|The fiery Smith scored a touchdown the last time these teams met, back in the 2014 playoffs. AP Photo/Elise Amendola|
Ravens offense vs Patriots defense
On paper, the Ravens offense doesn't look like much of a threat. They rank middle-of-the-pack or worst in several telling statistical categories: scoring (21st, 21.3 ppg), yards (17th, 4,172), first downs (20th, 237), team yards per rush (26th, 3.7), net yards per pass attempt (23rd, 5.9) and average yards per drive (28th, 27.7). Lack of commitment to their underwhelming rushing attack has led to an unbalanced offense that has been overly reliant on quarterback Joe Flacco in his return from reconstructive knee surgery. They rank second in the league in passing attempts, but Flacco's mediocre 5.9 net yards per attempt show that the majority of those completions have been of the dink-and-dunk variety. With just 15 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, Flacco is in the midst of his worst statistical season since his rookie year.
With that said, he's also coming off of by far his best game of the season, as Flacco was surgical in picking apart the Dolphins in last Sunday's blowout win. That offensive explosion was certainly unexpected given the low standards their play set for themselves earlier in the season, but less so after taking a closer look at a roster that actually boasts it's fair share of dangerous playmakers.
One of the catalysts against the Dolphins was tight end Dennis Pitta, who was able to consistently get open in the middle of the field against the Dolphins zone coverage. Pitta has shockingly come back from multiple hip surgeries to re-emerge as one of Flacco's go-to targets this year. He's less explosive than some of the other top tight ends the Patriots have faced this year, but Pitta is a crafty route runner with reliable hands who will make tough catches in traffic. In big situations (third down, red zone, etc), Flacco will often turn to Pitta as his safety valve.
Despite the Ravens pedestrian passing numbers, they have weapons on the outside who are more than capable of making explosive plays. The most dangerous one is Mike Wallace, who has resurfaced in Baltimore after being misused in the dink-and-dunk offenses of Minnesota and Miami. At 30 years old, Wallace remains one of the fastest receivers in the league. He hasn't been particularly efficient this year, catching just 62% of his team leading 92 targets, but his 14.9 yards per reception hints at the explosive dynamic he adds to the offense. A Flacco-to-Wallace bomb is an every down possibility that the defense must be prepared for. I would expect the Patriots to shade a deep safety to Wallace's side of the field, giving whichever corner Wallace faces extra help against the deep ball.
Wallace is complimented by the seemingly ageless Steve Smith Sr, who remarkably remains productive despite being 37 and coming off of a 2015 torn Achilles. While Smith hasn't quite been the statistical force he was prior to that injury, he's been a steady contributor for the Ravens while continuing to bring additional value as a fiery competitive presence. Smith's ability to line up all over the formation makes him more difficult to match up with, and he can be counted on to come up big in clutch situations.
|Perriman has the ability to win contested balls down the field|
The presence of Perriman makes Eric Rowe's availability a situation worth watching. Rowe was pulled from the Rams game with a hamstring injury and left Wednesday's practice early due to tightness. At 6'1", Rowe is the only corner on the Patriots roster with enough size and length to not be a physical mismatch against Perriman on the jump balls that Flacco will likely send his way. If Rowe is unable to go, Perriman could be a mismatch for the Ravens to attack with.
Wallace and Perriman are far from the best receiver du The Ravens receiving core is rounded out by former Patriot Kamar Aiken, who has quietly stuck around to have a respectable career after spending parts of 2012 bouncing between the Patriots practice squad and active roster. At 6'2" and 215 pounds, Aiken is another big-bodied receiver. Unlike Perriman, he doesn't offer much as a vertical threat, but the veteran uses his physicality and reliable hands well to move the chains against smaller slot cornerbacks.
After spending much of the season frustrating fans by playing plenty of soft zones, the Patriots secondary has trended more towards man coverage during their recent stretch against less imposing offenses. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues this week, as a solid argument can be made for either strategy. Playing zone will be less risky against vertical routes, which figures to be a defensive focus given the dangerous presence of Wallace and Perriman. However, playing physical man coverage up at the line could throw off the timing of the shorter routes that make up the vast majority of Flacco's passing attempts. Given the uncertain status of Rowe, who appeared to be finding his footing as a starting corner before last week's injury, I could see the Pats trending more towards zone. If Rowe is unavailable, it will thrust either Cyrus Jones or Justin Coleman into a significant role, with either option likely becoming a frequent target of Flacco's.
