Here we go, another playoff run begins for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s Patriots as time slowly runs out on their championship window, and it’s hard not to think this is the best shot the Pats have had at taking home the Lombardi Trophy since 2007.
First, the Ravens come to Foxborough, a team that needs no introduction. As I wrote two years ago, the Pats-Ravens rivalry has become the major piece of the second half of the Brady/Belichick reign.
Few will argue that the Ravens weren’t the better team in each of the last three playoff games, even though the Pats escaped with 2011’s AFC Championship. Chalk that one up to homefield advantage that was secured in the regular season, so it was more than just luck, as some have labelled that win.
Still, the Pats caught some major breaks, just like the Ravens did in 2012 with key injuries to Rob Gronkowski pre-playoffs and Aqib Talib in the first quarter of the game.
As I’ve hit on all week, these teams are much different now than they were two years ago, the last time they met in the playoffs. The Pats are more talented and healthier than they’ve been in the previous playoff clashes.
What do the Pats need to do to get a win and move on to their fourth-straight AFC Championship game? Here’s the gameplan:
We must start up front because the biggest key of the game will be to contain the Ravens pass rush, led by Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, while Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata can be problems in the middle.
The return of Dan Connolly should help after he missed time at the end of the season. The Pats have rookie Bryan Stork at center, and two former centers in Connolly and Wendell next to him. This kind of experience and ability to set the protections, along with Solder and Vollmer on the edges, should help decipher the Ravens’ pre-snap disguise.
Expect Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees to use similar tactics to Rex Ryan – overloading one side, then blitzing the other, dropping almost everyone into coverage, etc. throughout the game.
The Ravens’ number one goal will be to get Brady out of rhythm early. The offensive line must be on their game, because as I’ve mentioned endlessly, when the Pats lose in the playoffs it’s because Brady is under early and constant duress.
So how to attack the Ravens? Many have called for quick pace via the no huddle. There is certainly merit to this approach, especially against the Ravens.
NE has run no-huddle 7% of snaps in ‘14. BAL D has faced no-huddle 21% of snaps in ’14. NE has no run-huddle 28% of last 7 games vs. BAL.— Christopher Price (@cpriceNFL)
However, trying to do this without establishing any kind of ground game would be a mistake in my opinion, and could get the Pats out of their comfort zone.
In 2013’s regular season matchup, the Patriots made a point to run LeGarrette Blount at the edges early to take some of the steam out of Suggs and Dumervil, before turning to Stevan Ridley up the middle.
While I expect the Pats will run their share of spread and no-huddle to take advantage of the suspect Baltimore secondary, they should still aim some runs at the edges, especially at the undersized Dumervil. Last year, the Patriots ran for 142 yards against this defense.
They should also pick their spots with the no huddle, but I’d very much prefer to avoid it on third-and-shorts, a critical area that has been a weak point on offense this year. There are times to put the peddle down, but I believe the no huddle is best used in spurts when they’re gaining momentum.
Ravens middle linebackers CJ Mosely and Daryl Smith run well and could cause some problems in coverage on Rob Gronkowski, but Gronkowski is still Gronk and will make his share of plays.
In 2013, the Ravens had no answer for Julian Edelman, who had 7 catches for 77 yards and drew a couple of big penalties. He should be a focus of the Ravens’ gameplan, but can the Ravens afford to match receivers with their patchwork secondary? Against the Steelers they reverted to simply playing sides and the result was their best defensive performance of the year.
The focus on Edelman and Gronk should open things up for breakout receiver Brandon LaFell, who brings an element of size on the outside that Baltimore hasn’t had to deal with previously with the Patriots’ offense. I expect LaFell to be a key.
If the Patriots pass protection comes to play, the offense will make plays no matter how the Ravens choose to defend them, it’s really just a matter of the offensive line not laying an egg against the Baltimore pass rush.
It’s been fun this year watching how Belichick chooses to use his talented cornerbacks to match up with various receivers. There’s been plenty of speculation this week, with most generally feeling Darrelle Revis will draw Steve Smith.
As for Brandon Browner, some see him on Torrey Smith and I think there is some merit to this, despite Browner not having great recovery speed. Really what the Pats would need from Browner is to destroy Smith off the line, something Smith has trouble recovering from, then letting an over-the-top safety help on any deep shots.
The other benefit of this is keeping Browner from worrying about catching up to Smith downfield, a spot prime to draw a pass interference call on an underthrown ball – this is something Joe Flacco excels at.
The X-factor is Owen Daniels. The Pats have struggled covering tight ends this year, and while part of it is avoidance of Revis/Browner, Patrick Chung just doesn’t excel when asked to man-cover a guy that is significantly taller than him.
The second safety spot is an interesting one this week. Stopping the run is critical and that’s where Chung excels in Cover-1. He’s a physical tackler and sets the edge well. However the Pats played a lot of Cover-2 Man last time against the Ravens to take away the deep shots, so they’ll have a choice to make.
Perhaps what makes most sense is to play Chung early to keep their running game from getting going, then sub in Harmon on the back end for more Cover-2 looks in the second half.
