NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
In a matchup sure to be remembered for its dramatics as well as very visible officiating from the league’s replacement referees – a total of 24 penalties were called for 218 yards – Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker was able to convert a 27-yard attempt as time expired to give his team a 31-30 victory over the New England Patriots. New England drops 1-2 on the season, while Baltimore stands at 2-1. Tom Brady and Joe Flacco combined to pass for over 700 yards; both had impressive games, but it was ultimately Flacco who led his team downfield on the game’s final drive. Read on for more information regarding some of New England’s biggest storylines.
Patriots move away from focus on “Ace” personnel
With Aaron Hernandez nursing a sprained ankle, he Patriots largely moved away from their “Ace” package (1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE) and towards more diverse offensive sets. The Patriots opened the game in a three-tight end set with Daniel Fells at the “F” position and Michael Hoomanawanui lined up alongside Rob Gronkowski on the opposite side of the line. Tight end Kellen Winslow was also lightly integrated into the offense. However, the majority of New England’s offensive output came from three receiver sets – most effectively featuring the combination of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Julian Edelman – while Danny Woodhead also played a large role in the offense.
Tom Brady looked very sharp, accurate
Baltimore’s pass rush struggled to get pressure on Tom Brady all game – they totaled just two sacks all game – and Brady responded by dissecting Baltimore’s vaunted coverage, completing 28 of his 41 attempts for 335 yards, including a short touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with two seconds remaining in the half. Brady looked masterful on the two-minute drill and displayed excellent ball placement relative to his pedestrian performance last week against the Cardinals. New England’s running game struggled to get started but Brady more than compensated with his performance through the air. Nine different players caught a pass from Brady, among them recently-signed tight end Kellen Winslow (one catch for 12 yards.)
Brandon Lloyd continues to escalate his production
After three weeks, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd has already caught more passes with the Patriots than Chad Johnson did throughout the entire 2011 season. Lloyd has adjusted extremely quickly to New England’s offense by virtue of having spent time with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in Denver and St. Louis; his chemistry with Tom Brady this early in the season is even more encouraging. Lloyd began the game by making a diving catch and added an impressive twisting catch in traffic down the left sideline during the same drive. All told, Lloyd caught nine passes for 108 yards on 12 targets. The thigh injury Lloyd had been nursing throughout the week failed to affect his performance in any noticeable manner.
Patriots gameplan dispels Welker-or-Edelman debate
Wes Welker’s future with the team was been debated increasingly over the past few weeks, but both Welker and Julian Edelman were heavily featured in New England’s offensive gameplan. The two were on the field at the same time for the majority of the game and combined for 12 of Tom Brady’s 22 first-half passes; Welker ultimately grabbed eight balls for 142 yards on ten targets, while Edelman caught four passes for 28 yards and a touchdown on seven targets while additionally carrying the ball twice. Welker’s most impressive play was a wheel route from the slot position which resulted in a 59-yard gain early in the game, but he also caught an important pass on a crossing pattern during New England’s two-minute drill to set up an Edelman touchdown catch with two seconds left. Both Welker and Edelman should be major factors in a New England offense which is growing progressively more focused on screen passes and gadget plays. Unfortunately, Edelman ran to the locker room at the start of the second half with a left hand injury; Deion Branch was featured heavily in the second-half offense as a result and caught two passes for 11 yards.
Offensive line protects Brady well; Solder stands out
Ryan Wendell caused a fumble on New England’s second offensive play of the game by snapping the ball to Tom Brady unexpectedly, but other than that the offensive line play was instrumental in Brady’s big performance. Left tackle Nate Solder was effective in pass protection, even against Ravens standout Haloti Ngata, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer even drove Ngata into the ground at one point. Brady was able to escape the first half having absorbed only one sack on a well-covered blitz; the pressure was picked up by New England’s line, but no receivers were open downfield. The offensive line’s weakness in the game was their run blocking; Stevan Ridley’s role was insignificant compared to Danny Woodhead’s, and New England averaged just 2.3 yards per carry against Baltimore’s gargantuan defensive line.
New England’s defense unable to prevent sustained drives
After two straight standout performances, New England’s defense struggled in week three to prevent the Ravens from orchestrating long scoring drives; their inability to stop Baltimore’s offense was the Patriots’ undoing. Baltimore’s first touchdown drive covered 82 yards on 13 plays, and they scored again eight minutes later on a ten-play, 92-yard drive. Ray Rice’s seven-yard touchdown run capped off an 80-yard touchdown drive spanning eight plays to begin the second half. Linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower failed to stand out in the first half, and left end Rob Ninkovich seemed to have a lot of trouble defending the run; Ray Rice was unsurprisingly very effective, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown on 5.1 yards per carry. Joe Flacco had plenty of time to wait for developing routes, and consequently made some impressive throws down the field. Kyle Arrington was burned for three big completions – a 25-yard touchdown catch by Torrey Smith, a catch-and-run by Jacoby Jones, and a crossing pattern from Anquan Boldin – while Devin McCourty started the game on a high note but started to look lost in coverage during the second half of the game. Most notably, McCourty allowed Jacoby Jones to make an important 25-yard reception during Baltimore’s critical final possession.