One way to prevent the deep ball is to not give the quarterback enough time to let those vertical routes develop. The Patriots pass rush has disappointed for much of the season, but is coming off of their best performance of the season. It will be interesting to see how much of that was a product of the opposition, as the Rams have one of the league's worst offensive lines. Baltimore's line is far from the sieve the Patriots faced last week, but there are certainly week spots to attack. Right tackle Ricky Wagner and left guard Marshall Yanda are studs, but top 10 pick Ronnie Stanley has had an uneven rookie year. Stanley has flashed the talent that the Ravens think will help him develop into a top notch pass protector, but there have been some rough rookie moments scattered throughout the year as well. At right guard, a high ankle sprain to rookie starter Alex Lewis has thrust veteran journeyman Vlad Ducasse, a midseason signing, into a starting role. The center position is manned by Jeremy Zuttah, who has had a solid season. Zuttah is a plus athlete for the position, but at 6'4" and 300 pounds he's on the undersized side and can occasionally be pushed around by bigger, stronger defensive tackles.
The Ravens win-loss record has coincided with play of it's lineman this season. A four game losing streak in October coincided with the absence of an injured Stanley, which forced the Ravens to move players out of position and exposed a glaring lack of depth. Stanley returned after the bye week and has steadily improved as he's gotten healthier, with the team winning four of five during that stretch.
The key for the Patriots pass rush this week could be disguise. The Patriots rarely blitz, a trend that will likely continue this week against a team that poses such a vertical threat. However, perhaps bouyed by increased confidence in midseason additions such as Kyle Van Noy, the Patriots returned to the disguised pressures that worked so well for them in 2014-2015. Loaded with linebackers with pass rush ability (Dont'a Hightower, Van Noy, Shea McClellin), the Pats will often keep all of them up at the line of scrimmage, forcing the offensive line to decipher on the fly who is rushing and who will drop back into coverage. This opens up all kinds of possibilities in terms of scheming different stunts, which can help the defense to generate pressure. Combine that with a true four man edge rushing rotation (Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Trey Flowers) that helps to keep all four rushers fresh throughout the game, and the Patriots could be on their way to developing a pass rush late in the season. Flacco will make the occasional risky throw when the heat is put on him, and the Pats building on last week's positive showing could go a long way towards negating the risks posed by his vertical weapons.
When the Ravens do run, their primary ball carrier is 2014 third round pick Terrance West. West flamed out quickly in Cleveland but has re-emerged in Baltimore, winning a crowded camp competition for the "bell cow" role. A big (5'10", 225 pound) punishing runner, West is theoretically the kind of ball carrier who can wear down a defense, but the Ravens pass-happy play-calling has rarely afforded him the chance to do so. Given said play-calling, I would expect the Patriots to spend the vast majority of the game in nickel personnel, making it imperative that their "front 6" can win up front and keep the Ravens from gashing their lighter personnel on the ground.
|Dixon has flashed passing game ability since earning a role in the offense|
Ravens defense vs Patriots offense
The real strength of the Ravens, as it usually is, has been their defense. They've allowed the second fewest points (17.3 per game) and the fewest yards (3,553) and first downs (199) in the league, all while forcing the fourth most turnovers (22). Their front seven has allowed next to nothing on the ground (a league low 3.4 yards per carry), while a secondary that was a question mark at the start of the season has developed into a ball-hawking unit (14 interceptions in 12 games). Furthermore, the pass rush continues to get better, as veteran stars Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs appear to be peaking at the right time of year.
|Williams (98) and Jernigan (97) are a formidable pair in the middle|
Those two are backed up by the quality linebacking duo of CJ Mosley and Zach Orr. A first rounder in 2014, Mosley has been one of the league's top all-around linebackers since his rookie season. More than capable as a run stuffer, blitzer or coverage option, Mosley is currently PFF's 10th highest graded linebacker in 2016. Orr, on the other hand, has continued a long-standing Ravens tradition of developing undrafted players into productive starters at his position. Orr has been a tackling machine in his first year as a starter, helping the Ravens to shrug off the loss of veteran leader Daryl Smith.
