By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens for a nationally televised game on Sunday Night Football, kickoff scheduled for 8:35 p.m.
Both teams are coming off of disappointing losses, the Patriots dropped their first home opener in Gillette Stadium since its opening 11 years ago and the Ravens let one slip away against Philadelphia.
This one has been circled for a while in Baltimore as the Ravens look for a little revenge for the loss of last season’s AFC Championship Game held in Foxboro. The game will be missing perhaps the two biggest catalysts in the Ravens-Patriots rivalry in Terrell Suggs and Bernard Pollard.
This will be a great game to watch, so without further ado, it is on to the matchups:
Patriots Running Game-
The Patriots have been showing great patience in the early going, sticking with their running game with Stevan Ridley and showing some positive results. Ridley has averaged 5.0 yards per attempt for the season so far, which is very solid. With their two TEs package, it gives them the option to pass or run and it makes the run harder to defend.
Baltimore has always been very difficult to run upon and as long as Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed remain, their defense will be rock solid down the middle. Where the Patriots may find some running room is running to the outside. Philadelphia ran on the Ravens in second half Sunday, and that is something they pride their defense on, so look for them to try to rebound.
Gone are Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson and with the Patriots being able to disguise their intentions a bit with their two TE packages, this will be an interesting matchup to watch. If the Patriots can find some running room, it will make their passing game that much harder to stop. But Baltimore will be ready for this one. Their key is to force the Patriots into third and long passing situations.
Ravens Running Game-
The Patriots have been outstanding against the run since training camp has begun but this will be their biggest test of the year thus far. The New England base defense with Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love clogging up the middle and the Patriots outstanding corps of young linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower make this unit hard to run on regardless of whoever is running the ball.
The key will be how well the Patriots react to some passing situations, Baltimore has gone this season to a more up-tempo passing game, but Ray Rice will remain in the game being a pass catching threat as well as a running one. This gives the Ravens great flexibility to run or pass and I expect Baltimore to run on some early passing situations and test the mettle of the Patriots sub-packages.
Rice is averaging an outstanding 6.4 yards per attempt this season and the Ravens as a team are averaging 5.3 yards per attempt in 2012. This is a testament on how well their offense has evolved this season.
If Baltimore can run effectively on the Patriots sub-units, it may force them to remain more in their base defense which, in the game-within-a-game matchups would favor the Ravens.
Patriots Passing Game-
Baltimore has traditionally done a good job of holding QB Tom Brady in check but you wouldn’t know it from the record Baltimore has against Brady. One thing is that Brady has mostly been able to make a big drive or play when needed. The good news is, again, Suggs won’t be playing, he’s had some memorable games against the Patriots, and nothing against Paul Kruger or Sergio Kindle, but if I’m Nate Solder I’d rather face either one of them than Suggs. The Ravens may move Courtney Upshaw over against Solder in this one, he’s been outstanding against the run so far this season.
Regardless, Baltimore can still bring the pressure with a lot of players adding in Pernell McPhee, Ngata and Upshaw. One wildcard to watch is Ladarius Webb who can bring the blitz and overload the line from the slot. The Patriots offensive line will have to play much better than it did last week against Arizona.
Webb, Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams are more than serviceable corners and match-up well against Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman and the newly re-signed Deion Branch. Brady and Belichick will spend plenty of time game planning where Ed Reed is and try to force the play away from him; he has that much respect from the team as was in evidence during the NFLN “A Football Life”.
The keys from a New England perspective will be Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. Those two will have to be a big part of the game plan this week and try to find some seams in the excellent defense of the Ravens. If Gronkowski can get singled on James Ihedigbo, filling in for the injured Bernard Pollard, then the Patriots should find some success.
Ravens Passing Game-
The Patriots pass defense has given up only 404 yards through the first two games, but both Tennessee and Arizona don’t throw the ball particularly well so the new look Ravens passing game provides a great test for this young defense.
Joe Flacco seems to have taken off with their uptempo, no-huddle offense this season. Baltimore has two excellent wide receivers in Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin to go along with Rice out of the backfield but the men to watch on Sunday evening will be TEs Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.
