NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
In what is one of the most important games of the season for both teams involved, the 10-4 New England Patriots will attempt to make up for last week’s road loss at Miami by disrupting an 8-6 Baltimore Ravens team which has won their past four games and which currently holds a tiebreaker over the Miami Dolphins for the sixth and final playoff seed based on their head-to-head-win percentage. A Patriots victory would go a long way toward securing one of two first-round byes while jeopardizing the chances of the Ravens making the playoffs, with Baltimore currently motivated by the fact that they may well be playing for their season. Read on for ten keys to this crucial contest.
1. How can the Patriots prevent Joe Flacco from dissecting their defense again?
Although Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is having a weak season compared to last year’s campaign, the Patriots would be wise to take him very seriously considering the recent success he’s had against New England, with the Ravens winning their last two meetings with the Patriots largely due to his ability to successfully dissect their defenses. Flacco passed for 382 yards and three touchdowns last September, completing 72% of his passes and averaging 9.8 yards per attempt in the game, then threw another three touchdowns to help Baltimore advance to the Super Bowl, which they eventually won over the San Francisco 49ers.
This year, one of the most proven ways to hamstring Flacco is to force him into third-and-long situations, where he hasn’t been successful, having thrown just one touchdown to nine interceptions in situations where the Ravens need to gain six or more yards to convert, with a dismal 45.2 passer rating in those situations. Additionally, the Patriots should dedicate a healthy share of their coverage men to defending the intermediate range, where Flacco has thrown eight touchdowns to two interceptions, compared to his eight-to-nine ratio on short passes and one-to-six ratio on deeper throws.
It may be worth blitzing Flacco a bit this week as well, as he is averaging just 5.64 yards per attempt against additional rushers. Flacco is currently dealing with a mild MCL sprain, so look for New England to try and get physical with him early.
2. Will Ray Rice’s dismal season continue against New England’s weak run defense?
Twenty-six-year-old running back Ray Rice already appears to be on the tail end of his career just one year after signing a five-year, $35 million contract extension which featured $24 million in guaranteed money and receiving a seven-million-dollar option bonus in March: through thirteen games, he has rushed for just 605 yards and one touchdown, averaging 3.1 yards per attempt and ranking fortieth out of forty-two qualifying backs in Football Outsiders’ Success Rate statistic with a 34% figure.
Rice recently blamed injuries for his forgettable season; regardless, the fact remains that he has not been able to challenge teams this season as he did in the past, which should play into New England’s hands this week. Certainly no opponent can be completely discounted against a defense ranked thirty-first in the league against the run, but that Baltimore is currently ranked twenty-eighth, averaging just under eighty-three yards-per-game means the Ravens may have some difficulty leading a two-dimensional attack in this week’s contest, especially because Rice’s backup, Bernard Pierce, is also struggling, with a 36% success rate which represents only a marginal improvement over Rice’s figure.
Rice’s struggles haven’t been limited to running the ball, as his yards-per-catch figure of 5.4 is also well below his career average of 8.3, although the Ravens have remained committed to throwing him the ball, as evidenced by his sixty-three targets and forty-nine receptions.
3. How will personnel changes relative to last year’s playoff loss change the game?
One of the most important events of last year’s AFC Championship Game was that Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib left the game after just eight snaps, with the result being that special teams ace Marquice Cole was essentially forced to act as a starter, allowing Joe Flacco to successfully target him on all five passes in his direction, including four-of-four passing to Anquan Boldin, throws which netted Baltimore fifty-seven yards and a touchdown, one of two Boldin scores on the game.
Talib is the type of big, physical cornerback who appears well-suited to covering Boldin, but fortunately, he won’t have to, as the Ravens opted to trade him to the San Francisco 49ers this past offseason, a move which looks like a mistake in retrospect given that Boldin’s already surpassed all of his 2012 receiving statistics with two games left to go in the season. The Ravens figure to start Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on the outside this week, with Marlon Brown in the slot.
It’s unclear how the Patriots will employ Talib this week, because, due to Smith’s elite deep speed, they may opt to cover him with Kyle Arrington this week as they did last week against Dolphins burner Mike Wallace. If Dennard remains on the left side in coverage against Jacoby Jones, Talib could possibly be lined up against someone such as tight Dennis Pitta.
