By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday with a lot at stake concerning the 2013 NFL playoffs for both teams. The Patriots can still finish anywhere from the 1-6 seed, except the 5th seed or miss the playoffs entirely.
While each is vying for their divisional crowns, neither one yet has secured a playoff berth and with a win the Patriots would get both. Baltimore holds the sixth and final playoff spot in a tiebreaker with Miami and could win the AFC North with wins over the Patriots and Bengals.
This week’s matchup provides a big test for the Patriots and, in particular, the defense. The Ravens offense struggled for much of the year, as did QB Joe Flacco, but they are much healthier now and Flacco has all of his weapons back. Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones have returned and going along with Torrey Smith, Ed Dickson, Marlon Brown and Ray Rice, gives Flacco plenty of options.
This week’s film study will take a look at some of the Ravens’ plays that the Patriots may see on Sunday courtesy of the NFL’s All-22 coach’s film.
The one player that has been mentioned a lot this week is Dennis Pitta, and he was a big part of last seasons AFC Championship game where Flacco was 8-for-8 for 80 yards and 1 TD when targeting the middle of the field on short-to-intermediate throws. Bill Belichick spoke about him this week while talking to the media, noting how effective he is.
“Excellent player, does a really good job,” Belichick said.
“A key guy in the offense that Joe Flacco has a lot of confidence in and goes to him in critical situations – third down, red area, end of the game and two-minute-type of situations. He’s a go-to guy and a guy that has had a serious injury, but looks like he’s come back from it well and worked hard in rehab. He’s made good contributions for them since he’s been back,” Belichick added.
On this play against Detroit, Pitta is lined up in the slot on third and nine and gets a free release off the line of scrimmage. Pitta runs up to the first down marker and once the linebacker makes contact, he breaks to the outside for an easy catch for a first down.
Flacco has a clear passing lane and Pitta is wide open well past the sticks for the first down. Flacco’s safety valve on the play, Bernard Pierce, is also in the throwing lane and open underneath, but Flacco was going to Pitta all the way on this play.
From the end zone view, Pitta goes up to the 30 yard line, leans into the linebacker and breaks to the outside. Flacco has him all the way. Pierce, obscured partially by the goal post, runs a short route and is there if Pitta is covered. Flacco has a clear path to see the play and throw the ball for an easy first down.
Near the end of the first half, Baltimore is driving and have a 1st and 10 at the Detroit 30 yard line. The Lions are playing off nearly 10 yards with plenty of deep help trying to prevent a touchdown.
Flacco and Pitta both recognize this, and Pitta runs a 7yard route and just stops where he’s open, catches the pass, and has plenty of room to run for a first down inside the 20 yard line. The Lion’s defenders (in red) aren’t in a position to influence the play. Again Flacco has a safety valve, with Pierce wide open for at least a 5-6 yard pass in the flat.
On long passing situations, one particular play the Patriots defense has been susceptible to has been the screen pass. On Monday, the Ravens showed if the pass rush is coming after Flacco, they can execute very nicely utilizing Ray Rice.
All four of Detroit’s defensive linemen get penetration and no one accounts for Rice coming out of the backfield. Rice has three blockers out in front and is able to get a nice gain by following his blockers.
One player not mentioned much this week but who may play a key role is the big WR Marlon Brown. Here he is lined up at the right side of the formation; Smith is lined up at the top of the screen and runs a deep pattern down the sideline. The Lions are in a Cover 2 with the safeties 18 yards deep. Brown runs a deep slant to the middle of the field.
The linebackers reacting to play-action leave a sizable gap in the coverage and Brown gives Flacco a nice target over the middle. Flacco actually has plenty of options here, Smith has gotten separation on the sideline and Brown and Jacoby Jones are both open in the middle but Flacco has recognized that Brown is open first and is going in his direction.
The result was a 24 yard gain that set the Ravens up in Lions territory. Dickson was the safety valve and was given a large cushion underneath, but he doesn’t get a look because the deeper options were open.
While the Patriots may see some different looks, one thing that stands out was that Detroit was obviously giving the Ravens deep passing game plenty of respect and were more than willing to give up the underneath routes to prevent the big play.
And while they actually stopped Baltimore from scoring touchdowns on Monday night, the Ravens were able to kick enough field goals to pull out a victory. But now healthy, their offense is much better in the passing game than earlier this season.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots choose to combat their passing game, with Flacco less than 100 percent with a knee injury. They may opt to bring more pressure and get to him since he can’t move around the pocket as well as normally.
But in the AFC Championship Game last season, they didn’t get nearly the pressure they were looking for and Flacco was able to have a big game as the offensive line easily won the battle in the trenches. That will bear watching as the game unfolds.