Tonight, the New England Patriots will go up against the most complete team on their schedule so far: the Baltimore Ravens are not just heading into Week 9 with a 5-2 record and coming off a three-game winning streak, they are also ranked fifth in point differential thanks to the number two scoring offense in the league and a defense that has allowed the 16th fewest points in football — not necessarily outstanding, but still good enough.
The theme of the day for the Patriots will therefore be ‘complementary football,’ which becomes even more important than in other weeks: the defense will need to bring its A-game, while the offense needs to string together enough positive plays and drives to put the pressure on the home team from the get-go. How will they be able to do that? In order to find out, we spoke with Baltimore Beatdown managing editor Kyle Barber about the game.
And there is one area Kyle identified that the Patriots could be able to exploit: “The middle of the field is the Ravens’ weakness,” he told Pats Pulpit. “They have cycled through many linebackers this season due to the lack of skill in covering tight ends and slot receivers. Also, the left side of the defensive line is vulnerable now with the loss of Pernell McPhee. I expect to hear, ‘Tom Brady to Julian Edelman,’ many times tonight.”
New England, of course, has always moved the football well when targeting the area between the numbers. Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman is the most potent weapon the team has to exploit this vulnerability, but he is far from the only pass catcher in the Patriots’ arsenal to potentially find success against Baltimore: Mohamed Sanu, for example, could see plenty of action from inside the formation as well this week.
This becomes especially important when considering something else Kyle pointed out. “I wouldn’t go after the cornerbacks so much,” he said. “Marlon Humphrey is playing at an All-Pro level and Marcus Peters let his presence be felt in his first week with the team, becoming the first player to intercept Russell Wilson this season. Furthermore, Jimmy Smith is set to return and he’s a great player when on the field.”
“This secondary could be difficult for Brady if they stick with man coverage, something all three corners thrive at,” Kyle continued when speaking about a Baltimore cornerback group that has seen its fair share of movement since the season began. “The Ravens lost multiple cornerbacks to injury, including Smith and recently extended Tavon Young. They were hoping Anthony Averett would take the leap but he failed to do so when called upon early.”
“This left Humphrey to lock up his side of the field but the opposite end was wide open for receivers to feast. They couldn’t find stability from their own roster. This is where Peters has come in and made a name for himself one week in,” added Kyle when breaking down the options — including former first-round draft pick Peters, who was acquired via trade in mid-October and promptly made a big impact during the team’s Week 7 win in Seattle.
Peters is, of course, not the only new addition to this defense that has played a big role so far this season: safety Earl Thomas III was signed to a four-year contract this offseason and has helped limit big plays as Kyle pointed out. “Thomas has shut down most things over the top. He hasn’t been challenged much and I expect it to continue. He’s not in his prime but he’s still flying across the field and making plays when they’re finally in his area.”
Needless to say that the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady will need to be careful when attacking the Ravens through the air: the outside cornerback group is among the best in the NFL, while Earl Thomas is still one of the top deep-field safeties in the league. The middle of the field, on the other hand, might be the place to target — especially with Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and running backs James White and Rex Burkhead available.
Speaking of running backs, the Patriots should of course also try to establish a presence on the ground. While Baltimore’s run defense has surrendered the second fewest rushing yards in the league this season (590), it also had its inconsistencies on a play-to-play basis. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if the Patriots try to play a game they are generally good in: one that is played inside the numbers and with a patient approach.