The Patriots and Ravens game on Sunday represents a totally possible AFC Championship game. Last season, the Patriots nabbed the win in the regular season only to get romped in the playoffs. What should be watched during this season's game?
3. Ray Rice Returns. 22 carries, 159 yards, 2 touchdowns. This was Ray Rice's stat line in the playoffs last season during the game that eliminated the Patriots. Every single one of Rice's runs were up the middle or against Mike Wright at the Right Defensive End position, with all of his big runs coming against Wright. This season, the Patriots defense has added Gerard Warren, but has lost Ty Warren. Teams still plan to avoid Warren (and Wilfork), which means that Rice will be running a lot at whoever mans the Left Defensive End position. Which Patriots player will get that job? Either Brandon Deaderick or Ron Brace. Myron Pryor gets on the field on sub-sets to give Gerard Warren a break and Wright only steps on the field at the RDE spot. How will Deaderick or Brace perform against one of the most explosive running backs in the league?
They'll need help- there's no doubt about that. Unfortunately, if they're playing LDE, that means they have Rob Ninkovich as support and he's very weak at defending the run at the point of attack. He's easily blocked and is unable to set the edge, which means that Rice will be running off-tackle a lot. In order to counter this weakness, the Patriots need to set Pat Chung and/or Jarrad Page in the box to spy Rice the entire game. Rice will be used in both the running and passing game and needs to be stopped.
Look for Rice to not only attack the LDE, but also to be used on screens and play actions. The young defense of the Patriots has been biting on play fakes the entire season and the Ravens will absolutely use this to their advantage. Count the times Joe Flacco fakes the hand-off to Rice only to dump a pass to Rice on a screen. It will happen and it will happen a lot. Having Page or Chung shadowing Rice means that they won't/shouldn't cheat up to attack the quarterback and leave Rice uncovered.
So a big match-up to watch is how the Patriots defend Ray Rice.
Read the other two match-ups after the jump!
2. Tom Brady's Blind Side. Other than Ray Lewis, only two players, who will be active this week, on the Ravens defense should strike fear into Tom Brady's heart- Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. Unfortunately for Brady, both of these players will be attacking his blind side the whole game. Ngata is a terror for any offensive line and can collapse pockets. With the Patriots interior line of Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly all "above-average" at best, Ngata should make them look "average".
Suggs, on the other hand, is just a menace. In 2009, in the two games, he had a sack and a forced fumble in BOTH games. He was blitzing Brady left and right and was creating plays for everyone else on the already strong Ravens defense. How will Matt Light handle Suggs, if he can? How will the running backs handle the blitzes? Brady wasn't given any time to throw the ball in the playoffs and will need time if he wants to dissect the supposedly weak secondary of the Ravens. So how will the Patriots protect Brady?
Expect a lot of 2 TE sets from the Patriots. Alge Crumpler and/or Rob Gronkowski should be on the field at all times and should give Brady a little more time in the pocket. How much time is the question and the key for the Patriots offensive success.
1. Brand New Receiving Core. Wes Welker. Deion Branch. Brandon Tate. Julian Edelman. (Taylor Price). Aaron Hernandez. Rob Gronkowski. Alge Crumpler. Danny Woodhead. All of these players are potential receiving weapons for Brady to use on offense. A lot of talk will be focusing on how the Patriots will succeed (or fail) without Randy Moss on offense- but seriously: how will they perform?
Which players will be getting open? How will they be getting open? Will everyone be getting open at certain points, or will Brady start focusing on Welker again? Will the Patriots be using a short-field passing game to counter for the fast Ravens blitzes?
Look for the Patriots to use a lot of slants, short and mid-range throws, screens and tight ends to move the ball down the field. Brady won't have a lot of time so he won't be throwing the ball far down field. Welker and Edelman will be on screens and quick throws. Tate and Branch will be used on the outside on go and out routes. Herndo and Gronk will be used up the middle of the field. Woodhead will get the ball from the backfield. Hopefully the offense can get into a groove and get the Ravens' defense off balance.
Other Obvious Match-ups:
a) Patriots Secondary against the potent Ravens passing attack. Will Flacco demolish the secondary, or will the young Patriots defense be able to hold their ground? How will Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, Kyle Arrington, Jonathan Wilhite, Brandon Meriweather, James Sander, Pat Chung and Jarrad Page handle T.J. Houshmanzadeh, Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap?
b) Patriots Special Teams. If Tate can continue to give the Patriots great field position, the offense will be much more productive.
c) Patriots generating pressure. Can Jermaine Cunningham and Tully Banta-Cain get to Flacco? Will Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton be used on inside blitzes to catch the Ravens off-guard? Will there be any secondary blitzes?