This will be the eighth time the Patriots have faced the Ravens since Bill Belichick's 2007 explosion of offensive identity, the most against any non-divisional foe. You wouldn't think it, but the Patriots hold a 4-3 advantage, although they've lost the past two. However, none of New England's victories have come by more than a score (biggest win: 27-21 in 2009). Two of the Ravens victories have been blowouts (both playoff games).
For some reason, the Ravens always step up their game against the Patriots and there's no easy way for Brady and the team to leave with a win.
Running the Ball
First off, the Patriots can't run the ball against the Ravens. That just has to be accepted as a fact. Baltimore's always been an elite defense and there are clear shades of influence from Rex Ryan in the level of pure dominance against the run. Of the Patriots backs with 10+ carries against the Ravens since 2007, only Kevin Faulk holds an average over over 4 yards per carry (4.12). Danny Woodhead is second with 3.6 ypc (and leads the team with 35 carries over this time frame). Bigger backs, like Stevan Ridley (3.45), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (3.52), and Laurence Maroney (2.48) haven't seen much success at all.
Solution: Shane Vereen. He had curiously little impact against the Dolphins and it's clear that he was schemed out of the offense. He was Faulk'd and Westbrook'd by Miami and the Patriots had to make due with the other receivers. He has to be an active part of the offense against the Ravens and it's not just because he's essentially replaced Faulk and Woodhead; it's because he's the most versatile player the team has left and when he's not involved the team becomes handcuffed to predictability.
Sure, let Ridley and LeGarrette Blount handle some of the snaps, but this isn't a game where a decimated offensive line is going to overpower a historically dominant run defense. Know thine enemy and scheme around it. Quick passes and "move" plays in space to get around the defensive line and pass rush. Vereen does that the best.
Passing the Ball
If you want to make yourself nervous, check out Brady's worst days completing the ball. Three of his bottom five have come this season, two against the Jets and one against the Bengals. You'll be quick to add the Ravens into those teams' company as they share coaching styles. In fact, if you look back at the aforementioned list, days 9 and 10 are both playoff losses against the Ravens (and if you want to go further, 8 of the 10 days are against Rex Ryan or the AFC North).
Focusing on the Ravens, they make their bread by removing big plays over the top and playing tight coverage to eliminate the quick passes. Brady's completed only 35.4% of his long passes against the Ravens, compared to 63.7% of his shorter and intermediate throws. The speedy receivers of old (Brandon Lloyd! Donte Stallworth! Sam Aiken! Brandon Tate! ...Matthew Slater) have been 2/12 on long attempts and Brady's thrown an astounding 9 interceptions on his 48 deep passes.
Instead of forcing plays that just aren't there, the Patriots need to improve in the short game. Since 2007, Welker (naturally) leads the team with 60 passes in his direction, followed by Aaron Hernandez (31) and the outside receivers du jour (Lloyd 26, Deion Branch 23, Moss 20). Going to game averages, Lloyd actually leads the pack with 13 targets per game, followed by Hernandez (10.33), Welker (10), and Moss (6.67).
You'll note that there's a distinct lack of Gronkowski, and maybe that had to do with respect for Ed Reed's ability in the middle of the field. But it's clear that the Ravens limit the Patriots offense to short passes, with Brady averaging around 11 yards per completion, a full yard less than his average over that span of time.
Solution: What the Patriots need to do is find a way to replace the production of Lloyd (Kenbrell Thompkins?), Hernandez (Vereen?), Welker (Julian Edelman?), and Moss (Aaron Dobson? Wait...) and still find a way to get the ball to Danny Amendola. Oh wait. There it is.
Brady has a habit of concentrating on individual targets. In order to beat the Ravens, he has to distribute the ball to all of his weapons. Have both Thompkins and Dobson spread the defense on opposite sidelines. Have Edelman and Amendola roam the interior. Have Vereen flex to wherever the heck he can in order to create imbalances in the opposing defense.Those are your five weapons that take the field.
This offense hasn't played the Ravens in the style of football that they'll be bringing on Sunday. There's no Gronkowski pushing the seam and there's now two viable outside targets. The Ravens will be spread more thin than they've ever been against the Patriots. Uptempo football will never be more important.
If the Patriots are going to beat the Ravens, they're going to do it in a fashion we've never seen before. They're going to square off without a tight end up the seam and they're going to do it with a lead back who is more of a receiver than a runner.
I actually believe this Patriots team is better equipped than they have been in past against the Ravens. Historical New England offenses have been very centered, with their top weapons all in the middle of the field, which plays to the benefit of the physical Ravens defense. If the offense can generate some space, holes will develop and yards can be gained.
Let's hope the Patriots can register their first blow out win against the Ravens.