logan Ryan’s rise as a playmaker has been anything but.
After recording three tackles through his first six NFL games, the New England Patriots third-round pick broke out on a 79-yard interception returned for a touchdown versus the New York Jets in Week 7. A week later, he added 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in just one half of play against the Miami Dolphins.
That nose for the football has followed Ryan through the final stretch of the 2013 campaign. In many ways, though, Ryan has followed it.
Over the rookie’s 359 defensive snaps since Oct. 27 – per Pro Football Focus – the Scarlet Knight has amassed an additional four interceptions and six pass deflections. But few were more pivotal than the handful that came in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens.
Under the lights of M&T Bank Stadium, the ascension of No. 26 swayed the final score.
It took three plays.
First Quarter, 8:28 – Volleyed Pick
The Patriots struck first with a goal-line touchdown from running back LeGarrette Blount at the 9:45 mark in the opening quarter. But the Ravens responded by stringing together 12 yards on the initial two plays of the ensuing drive.
On the third play, spotted at the Baltimore 32, quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens employed “11” personnel. Change-of-pace tailback Bernard Pierce stood behind Flacco in shotgun, and tight end Ed Dickson lined up off-tackle.
Out right, “X” receiver Torrey Smith leaned in for a post route, while slot target Marlon Brown stepped in for a quick pivot to the flat. Out left, “Z” receiver Jacoby Jones readied for a deep crossing pattern.
Baltimore was gearing up for a play-action pass; one designed to mesh the middle of the field and catch the Patriots secondary biting the handoff and conflicting routes.
New England’s defense countered with a 4-2 nickel. The line prepped for a four-man rush, just as linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower prepped to retreat in zone coverage. The safeties manned a high-low zone, with Devin McCourty dropping into centerfield and Steve Gregory stepping in to read the tight end and halfback.
At the cornerback position, left corner Aqib Talib assumed press-bail technique on Smith, as did slot corner Kyle Arrington on Brown and Ryan on Jones.
The off-guarding would afford the Baltimore wideouts free releases. It would be up to the Patriots’ downfield zone to pick up the slack.
As Flacco handled the snap and extended the ball to Pierce, the Baltimore receivers crossed the line of scrimmage without conflict.
Jones angled inside of Ryan out left. The 5’11”, 195-pound defensive back tightened his stance and lead with his left foot to trace.
Flacco hung on to the ball through the exchange, turning back to assess his reads. He saw Smith drawing the attention of both Talib and McCourty. He saw Brown well-defended by Arrington.
He did, however, see Jones encroaching space down the right sideline. The shifty returner and pass-catcher was a pace ahead of Ryan and behind the eyes of Hightower.
Flacco rifled a pass into Jones’ vicinity.
Yet while Hightower was playing the lane and not the seven-year pro, his eyes were in the right place. The 2012 first-rounder identified the throw and left his feet to contest it.
At his apex, Hightower’s hands connected with the ball. He redirected it up into the air.
That afforded Ryan a split second to gain ground on Jones, whose long strides and momentum carried him towards the boundary. Ryan right foot bent in front of his left as he readied to eclipse the intended receiver.
Hightower’s deflection had flailed the ball downward past the 50-yard line.
Ryan watched it transpire and boxed out his assignment to inhale it. He was able to do so, kneeling with his palms up.
Hightower’s help and Ryan’s reaction gave the ball back to New England at the far 47. And seven plays later, the Patriots parlayed the heads-up turnover into 14-point advantage on a four-yard pass to receiving back Shane Vereen.
Third Quarter, 12:23 – Fourth-Down Knockdown
New England tacked on a field goal before halftime, but Baltimore fielded the ball to begin the second half. And after traveling 41 yards on six snaps, the Ravens offense was in shouting distance at the Patriots’ 39.
It was 4th-and-3.
With six fourth-down conversions on 11 attempts heading into the Dec. 22 tilt, Baltimore aimed for the pass with an “11” grouping. Within it, Pierce flanked Flacco in the gun for a short route to the flat, and tight end Dennis Pitta split for a short curl out left.
