NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
A week after losing to the Arizona Cardinals at the last second, the New England Patriots will travel to Baltimore for a matchup with the Ravens facing a very real possibility of falling to 1-2 on the season.
The Patriots were able to escape from last season’s AFC Championship Game with a narrow 23-20 victory over the Ravens, but are considered a slight underdog on Sunday night. That should come as no surprise after New England’s offense sputtered last week; offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ playcalling was puzzling, quarterback Tom Brady was unable to decipher Arizona’s coverages, the Patriots’ offensive line allowed Brady to be sacked four times, tight end Aaron Hernandez sprained his ankle early in the first quarter, and New England was uncharacteristically mistake-prone on special teams (punter Zoltan Mesko was blocked, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a last-second field goal which would have secured a Patriots victory.)
Below are ten keys to Sunday night’s matchup with the Ravens, one of the most difficult opponents the Patriots will encounter all season.
1. Are the Patriots responsive enough to stall Joe Flacco and Baltimore’s passing game?
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was expected to shift Baltimore’s offense further towards the passing game this season, and his playcalling through the first two games has confirmed that speculation; the Ravens have passed the ball roughly two-thirds of the time this year. Flacco has responded well to the increased workload, compiling a 91.9 passer rating to this point while averaging 265.5 yards per game through the first two contests.
A similar amount of yards is well within his reach against New England on Sunday; Flacco has averaged 295.5 yards per game in his last two meetings with the Patriots. New England was able to prevent the Ravens from winning either of those games, but it may be wishful thinking to expect another victory if Flacco flirts with 300 yards through the air. To compound matters, Baltimore may challenge the Patriots’ ability to make quick defensive adjustments by running a substantial amount of their offense without huddling.
New England has defended the pass well through the first two games of the season, allowing an average of 202 yards per game which ranks seventh in the NFL, but Flacco is a much more productive quarterback than Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck, or Kevin Kolb and represents the first real test of the season for the Patriots’ pass defense. Flacco’s arm strength and deep accuracy has Baltimore atop the NFL in pass plays of 25 yards or more.
2. Will New England’s stout run defense shut down their third straight opponent?
Slowing down Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Patriots’ gameplan in the season opener; Johnson’s ability to challenge defenses horizontally represented a danger to a New England defense which is largely focused on closing off inside rushing lanes. However, the Patriots performed better than anyone could have expected by limiting Johnson to just four rushing yards on 11 carries, forcing Tennessee to abandon the running game and use Johnson almost exclusively as a receiving option. The Patriots followed that performance by limiting first-round pick Beanie Wells and second-round pick Ryan Williams to a combined 57 yards on 24 attempts in week two.
On the season, New England ranks fifth in rush defense with only 62.5 yards per game allowed; that they have limited opponents to just 2.6 yards per attempt is even more impressive. Ravens star running back Ray Rice is averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the season and could very well be the best runner the Patriots will play all year. New England was able to limit Rice to just 78 total yards in the playoffs last season (3.2 yards per carry), and a similar level of effectiveness against Rice would go a long way towards ensuring a victory.
The Patriots must also account for Rice’s excellent receiving ability; he caught 76 passes last season, adding 704 yards to Baltimore’s offensive output with his hands.
3. Can Devin McCourty and the secondary contain Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin?
Devin McCourty began his career on a high note, intercepting seven passes as a rookie in 2010, but was unable to duplicate that performance in 2011, struggling through a season in which he allowed six touchdown passes and a 104.7 quarterback rating against. Luckily, the defensive captain has seemingly put his difficult sophomore campaign behind him; through two games, McCourty has allowed just four completions on 11 attempts. His coverage was instrumental in limiting star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to just one catch in week two (with linebacker Jerod Mayo in coverage on the play.)
McCourty will likely line up against both of Baltimore’s receiving options – Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin – in week three. Smith is a dangerous deep threat who has averaged 27 yards per catch through the first two games of the season, while Boldin has constructed an illustrious career thanks to his incredible conditioning and toughness.
Both McCourty and right cornerback Kyle Arrington will have their hands full with the duo, while Ras-I Dowling, who did not play a single snap in week two, should get some playing time when Baltimore enters three-receiver sets; the Ravens’ third option is Jacoby Jones.
4. Is Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta headed for his second straight big game?
In week two, Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta was targeted 15 times and recorded eight receptions for 65 yards; the performance established him as Baltimore’s top tight end, surpassing Ed Dickson on the depth chart. At this point, Pitta is Baltimore’s leading receiver, with 13 catches for 138 yards on the season. Pitta’s combination of size (6’5″, 245) and athleticism (4.68 in the 40-yard dash) will likely earn him a prominent role in Baltimore’s gameplan.
Last week, New England struggled to defend former Raven Todd Heap, who was targeted eight times by Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, reeling in five passes for 62 yards and carrying Arizona’s passing attack. The Patriots mixed up coverage responsibilities on Heap – linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes, cornerback Kyle Arrington, and safety Tavon Wilson all defended him – but were unable to prevent him from gashing New England’s defense.
Look for coverage responsibilities to continue rotating as the Patriots attempt to keep things unpredictable on defense; however, their ability to disguise coverages against Pitta will be limited by Baltimore’s affinity for using Pitta as a wide receiver (either outside or in the slot) rather than as an inline tight end.
5. Does Baltimore have the offensive line talent to defend against New England’s front?
Baltimore has invested heavily in their offensive line in recent years without much success; the personnel group is the weakest component of Baltimore’s roster. Over the past five drafts, the Ravens have selected four offensive linemen in the first three rounds: Oniel Cousins (third round) in 2008, Michael Oher (first round) in 2009, Jah Reid (third round) in 2011, and Kelechi Osemele (second round) in 2012.
Currently, only Oher (left tackle) and Osemele (right tackle) are starters; the rest of the Ravens’ offensive line consists of left guard Ramon Harewood (sixth round, 2010), 36 year-old center Matt Birk, and right guard Marshal Yanda, the only elite member of Baltimore’s unit. New England’s defensive line will need to take advantage of Baltimore’s inconsistent unit in order to limit the effectiveness of players such as Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.
Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork will look to replicate his dominant performance against Birk in the playoffs last year, while rookie phenomenon Chandler Jones stands a realistic shot of building on his impressive start with an appealing matchup against Michael Oher.