AFC Divisional Round Scouting Report: Baltimore Ravens

Each week, PatriotsLife will be posting a scouting report of the Patriots upcoming opponent, going over their playmakers, tendencies, and how the Pats might match up. This week needs no introduction: it's the playoffs, and the hated Baltimore Ravens find themselves once again traveling to Foxborough for a prime time showdown. Baltimore got here with a convincing Wild Card win over the Le'veon Bell-less Steelers, and now play a New England team who they've beaten on the road twice in recent playoff history, including the 2012 AFC championship game. Talk is cheap (and knowing this rivalry, there will be no shortage of talk), so lets get right to the X's and O's that will likely determine Saturday night's outcome.

Baltimore offense

When you think "Baltimore Ravens", you probably think of bone-crushing hits and suffocating defense, not offensive brilliance. Thus, it will probably surprise you to hear that the Ravens were a top 10 scoring offense in 2014, with a 25.6 points per game scoring average that ranked eighth in the league.

Much of the credit for this belongs to offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Kubiak never quite got over the hump as the Texans head coach, but his quarterback-friendly system coaxed a career year out of Joe Flacco. Flacco set career highs in passing yards and touchdowns this year, with the seven year pro really settling in during the season's second half. Counting Saturday's Wild Card contest, Flacco now has 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions in his past eight games, with three of those picks coming in one Week 16 game when JJ Watt and Texans completely dominated Flacco's banged up offensive line.

Stopping Forsett will be a major priority for the Pats defense
Furthermore, Kubiak's famed zone-running scheme that famously produced 1,000 yard rusher after 1,000 yard rusher in Denver helped Baltimore's running game get back on it's feet after the Ray Rice debacle threatened to throw their season in a tailspin. Shifty veteran Justin Forsett proved to be a perfect fit for the "one cut and go" system, and responded with a career year, leading all running backs with his 5.4 yards per carry average and setting career highs with 1266 yards and 8 rushing touchdowns. Forsett was also a reliable check down option in the passing game, catching 44 balls for an additional 263 yards.

While Forsett certainly isn't the only offensive weapon on this Ravens offense, stopping him has to be a priority for the Pats defense. Kubiak's offenses have always been run-first attacks and this year has been no different, with the Ravens 448 rushing attempts ranking just outside of the top 10. Furthermore, much of the passing game staples (play action, roll outs, bootlegs, etc...) is set-up by an established ground game. Making Baltimore one-dimensional will go a long way towards beating them.

Over the season's second half, the Patriots have turned to a jumbo base defense when they've prioritized stuffing the run, putting 975 pounds of run stuffing mass out there between Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga in the middle of their defensive line. While doing this week will certainly make running between the tackles difficult, Baltimore's scheme is designed more to stretch a defense thin and create seams rather than to simply power it's way up the middle. The Pats will certainly need good play from their big boys up front, but the onus will be on linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower to flow through traffic and shut down whatever gaps might be there for Forsett to exploit.

Despite being a relatively run-heavy team, Baltimore's offense has a number of components that force teams to keep athletic personnel on the field. One key to this is the mobility of Flacco, which has made him a perfect fit for the bootlegs and designed roll-outs that have always been a Kubiak staple. Like Aaron Rodgers, Flacco is far from a running quarterback, but has enough athleticism to hurt a defense with his legs when given the opportunity.

Flacco has the arm to hurt the Pats if given time in the pocket
When the Pats played Rodgers, they went with a conservative pressure scheme that often held one rusher back to "spy" on Rodgers. Doing the same thing against Flacco would likely be a mistake, as few quarterbacks see their performance dip under pressure as dramatically as Flacco. When given time, Flacco performs like a quarterback with a $120 million contract: 70.6% completions, 7.8 yards per attempt and 22 touchdowns against only 7 picks this year. However, under pressure those numbers drop to 40.6% completions and 5.6 yards per attempt, with his interception percentage jumping from 1.7% to 2.8%.

Flacco has enjoyed excellent protection for most of the year, absorbing a career low 19 sacks. That total is 12 less than his previous career low of 31, and a whopping 29 less than the 48 he took last year. However, late season injuries have forced some shuffling on Baltimore's offensive line, something that New England's disguised pressure looks could exploit. Both starting tackles have yet to play since leaving Week 16's loss to the Texans with injuries. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has missed the past two weeks with a foot injury that has him listed as questionable once again this week, while standout right tackle Ricky Wagner hit injured reserve after suffering a painful lisfranc injury.

