1. Ball Control Offense
To beat Brady, you might be better off not facing him at all. For the Ravens, the mission will be to hog the ball to win the time of possession (TOP) battle and keep the Golden Boy off the field.
Much has been made of how the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to “out-Brady” the Patriots’ offense by mixing controlled passes with some power runs. The result was the Steelers controlling TOP for 39 minutes.
In that game, Roethlisberger was masterful and hit on a lot of short passes. The Steelers’ passing game was an extension for their running game.
The Ravens have to take a page from Pittsburgh’s plan, although there certainly won’t be 50 pass attempts coming from Flacco. Instead, tailback Ray Rice will be heavily involved both as a runner and a passer.
The passing game will have to be built on underneath routes, including bubble screens to spring the wideouts and Rice in the open field. The intermediate, middle routes will also be prevalent to take exploit the Patriots’ zone shell.
More than anything, Flacco has to be on top of his game on third down to sustain drives.
2. First down passing attack
In order to stay on the field and convert on third down, the offense has to have manageable third-down situations to work with. This is especially true against New England.
Flacco probably won’t have more single coverage matchups to work with than on first down, when the Patriots may use more eight-man fronts to slow down Rice. This would be an ideal down to pass the ball to gain yardage and set up third-and-short conversions.
It’ll be tough for Flacco to make a living converting third-and-long situations, especially against the Patriots zone defense. It’ll be imperative for the Ravens to be effective on first down. In order to have success, they must take advantage of the one-on-one matchups.
3. Zone beaters
As previously mentioned, the Patriots will play a lot of zone. They’ve used the zone to cover up their deficiencies on the backend.
The Ravens have struggled at times against zone coverage. However, they have the personnel to complete passes over the congested middle.
If receivers Torrey Smith and Lee Evans are able to expand the zone by running through it, they’ll either be able to get on top of the deep safeties or help open space for the slot receivers and tight ends over the middle.
4. Green light offense
Given the stakes, this is the time for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to unveil a more aggressive offensive attack. This does not mean having to abandon the run or spreading the field with pass-heavy formations.
Simply, the offense must change things up at times, stop being predictable, and put the ball in Flacco’s hands to make plays when the opportunities arise.
Whenever the Ravens have lost big games in the past – including last year’s 23-20 OT loss to the Patriots in Gillette Stadium – they became ultra conservative on offense to protect a lead. Against an offensive powerhouse like New England, that strategy just won’t cut it.
The Ravens need to throw haymakers. They need to go for the win.
1. Play your man – except for Gronkowski
There has been a lot of conversation about which personnel packages would work best to slow down New England’s high-powered, multifaceted passing attack.
What makes defending the Patriots so difficult is that they can line up in different formations, play-to-play. Their staple is their two-tight end package with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as interchangeable pass-catchers.
Either player can line up and motion anywhere on the field. The same can also be said about receiver Wes Welker.
With so many moving parts, the philosophy should be to play as much man coverage as possible. Now, for the assignments:
Lardarius Webb will check Wes Welker – more on this matchup later.
Cary Williams will stay outside to defend Deion Branch (or Julian Edelman or Ocho Cinco).
Jimmy Smith will check Hernandez.
For the most part, these defensive backs most hold up without consistent help from the safeties. If these assignments can hold up, it’ll enable the rest of the backend defenders to focus on Gronkowski.
2. Bracket Gronkowski
Finding a way to contain Gronkowski is the ultimate task – one which few defenses have been able to accomplish.
Containing Gronkowski means committing more than one defender, playing a combination of high-low coverage, and making sure that he is accounted for at all times.
The difficult aspect of tracking Gronkowski is that will run a variation of routes, including a lot of outs and screens. The Patriots like to get this huge TE in space so he can run through defenders.
The Ravens will need to use a designed defender – much like they will with Welker and Gonzalez – to hit and run with Gronkowski underneath, wherever he goes. The difference is that a second defender should also be available to provide help if he stretches deep.
The key defenders to run with Gronkowski will be safety Bernard Pollard – coming down in the box – and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is the best cover LB on the team.
3. Dimes and Nickels
The Ravens best bet would be to use Pollard more than Ayanbadejo, especially on first and second down, to cover Gronkowski. At 6-1, 220-pounds, he has the size to help defend the run and his presence on the field won’t tip the Patriots as clearly as if Ayanbadejo comes into the game.
The question is, what type of base defense would the Ravens line up in on early downs?
With Pollard in the box, the Ravens could play more dime, with Lewis as the true Mike LB. This package would also enable defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to bring a third safety or a fourth cornerback to play pass defense or even blitz.
When Pagano mixes a second LB like Ayanbadejo or Jameel McClain in the game to defend the run, the nickel package would be a straight three corner, two safety look, but Pollard would play deep along with Ed Reed to support the corners and check Gronkowski.
No matter what Pagano does, he can’t use the same combination on every down or Brady will get a beat on the formation and attack it adeptly. Pagano should have multiple dime and nickel formations to counter the multiple New England formations.
4. Press the receivers
The biggest exclamation mark that appends this defensive game plan comes down to not only playing a lot of man coverage, but hitting the receivers at the snap. Without any form of bump or press coverage, receivers will run free and Brady will hit them in stride.
The group of backers, safeties, and corners on the field will have to line up and get ready to hit all day long.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Lardarius Webb versus Wes Welker: Webb has the athleticism and timing to disrupt Welker. He is also playing his best football at the right time. The third-year cornerback will likely get the single coverage assignment to run with Welker, wherever he goes. The difficult part about defending Welker is that he’s incredibly quick and all of his routes look identical. He can make a sudden cut and break a route in an unforeseen direction. It’ll be up to Webb to not bite or guess.