The Patriots and Ravens have played twice over the past year, and both games were fantastic. You probably remember last year's AFC Championship Game, but the Patriots-Ravens rematch from Week 3 was a 31-30 roller coaster that was overshadowed by the Packers-Seahawks refereeing fiasco the following night. Torrey Smith played less than 24 hours after learning about the passing of his brother and had an incredible game in his honor, with 127 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots simply weren't able to stay near him. New England had a nine-point lead with seven minutes to go, and the Ravens seemed to blow their chance to win the game after their bench took a personal-foul penalty with 2:27 left, but they came up with a huge sack of Tom Brady on second down and used their timeouts to force a punt. Joe Flacco drove the team 70 yards in a minute with no timeouts, setting up a game-winning Justin Tucker field goal from 27 yards out that may or may not have actually gone through the uprights. If we get a game that good again, we'll all be lucky.
You never want to draw too much of a conclusion from one playoff game, a topic that I'll talk about tomorrow in the Niners-Falcons preview, but it's impossible to have seen the Broncos-Ravens game without wondering whether there's something different about the Ravens in their current composition. They outplayed Denver outside of special teams, where the top-ranked Baltimore unit from the regular season gave up two long return touchdowns. That such a thing can happen seems to render the whole point of doing previews to be a waste of time, but that's never stopped me before! Let's break down Pats-Ravens.
Each of these teams has undergone a notable shift within its secondary as the season goes along, and the players at the heart of those changes are going to each play enormous roles in Sunday's game.
Baltimore, of course, has been riddled with injuries and changes to its defense. Star cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his ACL in mid-season, while nominal replacement Jimmy Smith suffered a number of injuries and hasn't been the same player since returning. Webb played virtually every defensive snap in the Week 3 contest between these two teams, while Smith was in on 82 percent of the defensive plays. Smith didn't play a single defensive snap last week, with his spot in the rotation taken by Chykie Brown, but the more notable replacement is Corey Graham, whom you may remember running a Peyton Manning interception back to the house last week. Graham was an elite gunner on special teams for the Chicago Bears whom the Ravens signed this offseason to serve as their kick- and punt-coverage dynamo, but the injuries have pushed him into a regular role in the defense. Graham didn't play a single defensive snap in Week 3, but he was suited up for every single one of them against the Broncos last Saturday, and he'll do the same this week. Graham will likely play the ever-important role of slot cornerback in the Baltimore nickel package, where he'll face the guy who tore apart the Texans last week, Wes Welker.
From the press box in Foxborough, it was clear to me that the Texans simply had no way of dealing with Wes Welker that would enable their defense to compete elsewhere on the field while staying within the rules of the game. I wouldn't have blamed them had they tried to dig a hole and casually raked leaves in its direction, but Welker probably still would have caught a pass in a ditch. The Texans were stuck with inexperienced cornerback Brandon Harris on Welker, and when he couldn't do the job, they turned to Shiloh Keo before going back to Harris. Welker moved all around the formation to prevent the Texans from sticking one consistent game plan on him, and when they focused too heavily on him, the Patriots were able to get an even bigger mismatch with their running backs (notably Shane Vereen, likely playing the role of an injured Danny Woodhead) matched up one-on-one in coverage against the painfully slow Houston middle linebackers. Welker had eight catches for 131 yards on 13 targets, and the best defender on him all day was Welker himself, since the diminutive wideout dropped at least three passes from Brady.
Before the 2012 season, it seemed like the Ravens had figured Welker out. In four games against Baltimore as a Patriots player, Welker had averaged just six catches for 43 yards, hardly Welker-type numbers. In Week 3, though, Welker produced an eight-catch, 142-yard game that began a stretch with four consecutive 100-yard games. From watching the coaches tape on the throws to Welker in that game, I can tell you that Welker's performance had some elements of good fortune involved, but the problems aiding that good fortune could very easily come into play again this Sunday.
Take Welker's biggest play of the day, his 59-yard catch on New England's second possession. On that play, Baltimore lines up with Webb directly over Welker at the line of scrimmage. That's nothing new; the Ravens have always made Welker the priority in defending the New England offense. In the past, they would stick undersized cornerback Chris Carr on Welker and give him help from one of their coverage linebackers, either Bart Scott or Ray Lewis. Webb is cut from the same cloth as Carr, as is Graham, Webb's replacement in that role.
Webb blitzes at the snap but then strangely stalls when the running back feigns coming out of the pocket in play action, as if it's a green dog or key blitz, where the blitzer must first see if his assigned man is coming out of the backfield on a pattern before he can rush the passer. Welker, meanwhile, runs an out-and-up against air, thanks to a blown coverage in the Ravens secondary. From seeing what each player did, my guess is that cornerback Cary Williams followed the wrong receiver while Baltimore's safeties got into zone coverages to account for the missing blitzer, but it's impossible to tell without the play call. In any case, Welker was open for an enormous gain. Welker would later get open on a 28-yard gain that saw Webb jam Welker for the first five yards before shooting outside into a zone. Welker simply ran a dig route past the zone of Ray Lewis and had one of the easier catches of the day. For some reason, Reed wasn't able to drive on Welker's route and cut down the space that was available to the Patriots receiver, and you can see his frustration when he pounds the grass after the play ends.
