The Patriots can, hopefully, count on a solid performance from Tom Brady, Pat Chung, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and a few other stars. What players must emerge on Sunday if the Patriots are going to beat the Ravens?
6. Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick - The Patriots know what they're getting from Wilfork and Mike Wright, as well as from the split plays of Gerard Warren and Myron Pryor. The Patriots need Brace and Deaderick to emerge as Left Defensive Ends if the Patriots want to stop Ray Rice and open lanes for linebackers to attack Joe Flacco. Deaderick played well against the Miami Dolphins as Brace saw few snaps, but both players should be vying for playing time against the Ravens. Who will play better? Who knows. All that matters is that one of these players plays well enough to slow the Ravens' offense.
5. Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington - Much like on the defensive line, the Patriots know what they're getting from James Sanders (eh), Brandon Meriweather (ups and downs), Pat Chung (solid performance), Devin McCourty (fingers crossed) and Jonathan Wilhite (not much). The secondary really needs Butler and/or Arrington to emerge as a starting cornerback across from McCourty. The Patriots will be playing against three receivers who have been #1 on a team at some point in time (T.J. Housmanzadeh, Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason) so the defense will have their hands full. Butler struggled early in the season and Arrington has played mediocre as a #2 (He's exceeded expectations, but when expectations are zero, it's not hard to surpass). One of these players needs to play at a high level to slow the Ravens' passing attack.
4. Brandon Tate and Deion Branch - The Patriots have shipped off Randy Moss, effectively tapping on Tate's shoulder and asking him to step up his game. Branch is a "new" acquisition who needs to justify his trade tag value. Both of these players need to play well in order to provide Tom Brady with reliable targets, but also to stretch the field and open lanes for the running backs. This offense needs to prove that it can produce without Moss- and that means Tate and Branch need to excel.
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3. Matt Light, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and Sebastian Vollmer - This offensive line is playing well enough to keep Tom Brady on his feet, but not well enough to let passing plays develop. The sack counts are low, but the quarterback pressures and hits are way above an acceptable level. Dolphins OLB Cameron Wake had his way with the Patriots before the bye week and hopefully the Patriots have been practicing in order to make sure Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs doesn't have a repeat performance. Ray Lewis dominated the Patriots up the middle of their last game. The Patriots haven't been extremely strong on the outside this season. This whole line needs to gel and perform well by giving Brady time to throw and allowing plays to develop. Also, they need to be able to open lanes for the running backs.
2. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Sammy Morris - Fred Taylor's out. Maybe Thomas Clayton will make an appearance. Whatever happens, the running backs need to perform. They need to balance the offense and prevent the Ravens from dropping 7 defenders back into coverage. They need to force Ray Lewis to stay inside the box to open lanes for receivers. They need to make the offense potent on all facets. They need to block on passing downs to keep Brady's jersey clean. They need to get the first downs on 3rd and short. They need to have a great game against a good run defense.
1. Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham and Tully Banta-Cain - These three players need to reach Joe Flacco. They need to make him eat turf the entire game. They need to get in his head and force mistakes. They need to set the edge to prevent Ray Rice from getting outside. They need to watch the tight ends to prevent first down throws. They need to make plays and make big plays. If the Patriots are to have any type of defensive success, these three outside linebackers will need to put in great performances. Get to Flacco. Set the edge. Watch the tight ends. Do those three things and the defense will thrive.