1. This is a Rice Game
In the 2009 playoffs, Ray Rice shocked the Patriots with a handoff on the first play of the game that went 83 yards into the end zone. The Ravens never looked back, going on to clobber New England 33-14 in Gillette Stadium.
Since then, Bill Belichick has focused his attention on stopping Rice. The three-time Pro Bowler’s production over the next three games has dipped, as he’s averaged 85 yards on the ground per game.
Given Joe Flacco’s downfield aerial show last Sunday against Denver, the script has flipped back in Rice’s favor. Just as Denver started keeping two safeties back to slow down Torrey Smith, expect the Patriots to use the same approach on first down and second down. Also, if the Ravens operate from a one-back, spread formation, the defensive backs and linebackers will have to widen their defensive stances away from the box.
The spacing should be favorable for Rice to do some damage. For Rice to be effective, he’ll need to be involved on more counters and traps away from the middle of the line where Vince Wilfork roams. In fact, Houston had success out of the trips formation when they ran the ball away from Wilfork to the open side of the field.
As a receiver, Rice can also be dangerous in the open field, and should be isolated against linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower. While both backers are tough run defenders, they don’t have the foot speed to keep up with Rice. This was a matchup advantage the Texans were able to exploit with Arian Foster in spots but didn’t go to nearly enough.
With Bernard Pierce fighting a knee injury, Rice has to step up. This game has his name written all over it.
2. Influence the Safeties
New England has revamped its secondary since the last time these two teams met. With newly inserted safety Devin McCourty, rookie Alfonzo Dennard and corner Aquib Talib, the Patriots have been playing more man coverage—a staple of Belichick’s defenses.
How the safeties move and flow on the back end will dictate where Flacco should drive the football. As we mentioned, Smith will undoubtedly attract safety help over the top. That means the middle will be open.
The Ravens did a nice job of using Dennis Pitta in the slot out of their single-back sets to attract a safety’s attention to Smith’s side. While the Broncos shifted to Pitta in these situations, the Patriots may play things safe, which should give Pitta an opportunity on deep posts and seam routes.
If Rice and Pitta become factors early in the game, the safeties might start to creep back inside. Moreover, this is an aggressive secondary, so mixing in play-fakes and pump fakes could get the safeties moving and reopen up the sidelines for Smith and Jacoby Jones to exploit.
3. Third Down Awareness
During this post-Cam Cameron run, Flacco’s footwork within the pocket has been much more precise and fluid. When the pocket collapses around him, he’ll climb or escape, and he does a nice job of keeping his eyes downfield on his receivers.
Flacco’s ability to move to open space within or outside of the pocket to keep plays alive will be critical, especially in third-down passing situations. The Patriots don’t have the pass rush that Denver has, but they will challenge Flacco mentally with deceptive blitzes, and they’ll take more chances.
Flacco needs to play with patience in his post-snap reads and be a playmaker when the opportunities arise.
1. Press Coverage
In the regular season matchup against New England, the Baltimore corners gave up too much space underneath and it cost them. Tom Brady was able to work the sidelines and attacked cornerback Cary Williams with comebacks and stop routes.
Against Denver last Sunday, the Ravens faced a similar scenario until they changed up their coverage to have the corners press and take away deep comebacks and out routes. Brady will work those same quick-hitting routes off of a three-step drop to Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker or Aaron Hernandez if there is no disruption. The cornerbacks need to play more aggressively this time around and get their hands on the New England receivers before they release into their routes.
If the corners are effective jamming the receivers, the action will throw off Brady’s timing and could lead to a coverage sack or two.
2. Stop the Run on Early Downs
This is not your typical New England offense. Though New England comes into this game as the third-highest scoring offense in NFL history, they have achieved a lot of their success by running the ball.
The running game is especially effective from the two tight end set. Although Rob Gronkowski left last week’s game against Houston in the early stages, the Patriots continued to operate out of the same look and used Michael Hoomanawanui as a blocking TE. When the third-year player is on the line, there is a better chance that a tailback will get the handoff.
What makes the formation difficult to defend is that the Patriots will move him around to the slot and use him in the passing game. In effect, when he is on the field, it is not a given that they will go run-heavy.
The Baltimore front seven will need to get off of blocks and pinch inside when the formations get tighter. Just as they did against Denver, the Ravens will have to find a way to limit the rushing yardage that New England gains on first down and second down. If Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen get going, the defense will struggle with Brady’s play-fake.
3. TE Stunt
Back when the 49ers squared off against the Patriots during the regular season, the left side of New England’s offensive line was assaulted by the tag team of Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. The two Smiths executed the tackle-end stunt to perfection against Brady. In these situations, defensive end J. Smith would engage offensive tackle Nate Solder while linebacker A. Smith would loop around.
This type of pass rush could be devastating on the left side or right side, with either combinations of Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs or Ngata and Paul Kruger applying pressure. The main cog is Ngata. His ability to drive hard and engage the offensive tackle would free up the edge rusher to chase Brady.
One-on-One Matchup of the Week
Matt Birk versus Vince Wilfork
Realistically, Birk will get plenty of help to block the mammoth nose guard. It’s no secret that Wilfork dominated Birk in their last postseason encounter, so it’ll be interesting to see how the venerable center adjusts. Combination blocks and a scheme to get Wilfork moving laterally will need to be in play. Birk needs to match Wilfork’s intensity and play with better balance in the AFCC rematch.