Baltimore has coped by swinging Pro Bowl right guard Marshall Yanda to tackle, with rookie guard John Urshel sliding into his old right guard spot and undrafted rookie James Hurst taking over for Monroe at left tackle. So far so good for the right side, where the fifth round pick Urshel has been solid and Yanda has been excellent. However, Hurst has looked in over his head at times at left tackle. He was repeatedly beaten in Houston when Wagner's injury forced him back into duty, and James Harrison feasted on him throughout Saturday's game. We may have seen an entirely different ballgame if Kelechi Osemele hadn't baled Hurst out with a last second block, halting a turnover-producing opportunity for Harrison and buying Flacco enough time to find Torrey Smith in the end zone for a key touchdown.

If Hurst remains in the lineup, it will be good news for Chandler Jones. The ascending star pass rusher has looked as good as ever since his return from a hip injury, and should be able to feast on that matchup if the Ravens leave him alone on an island. I'd expect Jones to receive some extra attention in the form of chips from tight ends and running backs, particularly Forsett, who is able and willing in pass protection despite his small stature.

Forsett performs admirably as a pass protector, but much of the Patriots pressure this year has been aided by Matt Patricia's ability to confuse opposing blocking schemes with his disguises. The blitzing prowess of both Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins gives Patricia plenty of capable rush options to send on any given play. Either linebacker is a nightmare to pick up steaming through the A gap, and Collins in particular has developed a special knack for timing his blitzes with the snap count. These two are hard enough to pick up because of their physical talent, but they become even harder to pick up when there's uncertainty amongst the offense concerning whether one, both, or neither of the backers is coming. That could be a valuable way to attack the inexperience of Urshel inside. Urshel could also be targeted on passing downs by moving a more athletic edge rusher (likely Jones) inside, with Akeem Ayers likely being the nickel rusher added to such looks.

Pressuring the quarterback is especially important against these Ravens because of their tendency to throw down the field for big plays. By most efficiency stats, Baltimore was a middle of the pack passing offense this year, but Flacco's big arm combines with the big play abilities of Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith to make the offense always a threat to go vertical for a big play (or penalty). Smith Sr. became Flacco's most reliable target in 2014 and was a go-to guy again on Saturday, racking up 101 yards on his five receptions. Across from him, the speedster Smith has disappointed with his consistency, catching only 49 of his 92 targets, but he has also poured in some big plays for his team. Despite his down year, Smith still leads the club with 11 touchdowns and 15.7 yards per catch.

Smith Sr's ability to make contested catches (like this) is uncanny for his size
The Smith duo gives the Patriots some interesting things to consider while devising their game plan. Smith Sr. is unquestionably Flacco's leading receiver, and his history of rising up in big games suggests that Darrelle Revis should keep his focus on locking him down. However, that would seem to cast Brandon Browner on the speedier Smith, which could be a difficult matchup for him. As we know, Browner brings a physical presence, but he lacks the top end speed of most corners and is vulnerable to getting burned for the occasional big play. Browner was also second in the league with 9 penalties in coverage despite playing in only 9 games, and he'd be covering the receiver that lead the league in both penalties (11) and penalty yards (229) drawn. If the Patriots do take their shot with Browner on Smith, expect Devin McCourty to be constantly shaded his way.

The big plays of the two Smith's on the outside fuel the Baltimore pass offense, but Flacco has some decent secondary targets to work into the mix as well. Tight end Owen Daniels came in already very well-versed with Kubiak's system, having made Pro-Bowls as a prolific pass catcher with the Texans, and Daniels came through with a solid, albeit unspectacular season. The veteran pass catcher came through with a big four catches for 70 yards in the win over the Steelers, and the onus will likely be on a combination of Jamie Collins, Patrick Chung and McCourty to keep him in check. Forsett's instinctual knack for open field running makes him dangerous on screens and check downs, and depth receivers Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken both have the size and length to be efficient possession-type targets when called upon.

Baltimore defense

Talks of the "decline" of the Baltimore defense were greatly exaggerated. There was always going to be a transition period after leaders like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed departed, but these Ravens have gotten back to playing the smothering, physical defense that has always defined the franchise. Despite a rash of injuries to the secondary, the Ravens defense ranks sixth in the league, allowing a measly 18.9 points per game.

Ngata may be a bigger name, but Williams has been just as good against the run
They've been able to survive an unthinkable six defensive backs hitting injured reserve thanks to a loaded front seven that has made life hell for opposing offensive lines. Baltimore remains a top 3 run defense, allowing a stingy 3.6 yards per carry. Nose tackle Brandon Williams has quietly developed into one of the league's best, and he teams up with the massive Haloti Ngata and former Giant Chris Canty to give the Ravens plenty of run stuffing beef inside. Terrell Suggs remains a monster edge-setter in the running game, and neither Courtney Upshaw or Pernell McPhee are slouches in that department either. If that weren't enough, Baltimore boasts an impressive inside linebacker duo of CJ Mosley and Daryl Smith, both of whom have the instincts, athleticism and physicality to quickly put an end to whatever gets past their stout defensive line.

