1) Ball control: Despite moving the ball through the air more often than a year ago, the offense has remained true to its grind-it-out style. This group has incorporated more underneath pass plays in the form of screens and dump-offs, which have worked as long handoffs to the backs and the receivers. In addition, tight end Todd Heap has controlled the middle of the field, an area that he barely traversed last season. As a result of this expansion of the passing game, and the continuance of a powerful ground game, the offense has put together long drives and maintained its control of clock. By scoring methodically, they have demoralized opposing defenses.
The time of possession battle will again be critical, especially against the explosive Patriots. In order to keep the offense on the other side from having too many opportunities to score, the Baltimore offense will need to continue to play keep away.
2) Identifying Meriweather: In his third season, Brandon Meriweather has taken over the role that veteran safety Rodney Harrison vacated. Meriweather has emerged as a freelancer capable of lining up in the box or at the linebacker spot to help against the run and to blitz the quarterback. Even if he is not close to the line, he is always a threat to come crashing in from the back end.
Where Meriweather lines up will reveal how what the coverage is. When he creeps closer to the trench area, New England will be in man coverage on the outside. When he stays back, he will have deep support responsibility.
Flacco will have to mark where Meriweather is on every snap. If Meriweather becomes the eighth defender in the box, he will need to attack downfield.
3) Power I: When the Ravens nearly toppled the undefeated Patriots during the ‘07 season, they ran the ball right down their throats. The offensive line attacked the New England linebackers, forcing them to take on blocks and defend the power rush.
Nearly two years later, the Ravens are well positioned to use the same type of strategy. New England remains vulnerable up the middle. They have already lost one of the bigger, more physical run stuffers in Jerod Mayo, and could potentially be without nose guard Vince Wilfork on Sunday.
Expect the Ravens to test the young interior defenders with a straight-ahead ground game. The guards will set an initial block, then peel to the second level, and engage the linebackers. If Wilfork plays, expect the guard and center to block him at an angle instead of head-up. The goal will be to get him moving laterally.
1) Constant Movement: Against Tom Brady, a defense has to show a variety of blitzes and line up in multiple fronts. Otherwise, Brady will be able to key in on what a defense is doing and pick it apart.
That is exactly what Brady was able to do against an Atlanta Falcons front that stayed vanilla in its look. Conversely, against Rex Ryan’s disguise scheme, Brady struggled to identify which defenders were coming and which defenders were bluffing. Brady often had to guess when he made his checks, because there was constant movement before the snap.
Like the Jets, the Ravens have a number of players who can line up in different spots, and interchange before the snap. For instance, linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson have the ability to line up in a two-point stance or with their hands in the dirt; they can also line up outside or inside. Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and Trevor Pryce also have the ability to line up from an inside position or an outside position along the line. And in the case of Ngata, he is always a threat to stand up before or after the snap.
While Ryan was the master of deception, it will be up to current defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to create a similar shape-shifting front using his versatile defenders. Mattison will also need to drill his players to be prepared for Brady’s quick snap. Brady will use this ploy to catch a defense out of position when it dances around before the snap.
2) Four and five-man rush: While the coaches will surely borrow some of the ideas that Ryan used to stymie the prolific New England attack, they won’t do exactly what Ryan did. After all, the Ravens don’t have the ability to bring six, and sometimes seven defenders as Ryan did in certain situations. The Jets left their cornerbacks on an island, even against the venerable Randy Moss; the Ravens won’t be able to get away with putting their corners in that position.
What Baltimore will do is rush four and five players from different spots. The blitz will be implemented but it will not be an all-out attack. The defensive front will have to get the job done because there will need to be six defenders in coverage.
3) Get Brady off the spot: While Brady is still capable of carving up any pass defense, thus far, he has struggled with his accuracy and timing. Part of the problem has been Brady’s mechanics. Coming off of reconstructive knee surgery, he doesn’t consistently step up and drive through his delivery as he used to. He has also had trouble throwing on the move.
Baltimore defense will need to force Brady to reset his throwing motion by flushing him out of the pocket. In particular, overload blitzes off the right side would work to drive Brady to the left, and away from his natural throwing side. If the Patriots spread it out, look for the corner blitz from the slot to be a staple play on Sunday.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch: Haloti Ngata versus Logan Mankins: This was a one-sided affair in favor of Ngata two years ago – now comes the rematch. Mankins remains one of the better all-around left guards in the league. His strength is as a run blocker. He is technically sound and able to get to the second level. Ngata had his way against Mankins because he was able to drive him into the backfield numerous times. Ngata’s bull rush, especially in obvious pass situations, will need to be just as effective as it was in that memorable game.