6. How will Alfonzo Dennard respond to a matchup against Anquan Boldin?
Among rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s most appealing qualities is his affinity to getting physical with opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage in press coverage; that ability will be tested against Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, a muscular 220-pound target who serves as Baltimore’s most reliable receiver. Boldin has caught 60.3% of the passes thrown at him this season, dropping just two of his 126 targets.
Baltimore will likely look Boldin’s way often tonight, testing Dennard’s ability to respond to a pair of week performances: he allowed two touchdowns against San Francisco and one last week versus Houston. Dennard’s suffered a knee injury vs. San Francisco which appears to have affected his play recently.
Luckily, however, Dennard may not be forced to defend Boldin downfield too often; of the wide receiver’s 126 targets, just twenty have come on deep throws, with the majority of his work coming on short or intermediate routes. The Patriots may be able to help Dennard defend Boldin by defending the middle of their defense with shallow zone drops on occasion.
7. Will New England’s offensive line be prepared for rushers from all angles?
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees earned a reputation for conservative defensive playcalling during his four-year tenure in New England; however, he has proved more willing to gamble in Baltimore. Sixteen different Ravens played at least one defensive snap in week three; of those sixteen, all but one (cornerback Jimmy Smith) rushed Tom Brady on at least one occasion in an attempt to confuse New England’s blocking schemes.
Of course, as delineated in last week’s article, Brady thrives against coverages depleted by additional rushers, with an unparalleled 129.2 passer rating against the blitz this season (including last week’s playoff performance.) When blitzed, Brady has thrown 21 touchdowns without being intercepted. Unsurprisingly, he performed well on Baltimore’s seventeen blitzes in week three, completing 80% of his fifteen passes for 155 yards.
One factor may complicate things: Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who missed Baltimore’s initial matchup against the Patriots, has returned from his torn Achilles and is finally starting to create consistent pressure again. Last week, Suggs beat All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady twice for sacks; Suggs’ presence is cause for concern, especially considering that Patriots blindside protector Nate Solder will also be forced to deal with Ravens star defensive end Haloti Ngata at times.
8. Can New England’s passing game challenge Baltimore’s defense vertically?
Ravens free safety Ed Reed is among the most feared deep-zone defenders in the league; despite turning 34 at the beginning of the season, Reed’s prescience has largely prevented opposing offenses from testing the back end of Baltimore’s secondary. In week three, the Patriots threw just four passes in Reed’s direction for a total of just fourteen yards; only three of Brady’s passes traveled more than twenty yards downfield during the contest, with Wes Welker’s 59-yard gain versus Cary Williams being the only successful example.
New England is not known as a team with consistent downfield targets, but Tom Brady must diversify his passing attempts as a constraint against overloaded short-and-intermediate coverages; an unwillingness to take shots downfield will allow the Ravens to stack the box with additional defenders and occupy spaces favored by Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez, both of whom accomplish the majority of their work less than twenty yards downfield.
These challenges downfield will likely come via receiver Brandon Lloyd, who had one of his most impressive games of the season versus Baltimore, catching nine of twelve passes for 108 yards.
9. Will New England’s struggles against Baltimore’s rush defense recur?
New England’s diverse rushing attack has been one of the team’s biggest surprises in 2012. True to his reputation, returning offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has proven a more balanced offensive playcaller than his predecessor, Bill O’Brien; the Patriots rank seventh in the league running the ball, averaging 136.5 rushing yards per game on the ground. However, that type of success was nowhere to be found in week three, when New England’s running backs failed to make any sort of impact against Baltimore’s defensive front.
McDaniels distributed the majority of New England’s 34 carries between Stevan Ridley (thirteen) and Danny Woodhead (fifteen), with the end result being a total of just 77 yards on 2.3 yards per carry. This lack of success forced New England into difficult third-and-long situations, of which they converted just seven of fifteen; the Patriots were also prevented from succeeding in the red zone, where they failed to score touchdowns on two of their five attempts.
Obviously, improved performances from Ridley and Woodhead are imperative; the Patriots would also be wise to work Shane Vereen into the gameplan. Vereen didn’t receive any opportunities against Baltimore in week three, but broke out last week with a twelve-touch, 124-yard performance which included three touchdowns.
10. How much will the Patriots’ offense miss star tight end Rob Gronkowski?
Obviously, losing a weapon as dangerous as Gronkowski is a serious blow to any offense; however, it’s important to note that Baltimore was very successful at limiting Gronkowski’s production back in week three. Despite playing 83 snaps in that game, Gronkowski was targeted on just three passes, catching two of those targets for 21 yards.
New England will be forced to contract the scope of their passing game to compensate for Gronkowski’s absence, but between Welker, Hernandez, and Lloyd, they remain well-equipped to challenge Baltimore’s secondary. Gronkowski is obviously an excellent blocker, but luckily New England has a pair of reserves who should be able to help in that regard: Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, both of whom have been impressive blockers this season.
Even without Gronkowski, the Patriots will likely emphasize multiple tight end sets on offense; Hoomanawanui started against Baltimore back in week three and has played at least 40 offensive snaps in each of the past five weeks. Fells has been buried behind New England’s top three tight ends, but it’s possible that Gronkowski’s injury will create more opportunities for Fells to demonstrate his blocking abilities.