The Patriots have had their issues with covering tight ends and both of the Ravens present a difficult challenge for them. I look for Flacco to spread out the Patriots and try to get either a TE or Rice in space against the big linebackers who are thumpers in the running game but all struggle at times in coverage.
The Patriots safeties, Pat Chung and Steve Gregory will have to on top of their games on Sunday and be able to see what is developing in front of them and react accordingly. The Ravens will attempt to keep the Patriots in their base defense and attack that unit through the air, it should be a great chess match.
Stephen Gostkowski was having a fantastic game on Sunday, hitting on four FGs including two of 50 yards +. Then the final kick with six seconds left was shanked badly to the left and the Patriots lost a game it had within its grasp. His kickoffs were also excellent all game and have been thus far this year.
For the Ravens, they cut ties with Billy Cundiff after his heartbreaking miss in Foxboro last January and replaced him with Justin Tucker who has been excellent in 2012. He has yet to miss a field goal including a 56 yarder against the Eagles and has kicked off into the end-zone consistently.
Neither team may get the chance to run back kicks but both teams have had decent returns with punts. Webb and Jacoby Jones handle things well for Baltimore. Edelman had a nice return against Arizona.
Both teams have solid coverage units but the Patriots allowed a Zoltan Mesko punt to be blocked last week. Those things can’t be allowed to happen against the Ravens. Regardless, Mesko is excellent at distance, hang-time and directionality. The Ravens counter with Sam Koch who is very solid, this one is definitely a push.
Baltimore has had this one circled since the schedule was announced, and no one save for the Pittsburgh Steelers get under the collective skin of the Ravens more than the Patriots. The Ravens are definitely seeking some redemption after that AFCCG loss.
Both teams are coming off tough losses and neither lose back to back games often. Obviously, for one of those teams, that will happen. But the Patriots always seem to find a way to win against the Ravens. That’s part of the reason the Ravens find New England so distasteful when they take the field.
They’ve had plenty of opportunities in the past to beat the Patriots, but Brady and Belichick always seem to find a way to come out on top. With a loud crowd and a national television audience watching, they’ll want to make a point.
This one will be a fun game to watch, two of the better teams in the AFC going head to head. I expect Baltimore to come out flying and wanting to put a stamp on this one early. It will be important from a Patriots perspective to weather the early storm and get the crowd out of the game.
A couple of interesting matchups to watch will be Chandler Jones on Michael Oher, Jones has shown to be a force in not only rushing the passer but in setting the edge in the running game. If the Patriots are to win, they will need much more consistent pressure on Flacco than they got in January. Jones will be looked at to provide a lot of that.
Vince Wilfork dominated C Matt Birk during the AFCCG in January and Birk a long-time veteran, may be slowing down. He had a rough game against Cullen Jenkins at Philadelphia last week and he may once again have his hands full with Wilfork at the point of attack.
With the Patriots struggling to protect Brady last week against Arizona, look for the Ravens to come after Brady hard especially in the early going, trying to force the issue and create some turnovers.
The Patriots will have to remain balanced and stay out of third and long situations to keep the defense honest. If they constantly get in second and third downs with a long way to go, it could be a long evening for Brady.
The Ravens learned last week how the uptempo offense can be a double-edged sword as they held the ball for only 4 minutes in the third quarter, which allowed Philadelphia to climb back into the game. Look for them to try to remain balanced and not get away from the run like they did last week.
The keys for both teams will be the tight ends; Baltimore has two very good ones in Pitta and Dickson, they will use the middle of the field to exploit matchups that favor them. The Patriots will be without Aaron Hernandez for an extended period of time.
How much will they miss him? They signed two players to replace him in the meantime, Deion Branch and Kellen Winslow. Winslow has a balky knee and I’ll be surprised to see him play much if at all this week. Branch knows the offense and will be able to step in and play like he never left.
I see Baltimore forcing the issue with the Patriots offensive line and keeping the Patriots backed up in this one. I do think the Patriots will stop Rice enough to give them a chance to win but Flacco will get a big game out of his tight ends Sunday.
Baltimore also gets a big game from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and enacts a small dose of revenge for years of frustration at the hands of Brady and the Patriots. Ravens 24-21