Rivalry Week on the Big Stage
When asked who Baltimore’s biggest rival is, many fans quickly respond with “Pittsburgh Steelers.” However, I believe that New England is Baltimore’s biggest (or most hated) rival. If faced with the decision of beating Pittsburgh or beating New England, I’m taking the “W” against New England every time.
Unfortunately, many have this week’s Monday Night Football game against the Patriots pegged as a loss.
However, the way that the Ravens stomped Miami (a pretty decent team in their own right) in Week 13 makes me hopeful that the Ravens can pull off an upset in Foxborough. It won’t be easy, and obviously if the offense plays like they did against Miami, the Ravens will be in great shape, but the defense needs to bring their A-Game as well.
So, how can the Ravens beat Tom Brady? Well, unfortunately, I don’t think they can beat Brady. However, I do think that they can beat the Patriots.
By my estimation, the ultimate key to victory against the Patriots is sure tackling. That’s really it. If the Ravens can bring the hammer and stop the Patriots from picking up yards after the catch (a.k.a. YAC), then I think they can win. To expand on this thought, let’s look New England’s Week 13 victory against the Los Angeles Rams.
Patriots Offense vs. Rams Defense
The Patriots ran a total of 73 offensive plays against LA (this does not include the final two kneel-downs). Of those 73 plays, 44 were passing plays. In addition, a majority of their offensive snaps were from shotgun formation. They also used play-action eight times – four from shotgun and four from under center.
Overall I felt that they were pretty balanced with lining Brady up under center and out of shotgun.
One notable aspect of the Patriots is their running game. Against the Rams, the Patriots ran the ball effectively with a three-man rotation of James White, Dion Lewis, and LeGarrette Blount. Blount’s runs primarily came out of I-Formation with James Develin as the fullback.
The other two backs, Lewis and White, were primarily used in shotgun formation because of their receiving ability. Whenever Blount was on the field in shotgun formation, he blocked. Something I noticed about Lewis and White – as runners – is that they almost always look to get outside of the tackles where they use lateral explosiveness and speed to pick up chunk yards. In addition, several runs were designed draw plays where they ran behind Nate Solder on the left side, which can be seen in the following frame:
In this play, the defender in the red rectangle sheds his blocker and has a clean play on the running back, but puts his head down and misses on the tackle. The back picked up nine yards on what should have been a minimal gain.
It is imperative for the Ravens to be disciplined setting the edge and keeping White and Lewis from escaping to the perimeter. They also must use good fundamentals and wrap up against these three running backs. All three are slightly different, but all three can hurt a defense if given the chance.
With Rob Gronkowski out for the rest of the year, several have suggested that the Patriots may not be as effective on offense. Gronkowski is arguably the best tight end in the NFL, so obviously losing him is going to have a big impact on the Patriots and what they like to do with the ball. However, what I saw against LA was an offense that just continues to do what they always do – dink-and-dunk passes down the field then go for back shoulder throws in the end zone. This really is their bread and butter.
Brady never really focused on one particular player and he spread the ball around pretty evenly. He connected with Julian Edelman 10 times and rookie Malcom Mitchell had eight receptions. With Gronkowski out, I figured that Martellus Bennett would be more of a factor, but he really wasn’t. Bennett had just two receptions, but he did have a target in the end zone on a back shoulder throw. Figure 1 breaks down the receptions.
As noted above, Brady passed the ball 44 times and was not sacked. In fact, by my count, the Rams only hit him twice. The Rams have a very good defensive line, but because Brady gets the ball out so quickly, a pass rush against the Patriots is never going to be effective. I measured the time it took for each of Brady’s passes to go from the snap to the release. Figure 2 details that breakdown.
What this graph tells us is that rushing more than four is not likely to work and ultimately it could leave someone open for Brady to connect with.
This is the challenge with Brady and the Patriots. Brady doesn’t throw the ball deep very often and none of his receivers have a tremendous amount of vertical speed. New England’s offense demands their receivers be good route runners and be elusive. In fact, that is the most impressive thing about their offense. They don’t run incredibly challenging routes. Brady’s passes aren’t anything special. What makes their offense go is the fact that all of their receivers are excellent at making defenders miss. The Rams defenders were constantly flying up towards the Patriots’ receivers only to completely whiff on the tackle, giving the receiver room to pick up large chunks of yards. This was especially prevalent on the many screens that the Patriots ran.
Exotic blitzes and a heavy pass rush aren’t going to have much effect when almost 60% of the quarterback’s passes are getting out in under three seconds and 93% are getting out in under four seconds. To stop these short passes, the defense needs to remain as disciplined as possible with their assignments.
Furthermore, tackling has to be a priority. They cannot let guys like Edelman, Mitchell, and Hogan break tackles and pick up YAC. If they can do that, they’ll force Brady into throwing it deeper and potentially turning the ball over.
Overall, I expect a pretty close game, but I am hoping that the Ravens come ready to tackle, because that is going to be the key to victory.