4. What can New England do to prevent Baltimore’s tight ends from having success?
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta started the season on the short-term injured-reserve list this season after suffering what was initially feared to be a season-ending hip injury, but returned to the field two weeks ago in Baltimore’s victory over the Minnesota Vikings, catching six of eleven passes thrown his way for forty-eight yards and a touchdown, although his production was limited last week against Detroit, catching just two passes for twenty-four yards.
That should not prevent the Patriots from underestimating his ability to hurt them as a receiving threat, though, as Pitta caught five passes and a touchdown in each game against New England’s defense last season, gaining fifty yards in September and fifty-five in the playoffs. In the latter game, the Patriots were burned by attempting to cover him with the likes of Steve Gregory, Brandon Spikes, and Jerod Mayo, so they may opt to try something different this week.
As mentioned above, one option which may appeal to the team is the idea of using Aqib Talib in shadow coverage on him, with Kyle Arrington lined up on Torrey Smith and Alfonzo Dennard or Logan Ryan on Jacoby Jones. Talib effectively eliminated Jimmy Graham from the offense in New England’s victory over New Orleans, and the team also had him covering Charles Clay last week against Miami. Assigning linebacker Dont’a Hightower to cover Pitta is asking to be victimized.
5. How can New England capitalize on Baltimore’s underperforming offensive line?
Joe Flacco has been sacked on forty-two dropbacks this season, representing the highest total of any season in his six-year career and highlighting the need for personnel turnover along the offensive line this offseason. The team was able to acquire standout left tackle Eugene Monroe from the Jacksonville Jaguars in October by parting with fourth-and-fifth-round picks in the 2014 NFL Draft, but although he has been among the best blindside protectors in the league this season, the Ravens still have plenty of weaknesses which could potentially be exploited.
Right guard Marshal Yanda is still playing at a high level, but three of the team’s starters are below-average, those being left guard A.Q. Shipley, center Gino Gradkowski, and right tackle Michael Oher. Shipley started at center in week nine and shifted to left guard in week ten; he is the most egregious of the three, completely ineffective in every facet of the game. Gradkowski has been terrible too, though, with Oher doing a decent job in pass protection (although he has allowed seven sacks on the season) but struggling to create holes in the run game despite possessing excellent size and strength for the position.
It’s possible that the Patriots can create plenty of pressure with conventional four-man rushes, but as mentioned previously, Flacco hasn’t been able to take advantage of the coverage gaps created by blitzes this season. Rushing additional defenders would also force the Ravens to retain running backs and tight ends in pass protection more often than they’d like to.
6. Which defensive personnel changes will the Patriots have to prepare for?
Baltimore’s defense is as effective as ever this season, ranking seventh in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed, while ranking third in third-down-conversion percentage and fourth in red-zone efficiency. However, although much of the team’s defensive philosophy has remained intact, there have been some significant changes to the team’s personnel since the last time these two teams met. Linebackers Ray Lewis (retired), Dannell Ellerbe (Miami), and Paul Kruger (Cleveland) are no longer with the team, while last year’s starting safeties, Ed Reed (New York Jets) and Bernard Pollard (Tennessee) are elsewhere as well (at least Pollard won’t have an opportunity to end the seasons of any more Patriots personnel.)
Lewis and Ellerbe have been replaced by Jameel McClain and Daryl Smith, while Kruger’s place has been taken by Elvis Dumervil. Starting in place of Reed and Pollard are 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam and former Patriot James Ihedigbo, respectively, with the latter somehow having developed into a highly-effective starter since leaving New England. Additionally, Baltimore brought in Chris Canty to man one of their defensive end spots, and has benefited from cornerback Lardarius Webb’s return to the field after last October’s torn ACL landed him on injured reserve.
The Ravens may not field as many big names as they did last year, but don’t be fooled: general manager Ozzie Newsome’s shrewd offseason moves have actually improved their effectiveness compared to last year’s unit.
7. Which version of Tom Brady will take the field against Baltimore this week?
Although the Patriots lost their regular-season meeting with the Ravens last year, quarterback Tom Brady was efficient, completing 68.3% of his passes and averaging 8.17 yards per attempt while gaining 335 yards and one touchdown through the air. Less inspiring was his play in the AFC Championship Game, a contest in which Brady threw for 320 yards but completed only 53.7% of his passes for an average of 5.93 yards per attempt, being intercepted on two occasions in a humiliating 28-13 loss.