Among the trio of wide receivers, Jones stood beside Pitta for an out route, Smith stood on the right hashes for a post/dig variation, and Brown stood to his right for a quick slant.
The concept would test the integrity of New England’s defense with two deep routes and three succinct routes in the foreground. If the coverage was stretched too thin, Flacco would be in good seating to find the void.
The Patriots combatted that possibility with a Cover-2 nickel package that would concede the short pass for the deep one.
Hightower watched left flat for Pitta, rookie linebacker Jamie Collins watched the pipe between the seams, and Arrington watched the right flat for Smith. The combination of those three duties would leave the first five yards devoid of Patriots. But those duties would also shell the middle of the field if the intermediate pass was in play.
On the outskirts, Ryan and Talib played the corners to keep the ball inside. Overhead, Gregory walked up to linebacker territory to deceive a two-deep look, while third-round rookie Duron Harmon shadowed right.
Flacco took the snap and anticipated the coverage to be lured by the short-yardage situation. Yet instead, the Patriots’ zone dropped deep, which alleviated Pitta and Smith at the sticks.
Nevertheless, deep was where Flacco’s first read was heading. Jones sprinted into the runway between Ryan and Hightower.
Flacco overlooked the unoccupied Pitta and Smith. He shot a pass in the direction of Jones, who rounded the 30.
As he did so, Ryan’s delegation was cut in half. He closed in on the awaiting receiver with assistance downfield from Gregory.
As the ball soared past the 30-yard line, Ryan followed suit. He raised his left hand to disrupt its destination.
Ryan’s hand collided with the football. He pried it to the turf before it could reach Jones.
Baltimore had turned the ball over on downs. And Ryan’s instincts were a critical component in why.
The Patriots offense went three-and-out on the subsequent drive. But Ryan’s breakup stifled the Ravens’ hopes of trimming 17-point deficit to commence the third quarter.
Third Quarter, 10:29 – Deflected Interception
After a three-and-out by New England, Baltimore’s offense was back in the fold and had moved the ball 20 yards on three plays.
On 3rd-and-2 for their own 39, Flacco and Co. were vying for more.
Returning to the one-back, one-tight end showing of Pierce and Pitta, Baltimore’s plan to pick up the first was the short game. The route-runners bunched evenly inside the numbers. From there, Brown was braced for a pivot outside of Pitta’s quick comeback out left. While out right, Jones and Smith were braced for similar quick outs.
On the other side of the ball, New England maintained the 4-2 front. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s play call orchestrated Hightower to play off-man on the tight end and Collins to zone the interior bubble.
Gregory and Harmon hovered on the back end, and Talib and Arrington played off the right-side receivers.
Ryan did the same opposite Brown across the field.
Unlike the failed fourth-down attempt a series earlier, Flacco handled the snap and immediately gazed leftward towards Pitta at the marker.
Hightower had tripped in pursuit of the 28-year-old tight end. As a result, Ryan was forced to monitor two options.
After two seconds in the pocket, Flacco delivered leading pass towards Pitta, whose positioning left him expecting an inside pass. The 6’4”, 245-pounder lunged for the ball with his feet trailing.
Ryan zeroed his sights.
The ball hit the fingertips of the off-balanced Pitta and rattled out, which afforded Ryan with an opportunity to swoop into the frame.
Ryan lowered for the ball and snared it to his chest. In a fraction of a second, a potential reception became an interception.
It was Ryan’s second of the game.
Ryan was grounded by contact at the 43-yard line. Three minutes later, though, the Patriots had a 20-point lead by way of a 42-yard field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
It was an advantage New England would not relinquish, ultimately winning by a score of 41-7.
The 83rd overall pick in April’s draft was an integral contributor in the end result. Ryan’s hand was in three turnovers. In turn, he now leads the all NFL rookies with five interceptions.
Now ball skills are not the be-all, end-all when it comes to playing cornerback – coverage is. But on Sunday evening in Baltimore, Ryan showcased both.
He did not allow a catch.