Even though the New England Patriots lead the NFL in scoring after eight weeks, averaging 31.3 points per contest, the team’s offense has had its fair share of up-and-down play over the last few weeks: the pass protection has only slowly adapted to the injuries along the offensive line, the running game failed to gain positive yardage on a consistent basis, and the pass catching carousel continued the spin that started all the way back in the offseason.
Entering Week 9, it is clear that the unit has some questions to address despite the success it did have during the Patriots’ 8-0 start — and it better find answers quickly considering that the arguably toughest challenge of the awaits: a Baltimore Ravens team that is 5-2, fielding the second most productive scoring offense in the league behind New England’s, and that is coming off both a bye week and a three-game winning streak.
In order for the Patriots to leave Baltimore victoriously on Sunday night, the offense will need to do what the team’s defense did during all previous eight contests: bring its A-game. As coordinator Josh McDaniels pointed out during a media conference call earlier this week, however, it will not be easy considering that the Ravens field as talented a defense as any in the NFL — even though the unit ranks only 16th in scoring.
“We’ve played them a number of times in the last six, seven years. They’ve always been a physical group, which that stands out again, and they do a good job of limiting run game production,” said the Patriots’ assistant coach. “I think they’re top-five in the league in rushing defense; that’s always a good place to start on defense. They’ll challenge you with a variety of different pressure looks and disguises.”
“Coach [Don] Martindale does a great job of putting the players in position to create negative plays, which they do a good job of, and creating long-yardage situations by doing that, whether that’s tackles-for-loss in the running game, or creating issues for the quarterback in the passing game,” McDaniels continued when breaking down Baltimore’s defense. “They defend the red area very well, good in the red zone.”
Baltimore’s defense certainly had some solid stretches of play over its first seven weeks, but some proper contextualization is necessary to get a clear picture of the unit. Just take the run defense that McDaniels called a top-five unit in the NFL: while it is true that the Ravens surrendered the second fewest rushing yards in the league so far this year with 590, the team also faced the fewest attempts on the ground (136).
On a per-play average, however, the Ravens rank just 18th and give up 4.3 yards on an average carry and 21st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic that puts a value on all plays relative to the situation in which they appeared (-4.5%). That being said, the unit still appears to have an advantage over a Patriots offense that gains an average of 3.2 yards per rushing attempt and ranks only 20th in the NFL in DVOA (-9.8%).
Of course, the running game is only one area in which the Ravens will challenge the Patriots as McDaniels pointed out: “They’ve got a lot of good players at all three levels. Some of which we know a little bit about, some of which we don’t, which is going to be an element of getting to know their personnel this week. That’s a little different for us, but they’ve got some guys that can rush the passer, got big guys in the inside part of the defensive line to stop the run.”
“It’s hard to move out of there,” McDaniels added. “They’ve got active linebackers that blitz quite a bit, and then they’ve got good cover guys. I want to say they’ve added seven, eight, nine guys since the season started, so there’s an element of getting acclimated to who’s in there and where they’re all going to be at. As you watch tape — now [Michael] Pierce is there, and [Jimmy] Smith may [be] coming back and where is Earl Thomas going to be?”
The players themselves are only one part of the problem, though, as defensive coordinator Don Martindale also puts them in a position to be successful: the second-year play caller, who took over for former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees, is running an aggressive scheme that adapts on a week-to-week basis depending on the opponent and challenges offenses with different pressure packages especially in the red zone or on third down.
Another factor that will impact the game, as McDaniels noted, will be the crowd: “Big challenge for us on the road. We’ve played down there before. It’ll be a loud environment down there, no question about it. So, there’s going to be an element of the silent cadence, and those types of things, that we’re going to have to do a good job of executing also to hopefully avoid long-yardage situations on the road.”
The Ravens defense does not appear to be on the same level as the Buffalo Bills’, for example, when looking at it from a statistical perspective. As McDaniels made clear, however, the Patriots’ offense will be in for a tough challenge against a physical, well-coached that is playing in front of a home crowd.