The last time Gary Kubiak encountered the New England Patriots was Dec. 1, 2013.
He was head coach of the Houston Texans then, facing a Patriots defensive front laden with attrition at a since-renamed Reliant Stadium. There was no Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly or Jerod Mayo along New England’s front seven, and there was no Arian Foster within Houston’s offensive backfield.
But there were zone-blocking scheme principles.
Then-Texans halfback Ben Tate rushed for 102 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries in the meeting, while undrafted free agent Dennis Johnson stepped in for 13 yards on three carries, and backup quarterback Case Keenum tacked on six yards and another score on six carries.
It was one cut and go. That type of ground game kept a 2-9 Houston team close versus an 8-3 New England team, before falling short by a score of 34-31. Yet what also kept it close was the blocks ahead of Tate, Johnson and Keenum, which handled defenders on the back side and attacked the second level to congest linebackers.
Houston’s offensive line went after space instead of defenders. And in doing so, the gap integrity of the three-man Patriots front, which dispersed the likes of rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and practice-squad promotion Sealver Siliga at the line, was cut down. The likes of linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes were forced to make up the difference, chasing down the run side with no assurances of where the run would in fact end up.
There was overpursuit and engagement in the outcome, and there were cutbacks out of inside-zone and outside-zone runs that followed back through it. By the time it was over, the Texans had amassed 83 yards to the left of center, and 121 yards in all. But before the season was over, Kubiak was relieved of his Texans coaching duties.
He signed on as the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator in January of 2014. The 53-year-old packed his own blocking scheme along with him to Baltimore, and it has since helped the 11-6 Ravens reach the divisional round, where the 12-4 Patriots await.
Much has changed for New England’s defensive front seven since last December. Wilfork has returned, Siliga has emerged, free-agent acquisition Alan Branch has deepened the depths of the three- and four-man lines, and Hightower and second-year pro Jamie Collins have turned in seasons of the All-Pro caliber.
Along the way, the Patriots have limited rushing attacks to 79 yards per game since Week 9, after a total of 371 rushing yards were conceded between Week 7 and Week 8.
New England hasn’t conceded more than 130 in a game since, but that will be tested against a Baltimore ground game that has seen 29-year-old halfback Justin Forsett tally 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns on 235 carries.
Forsett, a former Seattle Seahawk, Indianapolis Colt, Jacksonville Jaguar and Texan, had 1,692 yards combined over his previous six NFL seasons before breaking out in a system built for his shift and decisiveness this season.
And for his ability to turn stretch plays into knee-buckling runs back through the A-gaps.
The 5-foot-8, 197-pound journeyman has found the right place once again under Kubiak, whom he was coached by during a one-year stint with Houston in 2012. He’s also found the right lane behind first-team All-Pro guard and tackle Marshal Yanda, as well as left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Jeremy Zuttah.
All three have graded out in the top-third of the league in terms of run-blocking performance, according to Pro Football Focus. And collectively, the Ravens have graded out No. 8 in the NFL with 126.2 rush yards per contest, No. 6 with 4.5 yards per carry, No. 5 with 16 rushing touchdowns, and No. 4 with 113 first downs from rushing.
Those are aspects Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will look to hinder. Though, like the Pittsburgh Steelers holding the Ravens 49 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts in Saturday’s AFC Wild Card, the numbers can often be deceiving.
Getting ahead of Baltimore’s zone-blocking scheme requires the same traits it does to install. And with athleticism, speed, and anticipation from the inside out, New England’s defense appears on track to do so.
The Patriots aren’t the same team that traveled to Houston in 2013, and the Ravens aren’t the same team that lost by 34 to the Patriots in Baltimore. Yet when Kubiak’s offense steps on the field in Foxborough next Saturday, time will tell which difference will be enough.