The Ravens pass rush hasn't been overly impressive throughout the year, but has gotten a big boost recently from the finally healthy Elvis Dumervil. The veteran missed a solid chunk of the year with a foot injury, but has come back the past two weeks to bring a spark the Ravens defense. His presence in the lineup makes it much harder to scheme against Terrell Suggs, who remains a productive player despite coming back from a 2015 torn Achilles at age 34. Suggs leads the team with 8 sacks and has looked more and more like his old, game-wreaking self as the season has gone on. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have played well all season long, but will face one of their toughest tests of 2016 in this one.
Given the Ravens ability to shut down the run, keeping Tom Brady clean will be essential to what figures to be a pass heavy game plan. Baltimore's secondary has played well this season, but remains weaker than their stout front seven. The Patriots best plan of attack may very well be to spread the Ravens out with three receiver sets and attack their depth corners, who have been exploited whenever top option Jimmy Smith is out of the lineup.
Barring any unexpected injury this week, Smith will be out there against the Pats. He's had an up-and-down career since becoming a first round pick in 2011, giving up plenty of big plays but also flashing legitimate shutdown form at times. The Ravens have used him like a true number one corner, allowing him to track number one receivers. It will be interesting to see if they use him like this on Julian Edelman, who figures to see an uptick in usage as the Patriots offense continues to adjust to life without Gronk.
Smith is bookended by rookie Tavon Young, whose emergence as a quality starter plugged one of the biggest holes on Baltimore's roster. The Temple product was under drafted due to his lack of prototype size (5'9"), but he's displayed sticky man coverage ability and the ball skills to compensate for being undersized. If the Ravens track Edelman with Smith, that will likely leave Young against either 6'1" Chris Hogan or 5'11" Malcolm Mitchell, both of whom could try to use their size advantage against him. Young typically bumps inside to the slot when the Ravens go nickel, with veteran Jerraud Powers coming in on the outside. Young left last week's game with a shoulder injury but hasn't missed practice time this week. If he were to re-aggravate his shoulder issue, both Powers and fellow veteran Shareece Wright would be thrust into larger roles, giving the Patriots a theoretical advantage on the outside.
|Webb has made a successful position switch from corner to free safety|
While LeGarrette Blount is unlikely to be overly effective against this stout Ravens front, the Patriots two passing down backs could be a major part of this week's game plan. Baltimore's linebackers are better against the run than the pass, and neither one is an ideal matchup against the explosive Dion Lewis or steady James White. Checkdowns to those two could also be a good way to counter the Ravens pass rush, as such quick developing throws won't allow Suggs and co enough time to effect Brady's rhthym.
The Patriots have the special teams edge most games, but that could be in question this week against a Baltimore team that once again ranks amongst the league's best. John Harbaugh made the rare rise from Special Teams coordinator to Head Coach, thanks somewhat to an endorsement from Bill Belichick, and his units have consistently aided the Ravens throughout his tenure.
The Patriots will be hyper-aware of return specialist Devin Hester, who remains a dangerous threat at age 34. Hester doesn't have a touchdown this year, but he's made plays nonetheless for the Ravens, including a 60 yard kickoff return. The Patriots kick coverage teams have been excellent all year and will have to bring their "A" game to this one. This is a game where the leg of Stephen Gostkowski will matter, as he'll be expected to limit Hester's opportunities by booming his kickoffs deep into the end zone despite playing outside in December at Foxborough. Punter Ryan Allen will need a big day too, as he'll be expected to use directional punting to limit Hester's space.
The Ravens offensive numbers have actually been bolstered somewhat by the presence of All Pro kicker Justin Tucker. Tucker is the only kicker in the league who has yet to miss a kick, including a perfect 8-8 from 50+ yards. His range allows the Ravens offense to salvage points from drives that would end in a punt from most teams, a factor which narrows the defense's margin for error.
The Patriots do have a question mark in their own return game, as Cyrus Jones was benched last week after his season-long struggles with ball security continued with a muffed punt. Jones' replacement, Danny Amendola, suffered a high-ankle sprain that is expected to sideline him until the playoffs, leaving the question of who will handle return duties for the remainder of the season. Do they roll the dice and put Jones back out there, in spite of his difficulties securing the ball? Do they risk the health of Julian Edelman, whose importance to the offense has been heightened with the loss of Gronk? Perhaps recent practice squad call up DJ Foster, who flashed in limited preseason opportunities, could carve out a role here? Time will tell, but whoever seizes the punt return role could have the opportunity to make a big play against a Ravens unit that has allowed a touchdown already this season.