It will be a tough playoff game for the Patriots Sunday when they play the Baltimore Ravens. Here are the five key areas the Patriots must be able to cover in order to win the game and move on to San Diego next week.
- Gap-discipline among the front-7. Most of the big plays the Ravens got on the ground Week 4, including Ray Rice’s 50-yard touchdown run, came on plays where the defensive linemen shot up the field and did not remain in their gaps. It created a void that the Ravens running backs were able to take advantage of. If the Patriots are going to be able to slow down and contain the Ravens’ rushing attack, they will have to maintain their gap-discipline and force the backs to the outside, where hopefully the linebackers and safeties can make up the ground and make the play.
- Give the tackles, namely Matt Light, help against the pass rush. The last time these two teams met in Week 4, most of the pressure on Tom Brady came from the outside pass rushers. The interior line did a good job blocking the middle pressure, but Matt Light and Nick Kaczur got beat plenty off the edge. The biggest defensive play for the Ravens that game came on a strip sack, fumble, and fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown. Terrell Suggs stripped the ball from Brady after badly beating Light, who had no tight end or running back help. If the Pats want to keep Brady upright and completing passes, they will need to provide Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer some extra help, even if the backs or tight ends just chip the rushers on their way out in their passing routes.
- The part of Wes Welker will be played by….. Wes Welker and the role he played in the offense is irreplaceable, especially by just one player (sorry Julian Edelman). What the Patriots will need is all of their skill-position players stepping up and doing a little of what Welker did. Edelman will be the most prominent player stepping into that role as he possesses a similar skill set, but he doesn’t possess the speed or intelligence that Welker had. The tight ends, the running backs (namely Kevin Faulk), Randy Moss, and Sam Aiken all have to step up and work the middle of the field. When Welker was out earlier this season, Moss caught more short passes and quick slants. He will have to do some of that again, but should have to do less than earlier this season (provided Edelman has developed enough, which I think he has). We may see a return to “old school” Patriot football: dink-and-dunk, ball-control passing game utilizing multiple pass catchers.
- Get Joe Flacco out of the pocket. I’m going to give Tedy Bruschi and his ESPNBoston analysis credit on this one. Flacco is much less accurate passing when he is flushed out of the pocket, so pressure up the middle will be key. Vince Wilfork providing the push and stunts should be able to collapse the pocket and force Flacco out, possibly into a critical mistake.
- Don’t let Jonathon Wilhite cover…anyone if possible (though it’s not due to depth). Most of the Ravens’ big plays in the passing game Week 4 came with Jonathon Wilhite in coverage. While it’s true that one can never truly know if a corner or a safety is to blame when a coverage is blown (we don’t know the play call), Wilhite seemed to be the common denominator. Come to think of it, that has been the case most of the season anyway. I anticipate the starting corners to be Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden, with rookie Darius Butler as the primary nickel corner. Springs has played very well as of late, and Bodden has been solid all year, including a toe-tapping interception off of Flacco Week 4. Add to that the fact that the Ravens’ receivers aren’t exactly speed burners, Springs and Bodden should be able to help contain the Baltimore passing attack.
The time for the talking and analysis is almost up. It’s win or go home for the season now, and the Patriots will have to bring their A-game Sunday to beat the Ravens.