What's further notable about both of these plays is that they came in the no-huddle, and that's where I think Baltimore may run into trouble. For all the veterans they have on defense, there are quite a few spare parts getting extended playing time. Even if Corey Graham has the athleticism and the talent to keep up with Wes Welker, the bigger concern becomes whether the Ravens will be able to adapt on the fly and get everybody in the right place against the league's fastest offense without making mental mistakes. Peyton Manning only had a decent game throwing against the Ravens out of an occasional no-huddle last week, but that Denver offense doesn't run the no-huddle in the same way that New England does. It had a devastating impact on the Texans, and it could end up being a difference-maker against Graham, Brown, and even veterans like Ed Reed. All the talent in the world doesn't matter if you're not in the right place.
The Patriots seem to constantly be overhauling their secondary, so it's no surprise that they continued to do so in 2012. The only difference seems to be that they've actually stumbled upon an effective unit this time. Baltimore hasn't seen New England's current set of defensive backs yet or the impact that the arrival of Aqib Talib has had on the Patriots' personnel.
The turnover in the secondary from last year's AFC Championship Game is almost comical, actually. How can an elite team just run through defensive backs like they're fungible parts? The starters are all doing different things these days. Devin McCourty has moved from cornerback to safety full-time. Kyle Arrington's been benched for rookie Alfonzo Dennard, with Arrington becoming a nickel corner. Sterling Moore might have been the hero of the game after knocking the game-winning touchdown out of Lee Evans's hands in the end zone, but there's a reason Evans had the ball to begin with: Moore didn't know whom to cover on the play and got beat at the line of scrimmage. He was with the Patriots for the rematch in Week 3, but Moore was released and is on the Cowboys roster. The safeties are even further gone: Patrick Chung has fallen out of favor after being the team's big hitter, as he played just one defensive snap last week. James Ihedigbo is in, of all places, Baltimore. He's a backup safety for the Ravens.
McCourty is better off using his size at safety, and utility player Steve Gregory has carved out a role as the opposite number there, but that works because the Patriots have faith in using Talib as their top cornerback. He's the first player New England has really had since Asante Samuel with the athleticism to compete with the opposition's top receiver on a weekly basis, and since the Patriots acquired him from the Buccaneers in the middle of the season, that's mostly where they've used him. Talib has numerous off-field issues and was suspended four games for using Adderall, but that doesn't matter in terms of Sunday. After Talib did solid work against Andre Johnson last Sunday, the Patriots will likely stick him on Torrey Smith and hope that he can hold up in one-on-one coverage. If Talib can pull that off, space is going to be scarce for the likes of Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta across the rest of the field. If not, Smith could match his production from that game in September.
Ball So Hard (to Run)
The nascent Patriots rushing attack will also help determine the shape of the game, but the Patriots are going to need a much more impressive performance than the one they got the last time these two teams played. In Week 3, the Patriots ran the ball 34 times for just 77 yards, an average of just 2.2 yards per carry. New England did no worse than 3.3 yards per pop in any other game during the 2012 campaign. The Patriots did get a carry for -13 yards from Julian Edelman during that game, but 13 yards wasn't the difference between bad and passable; they ran the ball 20 times on first down and failed to gain four yards on 16 of those carries. It was ugly.
What's really interesting is that the Ravens didn't seem to be all that committed to stopping the run in terms of the personnel they used. Whether it was a tactical choice or a decision forced on them by the no-huddle, the Ravens spent virtually the entire game in their nickel 2-4-5 alignment. Mammoth nose tackles Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu both played very limited roles, with Cody participating in 11 snaps and Kemoeatu showing up for 26. Instead, the aforementioned Jimmy Smith suited up on 67 of the defense's 82 snaps, which should mean more playing time for Chykie Brown this Sunday.
If the Ravens can control the Patriots' running game without substituting in Cody or Kemoeatu, it should be a huge boon for their defense, which can then stay in pass-defending personnel sets that match up better against the New England offense. They did this with some success against the Broncos last week, a game in which Haloti Ngata was the only defensive lineman to play more than half the defensive snaps, and even he was at just 64 percent. If the Patriots have success running the ball early and the Ravens feel the need to bring in their big men, that'll create opportunities for the passing game, which could go into the no-huddle against a group of gassed linemen and mismatched people in the secondary.
This season's first game between these two teams was the first contest that Aaron Hernandez officially missed with his ankle injury. Hernandez is back, but this time, the Patriots will be without their other star tight end. Rob Gronkowski will miss the game (and the rest of the postseason) with a fractured forearm. The only bright side about the injury for Patriots fans is that Bernard Pollard will now find it exponentially more difficult to injure Gronkowski during the game.