Because of the massive turnover New England’s wide receivers and tight ends have underwent since those games, it’s difficult to project exactly how Brady will perform, but based on a comparison of New England’s offense this season compared to last year’s, while factoring in Baltimore’s improved defense, it may be unrealistic to expect him to replicate his success in 2012’s regular-season meeting between the teams. Brady will be without the likes of Brandon Lloyd (nine catches, 108 yards), Wes Welker (eight catches, 142 yards), and Rob Gronkowski, players he had at his disposal last September.
Additionally, the team’s hobbled offensive line may lead to more pressure than he faced in that game, as left tackle Nate Solder already has been ruled out for the game and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was placed on injured reserve back in October after breaking his leg. Unless New England’s defense is able to arrest the effectiveness of Baltimore’s offense, something they did not do last year, the Patriots may find themselves forced to rely on Brady to keep them in a shootout.
8. How will the injuries along New England’s offensive line hurt their offense?
Last week, the Patriots lost offensive tackle Nate Solder to a head injury which has since been listed as a concussion, with the injury causing him to miss Wednesday’s practice; despite practicing in a limited capacity later, he has been ruled out. Against the Dolphins, Solder’s absence forced the Patriots to play left guard Logan Mankins at left tackle, creating an opening at guard which was filled by undrafted rookie Josh Kline, who seemed to struggle.
Although Mankins manned the blindside last week, it seems more likely that the team will use Marcus Cannon and Will Svitek as their starting tackles in some combination (the most likely being that Cannon remains on the right side and Svitek works on the blindside), allowing Mankins to remain at left guard, where he is better-suited. Regardless of how the Patriots set their offensive line, they should have trouble this week against the Ravens, especially given that Baltimore’s 340-pound nose tackle, Haloti Ngata, is considered one of the best defensive tackles in the league, while undersized Patriots center Ryan Wendell has been a whipping-boy of sorts, with right guard Dan Connolly not playing much better.
Ravens five-technique ends Arthur Jones and Chris Canty are both effective run defenders, and hybrid defensive end/rush linebacker Terrell Suggs may be joined by outstanding rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who is officially listed as questionable and was held out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday, but who ultimately played last week against the Lions, recording two quarterback hits and two pressures.
9. What will the expected return of Aaron Dobson mean for the passing game?
In addition to playing without borderline-uncoverable tight end Rob Gronkowski recently, the Patriots have also been without rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who were injured in weeks twelve and thirteen, respectively, Dobson’s injury a sprained foot and Thompkins’ a hip injury. Both players were limited participants in each day of practice this week, creating a sense of optimism that they would be able to return to the field this afternoon against Baltimore. However, it was announced last night that Thompkins will not be active.
The massive hole Gronkowski’s season-ending knee injury created in New England’s offense was partially filled by wide receiver Josh Boyce in recent weeks, who functioned as one of the team’s top three receivers in each of the past two weeks behind Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, but Boyce has already been ruled out this week with an ankle injury sustained in the loss at Miami. An active Dobson would be valuable against the Ravens, as his size and strength could help against physical 6’2” Baltimore right cornerback Jimmy Smith, who has been able to get his career back on track this season after a penalty-ridden, inconsistent 2012 campaign.
10. Can the Patriots improve their offensive effectiveness in important situations?
One of the most concerning aspects of New England’s season thus far has been an inability to consistently convert on third-down attempts and inside the red zone. On the season, their offense is ranked fifteenth in the league in third-down-conversion percentage, with a 38.5% figure which is more than ten points lower than their league-leading 48.7% success rate in 2012. They are also ranked fifteenth in the league in the percentage of their red zone drives which conclude in a touchdown, finding the end zone on 55.2% of their tries compared to 67.5% of their attempts in 2012.
The Patriots got into the red zone on four different occasions last week at Miami, but scored just one touchdown there; even one additional touchdown would have potentially led to a victory rather than a critical loss which cost them home-field advantage. Improving their play in those two areas is vital to winning this week, but the team may find it difficult to do so against a Ravens defense which has been excellent in both situations. On third down, Baltimore has held opponents to successful conversions on just 35.8% of their tries, the seventh-best figure in the league. In the red zone, they’re even better, ranking fourth by allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 42.9% of their red-zone visits.
Being able to keep the chains moving and being able to finish drives with touchdowns rather than field goals are two important litmus tests for any championship hopeful; this week, New England’s offense has a chance to make a statement by succeeding in those two areas. If they fail, it will reinforce the belief that they are not true contenders.
Final Prediction: Ravens 27, Patriots 24