Up front is where New England needs to win the game. Baltimore has injury issues on the offensive line that has required some juggling, including moving their best offensive lineman, Marshal Yanda to right tackle. Left tackle Eugene Monroe did practice this week so he could go, but even if he does, or if undrafted rookie James Hurts fills in again, Chandler Jones has a favorable matchup from his right end spot.
Vince Wilfork was absolutely dominant in 2011’s AFC Championship and has a good chance to be that player again on Saturday. As MMQB’s Andy Benoit pointed out this week, the Steelers made a concerted effort to eliminate Baltimore’s run game by lining their nose tackle up right over center Jeremy Zuttah. The Pats will do the same with Wilfork.
Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower have elevated to a new level this season, and their double A-gap pressures have been a key playcall since the Denver game. They could have a big day and will be used in their usual variety of ways – blitzing, dropping, covering – they do it all and do it all well.
Stopping the run and then the deep shots are the two big keys against Baltimore, but the Pats have better pieces to do so than they’ve had in many years. Winning in the trenches is key this week, and expect a rested and healthy Chandler Jones to show up early and often.
Points of Emphasis
1. Attack the OL -For all the talk about Suggs and Dumervil, the Pats talented front seven going against a suspect Baltimore offensive line hasn’t gotten much attention. But make no mistake, the Pats have the players who can exploit this weakness and will do so in a variety of creative ways, including linebackers blitzing the A-gaps and sliding Chandler Jones inside. The Pats must dictate with their front seven and put the pressure on Flacco early and often. Stopping the run is a priority but this game should come down to the passing aspect and letting Chandler, Big Vince, Ninkovich, Hightower and Collins feast on Flacco flakes.
2. Attack the Secondary – The Ravens defense played out of their mind last week against the Steelers to the surprise of just about everyone. Do they have another one of those games in them? The Patriots will give them a stiff test, filled with disguise and movement. Shane Vereen could be a huge X-factor in the passing game, but I believe it will Brandon LaFell who comes through in some clutch moments.
3. Protect Brady – Yup, it’s the key pretty much every week, but moreso than ever for these playoff games. The Patriots offensive line isn’t as bad as many are making them out to be this week and all of them, outside of Stork, have plenty of experience against the Ravens. They must must must be on their game if the Pats are to win this game, or any other one going forward. Three games, guys. Three games. Block like your million-dollar job depends on it, because it does.
4. Get the Lead – This is vital. A lead keeps the offense unpredictable, with all play options on the table, but an early hole will push them to become more one-dimensional, right into the hands of the Ravens’ pass rush. The Pats must have some balance and an early lead will only help them establish that.
5. Win – It’s the playoffs. Winning is the only thing that matters and putting down a tough Ravens team would be the kind of boost the Pats haven’t gotten from a divisional round victory since dsipatching Peyton Manning and the Colts in 2004. Despite their flaws, the Ravens are a similar team to the Patriots – tough and physical and unrelenting. It won’t be easy. But the 2014 Pats have the kind of team that should be able to pull it off.
Two sides of thought have emerged this week in breaking down the Patriots-Ravens playoff game. The first is the usual trolly Boston mediot take that the Ravens have the Patriots number and that simply, the Pats are afraid of them.
Then there’s what those who are paying attention think – that those Ravens teams of 2009-2012 are gone, and while they are still a solid team who will fight hard, the Patriots deserve to be favored and are the better team at least on paper. I am not sure we could say that from 2009-2012, when the Ravens simply had more depth and talent. Not anymore though.
All that talk doesn’t really interest me anyway, and honestly, this week the Boston mediot take is probably best to help lock the Patriots in even more, as maddening as it is to listen to (if you’re one to actually listen to it).
I went back and took a look at last year’s game in which the Pats got 4 turnovers from the Ravens and rolled to a dominant 41-7 win. I could spin it that the Pats effectively beat the Ravens with a shadow team of who they are now, or that the Ravens just can’t stop the Patriots without Ed Reed or Ray Lewis, but that’s a homer take not even I can really believe.
The Patriots are better now, but the Ravens are better than that performance as well. This will be a good game, but I believe the Pats have the pieces to really exploit the Ravens’ weaknesses.
The Patriots offensive gameplan seemed focused early on attacking the edges of the Ravens defense with Blount, running right at Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Blount didn’t run wild, but he had enough success to keep those pass rushers from teeing off on passing downs.
The passing game was essentially Julian Edelman and Julian Edelman. The Ravens tried a number of different guys covering him but no one had much success. Jimmy Smith racked up two penalties trying to cover Edelman.
Edelman finished with 7 catches for 77 yards but his impact was greater than those stats indicate.
Once the defense was loosed up a bit the Patriots started using Ridley up the middle and had okay success. Blount and Ridley combined for 130 yards.
Blount should once again get a similar role in the attack this time around, but will Jonas Gray take over Ridley’s up-the-gut carries? He must hold on to the ball if so.
