NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The Patriots and Ravens met in Baltimore last September in what was one of the season’s most exciting games; unfortunately, Baltimore managed to escape with a narrow 31-30 in a game marred by meddling replacement officials. Fortunately, New England finished the season stronger than Baltimore did, earning the AFC’s second seed and consequently home-field advantage in tonight’s AFC Championship Game. With a win, the Patriots will be headed to New Orleans for their second straight Super Bowl appearance; a loss, on the other hand, would have Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and co. watching from home. Read on for ten keys to the most important game of New England’s season thus far.
1. Can New England prevent Baltimore from throwing the ball downfield?
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has taken his fair share of criticism, but he is arguably the best quarterback in the league when it comes to passes of twenty or more yards downfield. On the season, Flacco is an incredible 44/105 for 1,442 yards on deep passes, having thrown fifteen touchdowns and avoiding a single interception at that depth.
Flacco connected with Torrey Smith and James Jones on three devastating deep balls last week to dispatch the Denver Broncos; preventing a repeat of that performance is arguably the most important aspect of tonight’s AFC Championship Game. When New England played the Ravens back in week three, Flacco had a very effective game overall. Of his 382 passing yards, 143 came on ten deep throws, including one touchdown; those numbers do not even include Devin McCourty’s costly pass interference penalty deep down the field late in the fourth quarter.
Of course, at that point in the season, New England had yet to acquire cornerback Aqib Talib, whose presence has stabilized the secondary. If Talib can keep wide receiver Torrey Smith from separating downfield, forcing Baltimore to rely on the other aspects of their offense in order to succeed, the Patriots will be well-positioned to win the game.
2. What kind of blitz packages will New England challenge Baltimore with?
New England’s conservative defensive playcalling in week three likely aided Flacco’s dominant performance; for the most part, only the Patriots’ defensive linemen were tasked with rushing the passer. This passivity resulted in a grand total of zero sacks and zero quarterback hits. Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes only blitzed once each, with Jerod Mayo’s blitzing limited to three attempts; these five total rushes led to just one quarterback hurry.
Recently, however, the Patriots have been blitzing linebackers with much greater frequency. For example, New England’s three starting linebackers rushed seventeen times last week against Houston. In addition to the Patriots’ three linebackers, it may also make sense to rush the members of their secondary; defensive backs Patrick Chung, Kyle Arrington, Tavon Wilson, and Derrick Martin all blitzed against Miami in week seventeen, confusing opposing blocking assignments.
Because Flacco is a much more effective quarterback against four or less rushers (63.4% completion, 7.9 yards per attempt, 96.3 rating) than he is against the blitz (50.0% completion, 6.8 yards per attempt, 79.6 rating), New England would be wise to play the percentages in that regard.
3. Can Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love continue to create interior pressure?
New England’s ability to stop Ravens running back Ray Rice begins in the middle of the Patriots’ defensive front, where defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Ray Rice roam. Wilfork had one of his less productive games in week three, failing to record any pressure up the middle; however, Ravens center Matt Birk is undoubtedly familiar with Wilfork after being taken advantage of in last year’s conference championship game, in which Wilfork recorded one sack and five quarterback pressures.
Wilfork’s fellow defensive tackle, Kyle Love, is not regarded as a particularly successful pass rusher, but enjoyed one of his most productive performances in that regard back in week three when he tallied a season-high five pressures.
Baltimore’s interior offensive line – consisting of Birk flanked by left guard Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda – provides the foundation for the Ravens’ rushing game, with 1,309 of Baltimore’s 2,198 yards on the ground coming behind those three players. Wilfork and Love’s ability to prevent interior opportunities for Ravens runners Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce would force Baltimore to rely on auxiliary options.
4. What impact will Chandler Jones’ injured ankle have on his performance?
Patriots first-round pick Chandler Jones enjoyed an incredible first half of the season before spraining his ankle early in week eleven; he returned in week fourteen but has failed to record a sack since, and to compound matters, the same ankle was reinjured last week against the Texans.
During New England’s first matchup with Baltimore, Jones total four quarterback pressures, giving Ravens left tackle Michael Oher trouble all day. In a game replete with excessive officiating interference (an incredible 24 penalties totaling 218 yards), Oher appeared to escape punishment for what appeared to be a number of egregious holds against Jones. Oher’s struggles on the season – ten penalties, ten sacks allowed –eventually necessitated a shift to the right side of the offensive line, with his left tackle spot being ceded to veteran Bryant McKinnie beginning in the season finale vs. Cincinnati.
McKinnie has proved far more effective than Oher thus far; the gargantuan tackle, who stands 6’8” and weighs upwards of 340 pounds, is well-equipped to withstand Jones’ bull rush. Thus, whether or not Jones is able to explode out of his stance will likely dictate how successful he is in his attempts to bypass McKinnie in pass protection.
5. How will New England’s coverages account for Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson?
Bill Belichick’s defensive gameplans typically focus on forcing opponents to beat New England with their second or third offensive options; it’s fair to assume that eliminating Ray Rice and Torrey Smith are considered the most critical aspects of this game defensively, but the Patriots must not forget about Baltimore’s two tight ends, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who combined to catch seven passes against New England during their week three contest.
Of the two, Pitta is easily the more dangerous receiving option; his seven catches also included an embarrassing twenty-yard touchdown reception. The Patriots attempted to cover Pitta with Steve Gregory (responsible for Pitta’s score), Patrick Chung, Dont’a Hightower, Tavon Wilson, and Sterling Moore (who is no longer with the team.) Pitta will most likely face a similar secondary rotation this week, primarily because New England’s linebackers should be more concerned with attacking the line of scrimmage either as rushers or as run defenders.
Tonight, it may be wise to incorporate some three-safety looks, with either Chung or Wilson entering the game to provide in-the-box support. Jamming Flacco’s short options effectively would provide the Patriots with more time to disrupt the pocket.