4 teams, 3 games, 1 champion, it’s really the business end of the season now, for this week we decided to split up the teams and take one each to write up a gameplan, Seth and James will be taking the AFC Championship game here while Bryan and Coley are taking over the hypothetical staffs of the 49ers and Giants. You can read their preview by following this link here. Up first comes Seth’s approach for the Baltimore Ravens.
There are really only two questions that can be asked about the Ravens v Patriots game on Sunday:
Can the Ravens stop the Patriots?
Can the Patriots continue to not give up points like they have all year?
Yes the Patriots are ranked 15th in the league in points allowed, at just over 21 per game.
Yet I have heard nonstop about how Tom Brady is dragging this historically bad defense to the best record in the AFC and will have to do so in the playoffs as well.
There is no denying the Patriots defense gives up tons of yards and when that happens that has a tendency to come back and bite teams in the ass, but this Patriots team has played through it with ease to this point.
So how do the Ravens combat this?
Can the Ravens slow down the passing attack of the Patriots? We know it is impossible to stop them completely, hell even the Steelers gave up 2 TD passes to the Brady led attack.
Let’s take a look first at the Ravens on defense, and exactly what they need to do in order to win this game.
We can see from the two Bills highlights as well as the Steelers highlight, if you would be so inclined to click on the link, that the plays all have one thing in common: A four man pass rush.
The key to slowing down the potent Patriots attack is coming with only a four man rush, sometimes even a three man and then dropping into coverage with the remaining defenders taking away the deep throws, especially to their TE’s.
Here is a little highlight package of what Rob Gronkowski has done so far this year.
If you notice most of those routes are done in two forms: Short and to the outside, or long and down the middle of the field in either seam routes or crossing routes.
The problem is obviously identifying and figuring out how you are going to take on each route.
When matched up with a LB the Pats typically send Gronk out on deep routes, but the real problem is when he is matched up on defensive backs.
The Pats use Gronk in a plethora of ways against the DBs and it is what makes him so difficult to defend not just him, but the entire Pats lineup.
When Hernandez and Welker are your second and third options in the offensive passing game you know you have a wealth of talent.
The Ravens have two objectives here:
First you can’t bring pressure on the blitz as ESPN AFC East Blogger James Walker points out so well:
“This season Brady has the highest completion percentages (67.1), yards (1,582) and passer rating (135.6) of any NFL quarterback when teams bring five or more rushers. Brady also is tied with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the most touchdowns passes (16) this season against the blitz.” All stats from Dec 22, 2011
Everyone knows you have to get to Brady to make him uncomfortable, but it has to be in your base setting, as the Bills and Steelers did in their wins over the Patriots.
The second thing obviously ties into the first, but you have to give Brady different looks as the game goes along in coverage. Switch up from man, to zone, to cover two. Make Brady adjust as the game goes along, don’t allow him to get into a rhythm because once that happens, it’s over for you.
Terrell Suggs has to not disappear again, like he did last week against the Texans, and make plays all over the field, but mostly in the Patriots backfield.
Ed Reed is going to have to make sure that he keeps everything in front of him and after every catch he that is made that he continues to tackle well.
When the Ravens Have the Ball:
Really simple, have to maintain long, clock killing drives and get points out of those drives.
Ray Rice has to continue to produce in the run game.
Joe Flacco can’t have one of his Wacko games, and Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith can’t drop passes if the game is on the line and the Ravens are driving.
There isn’t nearly as much to the offense, because they are going to move the ball, everyone does against the Patriots, but they have to score on those drives as we talked about earlier.
The Patriots defense is as healthy as it has been all season, but their pass rush seems to have dwindled, and Flacco has to have a good game, because the Patriots are going to gear up more to stop the inside run game of the Ravens that burned them so badly in 2010.
All in all, this game comes down to the Ravens defense not allowing Tom Brady to go all, well Tom Brady, and has to give the offense a chance to own the time of possession.
I think the Ravens defense is up to the task, and if the offense can get good Flacco, they have the ability to control the offensive TOP and pull out the mild upset victory.
The 49ers have to expose the short middle of the field early, in order to force the Giants to change their defense and open up the outside and deep routes, if they don’t, it will be much of what we saw against the Packers, the Giants d-line pinning their ears back and going hard after Alex Smith, and not getting anything over the top.
I think the 49ers are better than I gave them credit for, but I still don’t think they win this game, but I am picking it much closer than I did last week.
Playing Bill Belichick: James Caughlin (complete with hoodie).
In 12 years as head coach of the New England Patriots, this is the 6th time he has advanced this far in the playoffs, an impressive feat but the loss to Indianapolis at this stage in 2006 and the Giants in the Super Bowl in 2007 still burn, you know he will want to make amends after disappointing ends to the previous two seasons that at different times promised so much. The defense, HIS defense (since he is the coordinator by default) has taken so much crap this year from all involved. That pass defense has been historically bad as 2010’s rookie phenom Devin McCourty struggled in his sophomore season, the offense meanwhile has just taken off since the back-to-back losses to the Steelers and Giants in November. Now they are one game off their 5th Super Bowl trip in 11 seasons, standing in their way are the Baltimore Ravens who won the street fight last week against Houston and now travel to Foxborough to fulfil their own Super Bowl ambitions.