Hernandez will be ever present, but the Patriots don't have a third tight end who can replace Gronkowski's receiving ability, especially in the red zone. That's obvious. What they'll do instead is rely on the skills of tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who will hope to emulate Gronkowski's vaunted ability as a blocker. When Hoomanawanui is on the field, the Ravens will basically treat him like he's Rajon Rondo in 2008. They're not wrong to do so: He doesn't get the ball thrown to him. Gronkowski played 731 offensive snaps this year (not including his now-infamous work as an extra-point blocker) and was thrown passes on 80 of those plays, for a target rate of 10.9 percent. Hoomanawanui don't play that. The Illinois product was thrown the ball on a whopping seven of his 290 offensive plays this year, a target rate of 2.4 percent. His work will be better felt in the running game and as a pass blocker helping out against the likes of Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs.
You don't need me to tell you that replacing Gronkowski with Hoomanawanui is a victory for both the Ravens and fans of vowels. That's obvious. The more subtle effect worth considering is what Hoomanawanui's presence in the lineup tells the Ravens. Think about last week, when the Broncos lost Knowshon Moreno for the game with a knee injury about halfway through the contest. That forced Denver to rely on Ronnie Hillman and Jacob Hester for the remainder of the contest, creating a matchup problem for the Broncos by virtue of each player's limited skill sets. Hillman can't pass-block, so he couldn't be on the field in passing situations, and his presence in the backfield screamed "running play" to everyone in the stadium. Hester can pass-block, but he can't contribute as a ballcarrier. When he came in on third down, the Ravens shifted their schemes to show obvious two-deep or other conservative pass defenses pre-snap, daring Manning to check the called play at the line of scrimmage and hand the ball to Hester anyway. Manning did just that, but despite the favorable numbers facing the Broncos in the box, Hester's plodding running style produced just 11 yards on eight carries. With his lone seven-yard catch across two targets, Hester averaged a mere 1.8 yards per play on the 10 touches that went in his direction. The Broncos otherwise averaged 4.9 yards per play.
Because the Patriots are stuck with Hoomanawanui or Daniel Fells as their second tight end, the Ravens can read their personnel as they come on the field and try to act accordingly. It's easier to declare and prepare their defensive schemes at the line of scrimmage, too, when a player like Hoomanawanui isn't much of a likelihood to run a route, let alone catch a pass. It's always possible that Hoomanawanui could have a big catch or two when nobody else expects him to get the ball, but it's far more plausible that the Ravens will use Hoomanawanui's presence — and Gronk's more notable absence — to their advantage.
A McKinnie Who Won't Crush Your Head
During the regular season, you and I were about as close to becoming the Ravens' left tackle as Bryant McKinnie was. The 2011 starter and longtime Vikings stalwart lost his job in training camp and fell out of favor in Baltimore, serving only as a swing tackle in those rare cases when he did get on the field. Then, a few weeks ago, head coach John Harbaugh challenged McKinnie to step up his game in practice. That led to a heavy dose of playing time in Week 17 against the Bengals, and an average performance there moved him into the starting lineup for the playoffs.
McKinnie's arrival at left tackle moved other members of the Baltimore line into more comfortable spots. Michael Oher was stretched at left tackle, but McKinnie's return allowed him to move to right tackle, where pass-blocking is a less demanding activity. Rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele — who was destroyed in the late-season blowout by the Broncos — then moved to left guard, with Ramon Harewood falling off the active roster.
The result has been a significantly improved line, especially in pass protection. During their two playoff games, Baltimore has faced a pretty notable set of outside pass rushers: Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Elvis Dumervil, and Von Miller aren't the sorts of players who make for good test subjects against a new offensive line, but the Colts and Broncos combined to sack Joe Flacco just twice in 59 dropbacks during Baltimore's two playoff wins. There was also a significant drop in the number of times Flacco was even buzzed by pressure; after being knocked down on nine occasions in 40 dropbacks during the first Ravens-Broncos game, Flacco was knocked to the turf only three times in 35 dropbacks last Sunday. That sort of pass protection creates the time needed for receivers to get downfield for big plays while eliminating situations that produce bad decisions and costly interceptions.
As good as the line has been, their best might not even be needed on Sunday. New England's pass rush just isn't very good, and its vitals are fading as the Ravens head to town. In 52 dropbacks last week, Matt Schaub was only sacked once and was knocked down a total of three times. That's better than what the Patriots did against this Ravens team in Week 3, though; there, Joe Flacco dropped back on 39 occasions without being knocked down (or sacked) once. If the Patriots can't get pressure on Flacco, he's going to make plays downfield.
I think Flacco will get a few big plays in downfield, but the one downside to his playoff performance might be his inconsistency. He's completed just under 53 percent of his passes this postseason, and if that lack of completion percentage creates a few three-and-outs, that could create too many chances for the Patriots to score and/or dominate field position. I also think the Ravens defense won't be able to handle the speed of the New England no-huddle, an offense that should force a tired Baltimore unit into mistakes all day. New England 38, Baltimore 24.