1. Wear out the Big Boys
One of New England’s primary weaknesses has turned into a major strength: run defense. The Patriots’ revamped front seven is big, physical, and gap savvy. Led by the ferocious Vince Wilfork, the Patriots boast a big front that has built on its solid performance in the AFCC against Ray Rice a year ago.
However, it remains to be seen if this group can keep up with the fast-paced attack that the Ravens could present on Sunday night. This is a perfect opportunity for Flacco & Co. to find out.
The no-huddle was a no-show against a faster Philly front. But it should be back in action early and often to keep the Patriots’ bigger front on the field, especially given how Belichick likes to use a heavy rotation with his down linemen.
2. On Roller Skates
In the AFCC, the Ravens finally figured out that using Rice as a decoy to ignite their play-action attack was the formula for success. With more play fakes, including rollouts for Flacco out of the pocket, the Ravens were able to hit on bigger plays downfield.
The New England linebackers and safeties are a fast and talented group, but they can be caught out of position. The Ravens must test their integrity with play-action and misdirection plays, including sprinkling in screens for Rice to take advantage of.
3. Attack the Nickel and Dime CBs
Once the Ravens started airing the ball out against New England in last year’s title game, they were able to rev up their offense. The key was getting receiver Anquan Boldin matched up against the Patriots’ slot corner—receiver Julian Edelman. New England should have a better group to combat Boldin this time around, as Edelman was only pressed for duty when starter Kyle Arrington went down with an injury.
Still, even if Edelman doesn’t see the field, the Ravens have the matchup advantage across the board with their pass catchers against the New England defensive backs. Backup corners Ras-I Dowling and the infamous Sterling Moore are talented yet inconsistent cover corners.
This is a game in which the Ravens should line up in a lot of three, four or empty sets (all of these formations featuring a combination of Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, or both at the same time) to attack the Patriots’ nickel and dime corners.
1. Patriot Games
Let the chess match begin. On one side, you’ve got Tom Brady, an absolute surgeon who can dissect any defense that doesn’t vary its formations. On the other side, you’ve got the former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees and inside linebacker Ray Lewis calling the plays on the field.
Deception should be Baltimore’s No.1 calling card on Sunday. That means keeping the defensive backs moving before the snap so Brady doesn’t get a bead on what type of coverage they are in. And that means plenty of movement from the front seven, especially when it comes time to rushing the pocket.
Brady runs his own version of the “sugar” huddle in which New England won’t huddle. Depending on the pace of the game, he will speed it up sporadically and try to catch a defense off guard. In this scenario, Baltimore needs to keep its defenders from showing their stances too soon. The best move would be to keep the backers and linemen from lining up until the ball is snapped.
Against the Eagles, a similar move was employed to perfection on a third down sack of Michael Vick. Only Haloti Ngata operated from a three-point stance—only to drop into zone coverage—while everyone else stayed standing. With these types of looks, Brady will have a harder time deciphering exactly what type of defense the Ravens are running, and there might be an opportunity to twist up the young New England offensive line’s protection scheme.
2. Man Up
Two weeks into the season, and we have yet to see the Ravens play man-to-man press coverage. The corners have played off the line and given opposing receivers a tremendous cushion.
That trend needs to end against the Patriots. The Ravens should use press coverage to challenge New England’s receivers at the line, in turn throwing off Brady’s timing and force him to hold the ball longer.
All in all, the Baltimore corners are a big, physical and aggressive group. Their forte is to play bump-and-run, and Pees should play to their strengths, especially against a banged up group of smaller Patriot receivers. This is the game in which the Baltimore corners—who touted themselves as among the best in the league at the beginning of the season—need to assert themselves.
3. Don’t Go for the Cheese
While tailback Steven Ridley has certainly emerged as a rushing threat, New England remains a pass first team. Until that completely changes, Brady’s play-action fakes should not be respected.
With Hernandez’s absence, there is a good chance that New England will line up in more three-wide and open formations, making Baltimore’s reads a little easier. Overall, the defense can’t take the bait when Brady fakes the handoff. The defense should be prepared to only play the run after the ball is definitively handed off.
One-on-One Matchup of the Week
Wes Welker versus Lardarius Webb
In a game chalk full of matchups, this one stands out as potentially the most important for both sides. Welker should take up more of the slack in New England’s passing game with Hernandez being out. He remains one of the best route runners in the game and a trusted third-down option for Brady. Webb mostly won his matchup with Welker in last year’s showdown. He has the quick feet to keep up, and the long arms to close on the ball when Welker gains separation.