Last time these two teams met in the playoffs the Ravens belted the crap out of a depleted and dejected Patriots team handing Brady his first home playoff loss. It finished 33-14 Baltimore and it should have been by more given the lack of fight shown by the Patriots. It’s a different Patriots team this year though, the starters on defense that day were (to the best of my recollection/NFL.com’s videos) Ron Brace*, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Adalius Thomas, Junior Seau, Jerod Mayo, Tully Banta Cain, Leigh Bodden, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather and Darius Butler. Out of that group, only 2 starters have been held over with Brace down on the depth chart and the other 8 being jettisoned at various points. The offense has undergone significant changes as well, gone are starters from that day Randy Moss, Sam Aiken, Chris Baker and Lawrence Maroney. They have been replaced by Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead and the team has a renewed sense of toughness that was sorely missing for a couple of years.
When on Offense:
The biggest focal point of the game comes down to how well the Patriots can handle the Ravens pass rush, Suggs can take over a game but his chances to get a hit on Brady will most likely be limited. One or two times making the tackles look like turnstiles and you can count on an adjustment to the protection scheme to take Suggs out of the game. You will see one of Gronkowski, Hernandez, or Danny Woodhead helping out on Suggs’s side of the line getting an extra hit and forcing him to make that extra move to get to the quarterback. The biggest issue for the Patriots has been when pressure comes up the middle and Haloti Ngata has the ability to bitch slap Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell or anyone in the middle of the Patriots line. The best way to counter that concern is to turn to Lousaka Polite or the ever reliable veteran Kevin Faulk, in what is likely to be his final playoff run, who is far and away the best pass protection back on the roster. Faulk’s intangibles of know where to be to stop the rusher will go a long way if the line needs an extra body without sacrificing receiving options for Brady. To counter the physical nature of the Baltimore pass rush, at some stage in the first quarter after a couple of decent gains look for Brady and co to flick the switch and go no huddle to pick up the pace of the game and tire the Ravens defense out. If Brady can go 6, 7, 8 plays without giving the Ravens a chance to take a breath, the defense will be gassed early on and it will slow down the big guys up front.
The no huddle will be complimented by the fact that New England can run a variety of sets and formations with the same 5 guys on the field. The “top 5” package as I have come to call it this year consists of Branch, Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez and Woodhead (or really any of the backs). According to the Madden listings, that comes up as a 2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB personnel grouping but Hernandez and Gronkowski are versatile enough to line up on the end of the line as traditional tight ends, out in the slot receiver position, way out on the flanks as a receiver or in the backfield as a fullback/H-back role. Even Danny Woodhead has the ability to go out as a receiver so you could see New England really spreading the field forcing the Ravens to either go into a sub defense or play base with some physical mismatches. Look for Brady to audible into some runs if the Ravens go nickel or dime with the extra defensive backs to take advantage of the wider holes to fit through.
First film study assignment for the week, watch the Ray Rice touchdown run from the 09 playoffs. Coach’s advice, don’t let that happen again! Starting off in a 4-3 alignment I would go with what has worked all season (well as much as anything could work on that defense) and put mini-Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, in next to the actual Vince Wilfork and as bookends go with the youth pairing of Mark Anderson and Brandon Deaderick to combat the physicality of the Ravens line. To cover up Anderson’s weakness against the run, look for Rob Ninkovic to shift to that side and provide some run support. When Baltimore goes to the run out of a two backfield set, they bring in a player who is almost the best run blocker in the league in Vonta Leach. To counter the Ravens attempting to drive the ball right down New England’s throats, they will bring their two thumpers into the game in middle linebackers Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung, both of whom aren’t afraid to throw their weight around in a tackle. Look for Spikes and Chung to take the combination of Leach and Rice to try and stop them breaking a big play.
Best case scenario for the Patriots defense is for Baltimore to think that their best chance to go pass happy and overestimate Joe Flacco’s ability. It’s entirely possible however, the week after a big win (Steelers, Bengals etc) where they grind Ray Rice, they try to pass a bit more. The most notable example is in Seattle when Flacco threw over 50 times and Rice ran only 8. Even with the shoddy pass defense I still wouldn’t count on Joe Flacco to beat the defense. To counter the Ravens passing game when it is needed, look for New England to employ the wrinkle we have seen in their last three games where Devin McCourty moves up to free safety with Chung rookie corner Sterling Moore comes in to pair with Kyle Arrington. Moving McCourty back to safety is he can start 10-15 yards back and take away Baltimore’s biggest passing weapon, the deep ball to Torrey Smith. Look for McCourty to shade to Smith’s side, even in single high safety looks with Chung down in the box to provide that over the top coverage. Playing tight man coverage underneath should close down the spaces and open receivers as none of the other players appear to have the speed to break free like Smith does.
Final Pick: I picked this matchup at the start of the playoffs and I can’t pick against Brady, who really does seem motivated enough to drive his team to the Super Bowl. Baltimore will get more red zone opportunites but the Pats defense will tighten up and force field goals as opposed to touchdowns.
NFC Championship: 49ers -d- Giants