The Patriots haven't always made it a point to hammer home the run game when they've matched up against tough run defenses. By my count, the Pats have played five meaningful games against an "elite" run defense (two games against the Jets, one at Buffalo, and games with Denver and Detroit). The first Jets game (15 rushing attempts) and Lions game (20) saw the Pats treat the run as an occasional after thought, and the Pats only reached 24 carries in the second Jets game with some late, clock-killing situational football.

Quite simply, I don't think the Patriots are built to just line up and run up the gut against a front like Baltimore's. Instead, I'd expect the Pats to use their personnel to try to force Baltimore into some lighter nickel looks that will provide less resistance on the ground. The Pats did just that against a similarly suffocating defensive front seven in Week 16 against the Jets, going to an uptempo attack with Tim Wright, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon LeFell, Danny Amendola (Julian Edelman was inactive that game) and Shane Vereen on the field for the majority of the second half. This prompted the Jets to match up in the nickel to account for the athleticism of Wright and Vereen in the passing game, and the Pats finally caught a spark offensively.

Can the Patriots take advantage of inexperienced corners like Melvin?
A similar approach makes logical sense against a Baltimore defense whose weakness is clearly it's secondary. Lardarius Webb is back and appears to be rounding into form after struggling earlier in the year with a back injury. Baltimore used Webb to shadow Wes Welker (unsucessfully) in the past against New England and it will be interesting to see if they repeat that strategy with Julian Edelman on Saturday. That would leave Rashaan Melvin, a midseason pickup from Miami's practice squad who has held his own since injuries forced him into an unexpected starting role late in the season, on Brandon LeFell, with the 6'2" Melvin being the rare corner with the height and length to not be at a major physical disadvantage against LeFell's size.

Of course, the Patriots biggest weapon in the passing game is Rob Gronkowski, and the league has yet to prove it has an answer for the All-World tight end. Baltimore safety Will Hill's combination of size and athleticism give him a better chance than most, but asking any one player to handle an assignment like Gronk is a tall order. Much has been made about the Ravens history of postseason success against New England, but it should be noted that Gronkowski wasn't on the field for either of the Ravens Foxborough wins. As usual, Gronk should be a focal point of the Ravens coverage schemes, potentially opening things up for his teammates elsewhere. Wright could be a beneficiary, as the pass catching threat could have some favorable matchups against the depth options of a thinned-out secondary.

Those matchups could become a moot advantage if New England fails to protect Tom Brady, and Baltimore's pass rush remains the biggest reason to fear the Ravens from a Patriots perspective. Suggs and Dumervil are the obvious headliners, with the prolific duo combining for 29 sacks, but Pernell McPhee was nearly as productive on a play-by-play basis as a rotational guy. Ngata and rookie Timmy Jernigan (questionable for Saturday with a foot injury) have complemented that trio of edge rushers with some quality push up the middle, and both Mosley and Smith have been effective when called upon as blitzers. As a result, only Buffalo finished with more than the Ravens 49 sacks.

The Patriots offensive line struggled a bit during the final month of the season, as injuries to Dan Connolly triggered some of the chronic reshuffling that plagued their troubling start. The starting line of Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell and Vollmer is expected to be healthy and available for Saturday, and they'll need to bring their "A" game against this dangerous front. Both Dumervil and Suggs have been productive in the past against the Pats. Dumervil's natural leverage advantage makes him a tougher matchup for 6'8" right tackle Sebastien Vollmer, and Suggs is a terrifying matchup for anyone, let alone the maddeningly inconsistent Solder. Furthermore, the undersized trio of Connolly, Stork and Wendell will likely have their hands full containing the size and physicality of Ngata and Williams up front.

Given Baltimore's relentless approach to pass rushing, the screen game with Shane Vereen could emerge as a viable counter to at least slow the rush of Dumervil and Suggs. I wouldn't he surprised to see either get some extra attention in chips from backs and tight ends as well.

Special teams

The Patriots have reaped the benefits of excellent special teams play all year, and have generally been able to overwhelm opponents in the "third phase" of the game. However, that may not be the case this week, as the Ravens are one of the few teams in the league with special teams that rival those of the Pats.

