One of the most anticipated games of the season is nearly upon us, as the New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens Sunday at Gillette Stadium. According to all of the players that played in that playoff loss last season, that game left a bad taste in their mouths all offseason and they have been waiting for this game to get a measure of revenge. The Ravens are considered to be one of, if not the best team in the NFL with a 4-1 record. The Pats are a game behind record-wise (3-1) but are not yet considered to be in the top tier of teams in the NFL. A victory Sunday would place them in that top tier and give the team some real strong momentum going into the remainder of the season. With the bye week past us now, the only possible break the Pats could get would be a playoff bye, so they have to buckle down and be ready for the 12 remaining games of the regular season. If the Pats are going to beat a team like Baltimore, they can’t have a better set-up than what they have this week. They’re rested coming off a bye, had two weeks to prepare, are at home, and are facing a team that has already played three road games. Let’s take a look at 5 keys to a Patriot victory Sunday against the Ravens.
1. Match the Ravens’ intensity while staying on an even keel throughout the game. One of the Ravens’ greatest strengths is also one of their weaknesses. The Ravens always get jacked up before a game and their intensity is tough to match up with. That intensity, and the Patriots’ lack of it, during the playoff game last season helped propel their quick start and they never looked back. The Patriots need to come out and match that intensity immediately. However, they can’t let that intensity and emotion get out of control. If things start to go against the Ravens, whether it’s plays or calls they don’t agree with, they can let that emotion get the better of them and knock them off of their game plan. If the Pats can match the intensity of the Ravens but not get completely controlled by their emotions, they can let Belichick’s game plan play itself out and make plays.
2. Use 3-step drops to avoid pressure. The Ravens like to mix up pressure with coverage, and they likely will do that Sunday. However, when they bring the pressure, the Patriots have to be ready, and the best way they can avoid that pressure is through 3-step drops. The ball has to be out of Brady’s hands on that third step. He has multiple targets to get the ball to, and incorporating screens and bubble passes can also work to help supplement the running game. The Patriots are in a better position to make the 3-step work than they were last season in the playoffs. Moss was a vertical threat so 3-step does not benefit him, Welker was hurt, and there were no reliable tight end targets. Now, Brady has Welker, Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Deion Branch to get the ball to, and that’s not factoring in the running backs. All of those receivers can play the short-to-intermediate 3-step game. Look for this quick tempo attack Sunday.
3. Include the running game to keep the defense honest. It’s going to be tough to get a running game going, but that doesn’t mean that the Patriots should completely shy away from it. The running game can keep the defense honest and could open up a vertical route for Tate or Branch. The best running plays could be draws and delays to catch the defense out of position. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, so the Patriots do have an effective running back, but even the best can be stymied by the Baltimore defense. By sticking with a running game, the Ravens won’t be able to pin their ears back and focus on rushing Tom Brady.
4. Control the line of scrimmage. Don’t let the fact that this is listed fourth diminish its value- this is probably the most important key of all. If the Pats can avoid getting bullied up front like they were in the playoffs, everything else can work. Offensively, Brady will have time to throw and the running backs can gain some ground. Defensively, they can stop Ray Rice and the other Baltimore backs and get pressure on Joe Flacco. It all begins and ends up front. It’s not going to be easy. The Ravens are among the best in the trenches offensively and defensively, and an injured Haloti Ngata at DT is still better than most healthy defensive tackles in the NFL. The Pats are in a better position personnel-wise to win in the trenches defensively than they were in the playoffs. Vince Wilfork is healthy, and Gerard Warren and Ron Brace are upgrades over an injured Ty Warren and Jarvis Green. If those three can hold the line, the linebackers can make plays, especially a healthy Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, who is a better run-stuffer than playoff starter Gary Guyton.
5. Maintain coverage responsibilities. There’s a lot of focus on stopping the Ravens’ running game this week, and rightly so. However, you can’t overlook the Baltimore receivers and Joe Flacco. The secondary, as we all know, has struggled this season. They have particularly struggled against play action, and if there’s a team that is in the best position to exploit this, it’s the Ravens. There’s been such a focus on the Ravens’ running attack that I fully expect them to try and take advantage of an overzealous Patrick Chung or other defensive back with play action for a big play. With Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Derrick Mason, the Ravens have the receivers to take advantage of play action. The secondary needs to maintain their coverage responsibilities until it is absolutely clear that the play is a run. If that means an extra yard or two before coming up to make a tackle, that’s certainly better than giving up a 50-yard touchdown pass. Points will be at a premium Sunday against the Raven defense and if the Baltimore offense puts up some quick scores, there is a 0% chance the Patriots win.