Belichick has said that Baltimore will present the most difficult challenge that the Patriots have faced this year. But the Ravens are not without flaws as some sketchy performances on the road have shown. After watching footage from several Ravens games, I've decided to share my long-winded thoughts about their team and what it takes to beat them.
On Offense: It all starts with Ray Rice. Everyone knows that he's the engine that makes the Ravens offense go. He is as dynamic a playmaker as you will find in the league and, as the Pats have seen firsthand, he can take it to the house on any given play. He has been slowed down at times though, and here's how:
-Use gap control and disciplined back end defense. Ray is a tough little guy, but he is simply not strong enough to drag tacklers and move the pile. This leads to a lot of runs for very little gain. He usually makes up for this by springing some big runs, which is why gap control is crucial. If he gets into a seam, he explodes through the second level of the defense. Instead of charging up the field with reckless abandon and getting spread out across the line, defenders must focus on cutting off escape routes and funneling Ray towards the other defenders. By staying back more you allow a few 5-7 yard runs, but you can hopefully avoid the 50-70 yard variety. Luckily the Pats got some practice with the "close in slowly" defense against Denver.
-Keep an eye out when he leaves the backfield. Not only is he a great runner, but Ray Rice is the Ravens leading receiver. Interestingly he gets most of his yards when teams simply forget about him and leave him all alone in the flat. When someone is actively covering him he seems to have a difficult time gaining separation and will frequently get tackled for little to no gain. If someone can't get to the QB, they should look for Ray. I saw a defensive lineman chip him as if he were helping to block a pass rusher, and it worked quite well for throwing off Flacco's timing.
A couple other thoughts on the offense:
-Joe Flacco has an excellent arm, but he is still limited as a passer. If you allow him a clean pocket and clear throwing lanes, he can really zip the ball in to his talented receivers. The mid-range post pattern is his bread and butter along with dump offs to Ray Rice and his big TEs. The key to stopping him seems to be disrupting his timing and making him move in the pocket. He has the ability to run, but he usually stands like a statue, and when he does take off he rarely ever throws the ball deep down the field a la Ben Roethlisberger. Making him move at all greatly decreases his accuracy, so hopefully the Pats D-Line can pick up where they left off last week getting a strong push up the middle.
-Torrey Smith is certainly a frightening player, but he can be contained. He's blazing fast, but he doesn't have the greatest hands in the world, and he hasn't shown the ability to go up and take the ball away from defenders. Joe Flacco can certainly throw the ball deep, but his touch on those throws is suspect when his receivers get only a small amount of separation. So really you just can't let Smith get completely wide open, which isn't a given based on the way that the Pats secondary has struggled at times.
On Defense: While Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are the biggest names, injuries and age have caused them to lose a step. After watching closely, I really think the key to beating the Ravens D is slowing down Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.
-Throw off the timing of Suggs.Suggs might be the best in the league at timing his pass rush. It was truly amazing how quickly he's able to get across the line while staying onsides. There are several ways to combat this though. Mixing up snap counts and using a hurry up offense make it much more difficult for him to predict the exact moment when he should burst out of his sprinter stance. That split second can be the difference in allowing a lineman to get good position. Chip blocks on Suggs are also very effective. If he can't get around a lineman with his first move he is frequently washed out of the play, so even a little bit of help can often make him a non-factor. I saw several teams have success with a TE or RB bumping Suggs, then quickly leaking out into the space that he vacated. I expect the Pats to use this tactic on a regular basis.
-Make sure the offensive line is on the same page. Haloti Ngata is a beast of a man. When he gets a path toward the QB, there is almost nothing that you can do to bump him off of it. The key seems to be having a cohesive unit on the OL. He gets a lot of his pressure off of stunts or when the line is trying to pick up a blitz elsewhere. Any time there is a bit of confusion or hesitation on the offensive line, he is quick to take full advantage. Surprisingly though, he doesn't push blockers straight back as much as you might think. If he is blocked cleanly, he often seems like he'll just sit in his gap and simply wait for the play to develop.
A couple other thoughts on the defense:
-The power running game against the Ravens is like banging your head up against a wall. They are too big up front and too good at gang tackling for you to get very far unless you can get their D-Line tired near the end of the game. A runner with a bit of speed has a better chance going off-tackle. Tosses and stretch plays generally give them too much time to pursue. Frankly it seems like Ridley is a better match up than BJGE, but after his fumble who knows how much BB will trust him. Teams have had success against the Ravens with WR and TE screens, so that's something that I fully expect the Pats to try as a running game replacement. And maybe a reverse or two with Hernandez.
-Keep the passing game horizontal instead of vertical. The Ravens are ball hawks and aggressive tacklers. This makes vertical routes a dangerous game of chicken. Crossing routes seem to give them the most trouble, as they have a tough time chasing athletic playmakers across the field, and when they do blitz then the middle of the zone is a soft spot. Luckily working the ball down the middle of the field is a specialty of the Pats, and they may even distract the safeties enough with the tight ends to eventually take a shot down the field on a double move by Branch or Welker.
If you made it all the way through that, congrats! Sorry I got carried away, but this is my first Fan post and I actually did a lot of research. Hopefully I'll figure out how to be more concise in the future. Cheers fellow Pats fans!