Double Tight End Crunch
Is it time for tight end Dennis Pitta to get more reps on first and second down? That’s the question facing the purple birds this coming Sunday against the Patriots. Thus far, Pitta’s snaps (30 out of 66 in the last game) have been confined to third down passing situations. Counterpart Ed Dickson has been the primary TE on early downs.
Coming into this matchup, increasing Pitta’s snaps and using him along with Dickson would breathe new life into an ineffective early down offense. Pitta’s ability to flex and motion to the slot lets the Ravens maintain their three-wide looks while also operating from bigger formations. Using both TEs in tandem as pass-catchers, especially on crossers and iso routes over the middle, could lead to big plays against linebackers that lack speed and quickness.
On top of sparking the passing game, running two TE formations will open up possibilities in the running game and also help fortify the edge protection. It all comes down to whether Pitta can handle the workload.
Bunches, Rubs, and Stacks to Free the Receivers
One of the critical elements of this game will be quarterback Joe Flacco’s health. The Super Bowl MVP will wear a knee brace on Sunday after suffering an MCL sprain against Detroit. All signs point to him being okay.
But on the final drive of last Monday’s game, it looked like Flacco’s accuracy was off as he couldn’t plant and drive through his throws. The other issue is whether Flacco has the same mobility to escape the pocket as he’s done so well in recent weeks. Given those factors, one can expect the Patriots to employ a more aggressive blitz to test Flacco’s elusiveness. As Bill Belichick did in the AFC Championship, the Ravens should also be prepared to see more press coverage to complement those blitzes.
The offensive coaches need to prepare for the onslaught and run more diverse route combinations that will keep the passing game on schedule. Bunches and stacks will make it easier for the receivers to get open and for Flacco to get rid of the ball on time.
Back to Basics
Another way the team can protect Flacco is by using tighter formations, keeping extra blockers on the field, and getting back to running the football from their power sets. That also means the return of fullback Vonta Leach to lead the way.
Granted, the Ravens should still operate out of their open formations (three wides) but leaving Flacco exposed too often is a dangerous proposition. Against a New England line that is light up front and getting absolutely pushed around by everyone, Baltimore needs to flex its muscles with a straight-ahead, no nonsense, drive-blocking scheme.
Any Patriots observers can tell you that they are a screen-heavy offensive team. Between using their backs and receivers, no offense does it better. And with the injuries and offseason losses that New England has suffered, they’ve run even more screens to get the ball to their playmakers in space.
The biggest threats in Tom Brady’s arsenal are receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and tailback Shane Vereen. Edelman and Amendola are filling the slot role that Wes Welker left behind while also making up the difference for Rob Gronkowski. They are quick, agile, and surprisingly physical after the catch.
In order to mitigate the effectiveness of the Patriots’ screens, the Baltimore front line defenders have to get their hands up to disrupt Brady’s timing and also deflect the ball entirely. Furthermore, the cornerbacks need to defeat their blocks and bring the ball carriers down in the open field.
Clobbering the Joker
In the Patriots’ offense, the third-down back can be the featured offensive player in that down-and-distance situation. That was the case with Kevin Faulk. And that was also the case with Danny Woodhead. Now, it’s second-year man Shane Vereen—and he’s the most talented player of them all.
Vereen runs routes as well as most receivers. He is also keenly aware of where the blitz is coming from and adjusts his routes accordingly. For Brady, he has turned into a trusted safety valve when he absolutely needs to keep the chains moving.
That being said, the Dolphins revealed the blueprint for keeping the talented “move” player under wraps. They used their backers to hit Vereen before he broke into his routes. And when he lined up wide, they also kept their corners and safeties active to cover him along the sidelines.
The Ravens did a nice job of containing Reggie Bush in a similar role last week. They were able to stay coordinated with their coverage assignments and gave no room for the explosive Bush to maneuver. They will have to carry over the same physical approach to slow down Vereen.
Quick Count Account
The previous incarnations of the New England offense have operated at full throttle. Those groups would execute their fast-break, no-huddle offense to perfection and run teams off of the football field.
This season, the Patriots have been much more conventional with their approach. With Brady questioning the differences in their offensive philosophy during the week, there is a chance we could see the return of their blistering no-huddle offense. If that happens, the Ravens need to make sure they are in the right formations to match New England’s personnel groupings and play at their pace.
One-on-One Battle of the Week
Chandler Jones versus Eugene Monroe
The development of Jones has been impressive and is culminating in a double-digit sack season. He is a physical freak with long arms and a quick first step. Monroe has the athleticism to shadow Jones, but he’ll need to be aware of his deceptive power and constant motor.