Jones has made plenty of big plays in big games
This starts with return specialist Jacoby Jones, who remains a big play waiting to happen in his eighth season. A critical contributor to Baltimore's 2012 Super Bowl run, Jones continued to consistently set the Ravens up with good field position. He averaged a healthy 9.2 yards per punt return, but it was kickoffs where Jones did his best work in 2014. All the veteran playmaker did was led the league with his 30.6 yards per return this year, while also scoring the fifth kick return touchdown of his three year Ravens career.

Needless to say, avoiding situations where Jones can hurt them will be a focus of the Patriots special teams on Sunday. The predicted frigid temperature won't help matters, as it will make it much more difficult for Stephen Gostkowski to boom his kickoffs for unreturnable touchbacks. Jones is also amongst the league's most aggressive return men, so the coverage teams will have to continue their excellent play. Punter Ryan Allen will also be counted on for situational awareness when punting to Jones.

The Ravens kicking game is excellent thanks to standout years from placekicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch. Tucker was automatic from within 50 yards in 2014, and his leg strength makes him a weapon both on long distance field goals and kickoffs. Meanwhile, Koch had more punts downed inside the 20 (28) as he had returned (23) while averaging an impressive 47 yards per punt. Both Koch and Tucker were helped by yet another solid season from their kick and punt coverage teams, who play with a lot of physicality and passion.

Of course, the Patriots are no slouches on special teams themselves, and should pose some problems for Baltimore as well. Julian Edelman is statistically the best punt returner in the league and a tough open field tackle for any coverage team, and Danny Amendola has brought a spark to a previously dormant Patriots kick return game. Both return men have contributed their share of big returns this year, and will need to bring their "A" game against Baltimore's physical coverage units.

Other factors to watch

Match their intensity: We all know the Ravens aren't scared of the Patriots; after all, they've won two of their last three playoff games against the Pats in Gillette Stadium (with the only loss being a game they would've won without a missed Billy Cundiff chip shot). In fact, these Ravens seem to feed off of the emotion of these games, with some of their biggest moments coming on plays where they were able to impose their physical will on the Pats, from Ray Rice's opening drive 80 yard touchdown scamper in 2009 to Bernard Pollard's knockout blow to Stevan Ridley in 2012.

Times have changed in Foxborough, however, with one of the changes being that the 2014 Patriots have a bit more nastiness and swagger to them than previous editions. Many have attributed that to the addition of the fiery, nasty Brandon Browner to the secondary, and Browner certainly makes the Patriots a tougher and more physical defense. That team-wide mentality clearly goes beyond one player, and the defense finally has had a full array of talent to blosom into a unit that arguably betters Baltimore's.

Given the stakes at hand, it's imperative for the Patriots to keep their composure and not do anything stupid when the game inevitably goes through chippy moments. However, Baltimore thinks that they are a tougher, more physical team than New England, and it's imperative for the Patriots to make it clear early on that they can match Baltimore punch for punch.

Persistence should pay off

It sounds overly-simplistic, but Bill Belichick was on to something when he summed up what makes Baltimore such a tough opponent with "they keep coming at you". The phrase accurately describes Baltimore's physical, disruptive defense, but also is representative of the entire team. The offense hasn't been as consistent as the defense in Baltimore, but the Ravens compete for 60 minutes and their aggressive, attacking style always seems to give them a punchers chance. This extends to the passing game, which takes a vertical approach that sacrifices some efficiency for an increased chance at big plays. Baltimore may not be known as an offensive juggernaut, but between Flacco, both Smith's and Jones in the return game, they have a lot of guys capable of making huge, momentum-swinging plays.

These Ravens are rarely completely out of a game because of their big play potential, and it will take a complete, 60 minute effort to dispatch them. The Pats experienced some issues with slow starts during the season's final month, and it will be imperative for a healthy, rested and prepared Patriots team to flip the switch and execute with consistency from start to finish on Saturday. This is a Baltimore team that will make them pay for any poor plays they leave on the field.

Rise to the challenge

Count me amongst those that think these Ravens represent the Patriots toughest possible opponent in the AFC field. Not only are the Ravens very good, but they excel at many of the things that give the Patriots problems. The Patriots will need to play their best football to beat them.

With that said, the Patriots are a better, more-talented team than the Ravens. They should beat them, and will if they play up to their capability. It's important for the Patriots to come out loose, confident and ready to play at the high level they are capable of.

Make no mistake, this Patriots club has championship potential, but any championship has to be earned. For these Pats to follow in the footsteps of their last title, a 2004 team that beat a murderer's row of 12-4 Indianapolis, 15-1 Pittsburgh and 13-3 Philadelphia during their playoff run, they'll have to start by beating a team that has given them fits in the past. It won't be easy, but there's no better way to earn it than beating such a hated and evenly-matched rival.