Defensively the Patriots played a lot of Cover-2 Man, which makes a lot of sense. It gives over the top protection, but also utilizes the cornerback’s strength at the line of scrimmage.
However, the Pats were in sub defense for all but six snaps, which puts a heavy emphasis on stopping the staple of the Ravens offense – zone runs – with just six in the box.
There might not be a bigger key this weekend than doing that again, however you’d think the Pats are better prepared now with Wilfork and Branch in the mix to go with Jones and Siliga (who played almost every snap in last year’s matchup).
Cover-2 Man will also put a focus on Patrick Chung this week. Steve Gregory was probably a little better in deep coverage than Chung, but if the Pats go Cover-2 Man heavy again this time, we could see more of Duron Harmon on the back end than Chung.
We also saw more Brandon Spikes than Jamie Collins last year, but a similar amount of showing presnap A-gap pressure whether they brought it or not. Collins and Hightower are a lot better at their blitzing or bailing on the A gaps this year, a true staple of the Pats defense. They could play a huge role this weekend, because getting pressure in Flacco’s face is vital.
The Patriots have seen plenty of Gary Kubiak’s zone run offense in recent years while he was with the Texans. They know what it takes to stop it.
There are no secrets with his Ravens incarnation of offense – zone runs and play action deep shots are what it’s all about. But with a deep secondary and a number of front seven players, all who can blitz or drop, the Pats have the pieces they did not in 2009-2012.
But perhaps what it boils down to most is simply turnovers. In the 2009-2012 playoff games the Ravens had just 3 turnovers to the Patriots’ 10.
Crowd Shot Cundiff Missed FG
In Bill Belichick’s episode of A Football Life, which had inside access to the Patriots’ 2009 season, he told his team before their regular season matchup with the Ravens that this was a team that was “in it for the long haul. I know it. You know it. They know it”.
Belichick probably didn’t realize how true his words were. This will be the fourth time the Ravens have come to Foxboro in the last six playoff seasons, and really, they’ve outplayed the Patriots in all of them despite having lost the 2011 AFC Championship.
In 2009, the Ravens hit the Patriots in the mouth on the first play, as Ray Rice went 80-plus yards for a touchdown on a carry right up the middle.
In 2012, the Patriots simply had no answer for Joe Flacco in the second half as he marched right down the field on them, outscoring the home team 21-0 in the last two quarters.
The Patriots broke up a potential Ravens game-winning touchdown in the end zone in 2011, and got a huge break when the game-tying field goal was missed. That was New England’s only win and it was far from convincing that the Pats were the better team.
This is what has a lot of Patriots fans skittish about the Ravens coming to Gillette this Saturday. The main points of concern are Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs matching up with the Patriots’ tackles – Nate Solder, who has regressed in his fourth season, and Sebastian Vollmer, who recovered after a rough start to have a solid season.
The Patriots’ offensive line is always a huge focus of a playoff run, because let’s face it, every time New England has bowed out of the playoffs, it’s been a leaky line, usually in the middle, that is the culprit.
The way I see it, Solder and Vollmer are going to have to have great games at some point if the Pats are going to win the Super Bowl. Whether it’s this week against the Ravens or next week against the Broncos (hopefully), there will be no free passes.
Otherwise, this playoff matchup really flips the script on what we saw from 2009-2012 when these two teams played.
The biggest difference for Tom Brady is Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are no longer around. I think a lot of Baltimore’s “fearlessness” we hear being talked about with them coming to Foxboro, was from Reed and Lewis.
Reed was the best free safety in the history of the game in Belichick’s view. A player he and Brady would dedicate entire meetings to. The lack of that kind of player, and the time needed to focus on him, is an immediate bonus for New England.
Baltimore has a good defense, led by their front seven, but it’s not the kind of Hall of Fame defense we saw two years ago that was ready to meet Brady head on. Pats O vs. Ravens D was a push back then, now the advantage is on the Patriots side.
We saw a taste of this in 2013’s Patriots blowout of the Ravens in Baltimore. And that was with Logan Mankins playing left tackle and no Rob Gronkowski, not to mention Brandon LaFell or Tim Wright.
On the other side of the ball, there is no comparison to this Patriots defense now and the patchwork squad they were putting on the field from 2009-2012. This is now a defense with one of the best secondaries in the game and a front seven that is just hitting its prime.
Can anyone really argue that the Ravens’ offense now is better than it was with Ray Rice, Anquan Bolden and even Dennis Pita in their prime?
I love that the Patriots will get a shot at ending the Ravens season and putting an end to the Ravens’ dominance over them of late in the playoffs. There’s something about the Ravens that will immediately get the Patriots attention and that’s a good thing.
Not that the Pats wouldn’t be locked in on another opponent, but with the Ravens there’s just a little something extra.
As much as some might want an easier first playoff game, it’s going to take three great games from the Patriots, regardless of their opponent. They’ve been up for every challenge the last two months and this game will be no different.
It will be a fun week of hype, but remember, this isn’t 2009-2012.
2012 AFCCG from the flyover’s perspective