By: Steve Balestrieri
Much of the talk this week leading up to the Patriots and Ravens meeting in the playoffs for the third time in the past four years has centered on Baltimore’s ability to disrupt Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game. Specifically, the Ravens pass rush with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil bringing the heat from the outside.
It has been something the Ravens have done well against Brady and the numbers prove it out. But as Tom Brady himself put out, these are two different teams than the ones who met in the AFC Championship Game in 2012.
The Patriots have a more physical wide receiver in Brandon LaFell; who can go into traffic and bring yards after catch, something Brandon Lloyd seemed loath to do then but the biggest weapon at the Patriots disposal on offense is TE Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski was lost to injury during the 2011 AFCCG where the Patriots beat the Ravens and hasn’t been available in the playoffs for the past two years. He gives the Patriots a tremendous matchup nightmare for Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees and the Baltimore defense.
When looking at how New England may attempt to target the Baltimore defense we looked at two games using the NFL’s All-22 film. That was the Ravens home game against San Diego where the Chargers utilized TE Antonio Gates and the Patriots game against Detroit, who also have a very effective pass rush.
Speed it up, Spread it out: San Diego, as New England should, spread out the Ravens defense. It forced them to commit and with a subpar secondary, there were mismatches to take advantage of. The Bolts at times used the up-tempo to stop the Ravens from changing their personnel, which helped tire out the pass rush.
A bigger part of this strategy is, that it gets the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly which again, helps negate the pass rush. If Brady is getting rid of the ball in 2 seconds or less, it is much more unlikely the pass rush can get to him.
The first play highlighted used Gates on a stick route down the right side. He was singled up on the right side. The Ravens are in a single high safety look.
Gates runs 15 yards straight down the numbers and with his size advantage is given plenty of cushion by the defender. It is an easy pitch and catch for Philip Rivers.
Near midfield the Chargers again spread out the formation, Gates again is aligned to the right. The Ravens play tight coverage and show blitz.
At the snap, the Ravens come after Rivers, Gates runs a very short crossing route, Eddie Royal runs a pick play in the middle, which gives Gates just enough cushion to catch the ball and turn a 2 yard pass into a 18 yard gain.
Patriots Detroit Parallel: In Week 12, the Patriots used a similar look facing the Lions stout rush defense and pass rush. And at times against Detroit the Patriots used their “12” package, 2 WRs, 2 TEs and 1 RB which I believe they’ll look to against the physical Ravens defense.
By spreading out the defense, Brady made many short throws which allowed him to complete 38-53 passes for 349 yards and 2 touchdowns. Tim Wright and Rob Gronkowski combined for 10 catches, 114 yards and 2 TDs.
In this first highlighted play, Gronkowski lines up in-line with Wright, LaFell and Edelman split outside. Shane Vereen is aligned to Brady’s left and will remain in to block.
At the snap, Gronkowski recognizes zone and runs a stick route where he’s able to box out the defender easily for a big gain and gets him into open space where he is always a difficult runner to bring down.
On another highlighted play, the Patriots align with 3WRs (LaFell, Edelman, Amendola) and 2 TEs (Gronk, Wright) split wide. The Lions are in a Cover 2 look and are playing off coverage.
LaFell reads the coverage and runs a 13 yard route where Brady puts the ball a tad short but one where LaFell is able to haul it in for a wide open pass.
NE Advantage Where Pittsburgh/SD Failed: One other advantage the Patriots have in this game is the big running backs, LaGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray. San Diego’s running game was virtually non-existent this season and in the Wild Card Round, the Steelers La’Veon Bell was out hurt.
The defense will have to respect the ability of Blount to run and can help slow down the pass rush. If they spread out the defense and Pees chooses to blitz, it opens up the middle to some traps and draws to Blount which can make the defense pay. Like Gronkowski, Blount in the open field is a dangerous, difficult man to bring down.
Shane Vereen is also a valuable member of the offense and could be another weapon in the passing game. One area that the Patriots could use him is to split him out wide and force the Ravens to split out a linebacker to cover him. It is a bit of a speed mismatch and removes a piece for the Ravens to double team Gronkowski.
They will probably opt to not do that anyway, judging from the way they approached Antonio Brown last week, but it removes options. The Patriots will have a tough matchup this week but have the weapons for Brady to use to win this game. Brady has bigger, more physical targets this time around and with three receivers with over 950 yards in the passing game, he needs to use all of them.
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