6. Will Tom Brady and the Patriots be able to establish a downfield passing game?
The Baltimore Ravens boast one of the most impressive secondaries in the NFL. Through two games, the Ravens rank just 26th in the league in passing yards per game allowed (275.0), but have allowed just one touchdown on the season and only a single pass of over 40 yards. Three of Baltimore’s cornerbacks – Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams, and Jimmy Smith – are highly regarded.
Webb was recently signed to a six-year, $52.74 million contract in April after holding opposing receivers without a touchdown pass last year and displaying excellent ball skills; he recorded eight interceptions and defended 25 passes last season including the playoffs, with one of his interceptions coming against Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game. Cary Williams recently turned down a $15 million contract extension, while Jimmy Smith is a very physical player with excellent size (6’2″, 205 pounds) who Baltimore liked enough to draft in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Of course, the Ravens’ deep secondary is also home to Ed Reed, perhaps the best ball-hawk of all time; Baltimore’s strong safety position is manned by Bernard Pollard, who Patriots fans know well as the man who injured both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. With tight end Aaron Hernandez set to miss the game with a sprained ankle and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd being listed as question, the Patriots may have trouble passing the ball deep downfield.
7. To what extent will franchise player Wes Welker be integrated into the offense?
Wes Welker played just 42 of New England’s 67 offensive snaps in week one, and Julian Edelman was starting in Welker’s place last week against Arizona; Edelman ended up playing 75 of the Patriots’ 82 offensive snaps compared to Welker’s 63. Speculation during the week has centered around whether Edelman has surpassed Welker on the depth chart, whether Welker’s contract negotiations have factored into his amount of playing time, or whether the Patriots are preparing to trade Welker before this year’s October 30th trade deadline.
However, although Welker dropped one critical third-down pass last week, he also dramatically increased his offensive output over week one by catching five passes for 95 yards compared to just three for 14 yards in the season opener. As mentioned above, the Patriots may have difficulty throwing the ball downfield against Baltimore’s highly-regarded secondary, so Welker could be in line for another fruitful performance in week three. Of course, his chances of being heavily incorporated into the offense are additionally supplemented by New England’s need to compensate for Aaron Hernandez’s ankle sprain.
8. How will New England attempt to replace Aaron Hernandez’s production on offense?
The most logical conclusion to draw from Aaron Hernandez’s ankle sprain is that New England’s top four weapons in the passing game – Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Julian Edelman – will receive increased roles in week three. The Patriots also re-signed wide receiver Deion Branch, and he should be able to contribute immediately as well.
However, Josh McDaniels may also be unwilling to exclude their Ace package (1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE) from the offensive gameplan, in which case one of New England’s tight end options will also see a heavier workload. Daniel Fells received a significant signing bonus of $2 million on his three-year contract, but he has yet to appear in a game this season since suffering a shin injury; Fells has been a limited participant in practice all week and is listed as questionable for week three, so it may be unrealistic to expect a major role for Fells on Sunday night. Michael Hoomanawanui has played 32 snaps on the season but is strictly a blocking option who offers almost nothing as a receiver (no catches on the season, 20 career receptions in 18 games.) Visanthe Shiancoe was presumably going to be Hernandez’s primary backup this season, but is ineligible to return until week eight.
The Patriots may consequently be forced to rely on recently-signed tight end Kellen Winslow, who caught 75 passes last year and whose style of play resembles Hernandez’s more closely than any of the other tight ends on the roster; however, Winslow may not have had enough practice time to assimilate himself into the offense.
9. Can Nate Solder and the offensive line handle Haloti Ngata and Baltimore’s front?
New England’s offensive line was unable to prevent the Arizona Cardinals from knocking Tom Brady around last week, and they may have an even more difficult matchup this week against a Baltimore Ravens defensive line which uses five different defensive linemen.
Most notable is franchise cornerstone Haloti Ngata, who the Patriots will likely have to attack with chip blockers and double teams. Aside from Ngata, Baltimore’s defensive line rotation consists of defensive ends Pernell McPhee (six sacks last season) and Arthur Jones (brother of Patriots rookie Chandler Jones); Ma’ake Kemoeatu (345 pounds) and Terrance Cody (341 pounds) rotate at the nose tackle position.
Dealing with the Ravens’ massive line will make it even more difficult to account for any additional players rushing the quarterback; thus far, Baltimore has used seven different linebackers and four different defensive backs as rushers in order to confuse or overload offensive protections. That may limit the amount of receiving options the Patriots have on any given play by forcing New England to retain their tight ends and running backs as additional blockers.
10. Can Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski put a late-game miss behind him?
Fans of both Baltimore and New England are painfully familiar with the game-changing impact of the kicking game. Moments after Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore slapped a would-be touchdown pass out of Ravens receiver Lee Evans’ hands in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, ex-Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal which would have tied the game at 23 with just 11 seconds remaining. Of course, Cundiff missed the field goal wide left and New England advanced to the Super Bowl. Last week, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski connected on his first four field goal attempts but famously missed a 42-yard kick wide left with just one second remaining on the clock; the mistake gave Arizona a 20-18 upset victory over the Patriots and Gostkowski a taste of how Cundiff felt last year.
The importance of converting on field goal tries will be magnified in what should be a close game this Sunday. Gostkowski will be under a great deal of pressure, but he could also have an opportunity to exorcise his demons and help the Patriots to victory in a matchup which could very well have playoff seeding implications.