Ray Rice will be a major focus of the Patriots defense Sunday Night. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey G. Pittenger-US PRESSWIRE

New England Patriots On Paper: Horrible Sanity

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

If we are to believe this quip from Albert Einstein to be true, then the Baltimore Ravens have been insane for quite some time.

How else can one view the Ravens?  For a dozen years now, the Ravens have been one of the better teams in the NFL, relying on violent defense and their ground game to propel them to a 124-84 record during that period,  making the playoffs eight times since 2000, and winning the AFC North three times (2003, 2006, and 2011).
 
None of these successes have translated to a Super Bowl appearance, however, yet the Ravens have never changed their mode of operation, doing the same thing over and over again, game after game, season after season – the very thing that makes them successful in the regular season proving to be their Achilles heel when it really matters.
 
Tough defense will always be part of the recipe for championship teams but, increasingly, having a good balance on offense is just as key an ingredient – something that Baltimore has never been able to boast.  They can run the ball down your throat and their defense can stymie you for significant stretches of a game, but if they happen to fall behind, they’ve never had the mind-set nor the horses to score quickly…until last season.
 
That last minute drive in the AFC Championship was a thing of beauty.  Flacco took the team on his shoulders, driving the Ravens down to the Patriots’ 13 yard line – and then Patriots’ safety Sterling Moore happened to them – twice – and the rest, as they say, is history.
 
But the one thing that Ravens fans can take to heart from that drive is that their Quarterback had backed up his words and became an elite Passer.  The Ravens are no longer insane, or have they just entered into a what the great poet Edgar Allen Poe once mused as a “long interval of horrible sanity!”?

But what do we really know about Joe Flacco?

Well, we know that his peers respect him, but perhaps not enough.  He sits at #74 on the list of the top 100 players in the NFL, being the 9th rated Quarterback on the list – but Flacco thinks he should be at the top of that list…

“I assume everybody thinks they’re a top-five quarterback. I mean, I think I’m the best.  I don’t think I’m top five, I think I’m the best.  I don’t think I’d be very successful at my job if I didn’t feel that way.”

…and we could beat that into the ground, but he’s right.  The fact is that Flacco has thrived in Baltimore, starting every game since being drafted #18 overall in 2008, compiling a 45-21 record speaks to more than just defense and his running game.  He has prototypical size and a missile launcher for an arm, which he trusts a little too much as he is intercepted often – 47 in his four years – trying to squeeze a ball into his receivers instead of throwing it away.

The Coaching staff has been increasing his responsibilities each year, this season adding more of an up-tempo flow to go along with his fine new receiving corps that has the potential to be lethal.

Torrey Smith (Who is questionable for tonight’s game due to the death of his brother early this morning) is a rocket that can easily stretch the field vertically while ultimate tough guy Anquan Boldin demands attention both inside and outside the numbers and newcomer Jacoby Jones is a burner – but Tight End Dennis Pitta could end up being Flacco’s favorite receiver when all is said and done.  He has great size and speed and has already caught 13 balls in the young season, averaging over 10 yards per catch.

And when speaking of receiving threats, one would be remiss in omitting the impact that Pro Bowl Running Back Ray Rice has.  Not just a safety valve, Rice caught 76 balls for over 700 yards in addition to his standard 1,300 yards on the ground and rarely is pulled from the field.  Rightfully so, Rice is considered to be the Ravens greatest offensive threat and will be targeted by Bill Belichick as the man that has to be contained.

Protecting Flacco, his offensive line is a mixed bag, probably something like we saw with the Cardinals last Sunday.  The interior line consists of a nice mix of youth and Geritol as Anchor Matt Birk starts at Center for something like his 30th season and is book cased by guards Ramon Harewood and Logan Mankins look-a-like Marshal Yanda .  Together, these three form an imposing run blocking trio as well as protect Flacco’s grill.

But while Flacco’s face may be protected, the same can not be said about his backside.  Michael Oher, whose inspirational story was made into a movie a few years back, is a solid run blocker but his technique and nastiness as a pass blocker has not developed as hoped – and as a result, Flacco has taken some nasty hits.  Right Tackle is a revolving door, so it’s a good thing for Baltimore that their Tight Ends are as good as blockers as they are receivers.

Defensively, the Patriots focus should be on Rice.  In the first two weeks, Belichick’s defensive charges have managed to completely shut down Tennessee’s Chris Johnson and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, so is there any reason to assume that they can’t shut out Rice as well?

Indeed, there is.  With Rice being a more versatile talent than either of the afore mentioned stars, it will be tougher to key on him – perhaps requiring a shadow safety like Tavon Wilson.  Rice has a similar skill set to that of Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, and must be contained inside the tackles in the running game, and chipped as he comes out of the backfield as a recieving threat.

In the recent past, the key to containing Rice was for New England to push out to an early lead and force the game into Flacco’s hand.  In years past, this strategy has been good enough.  But now, with Flacco gaining more responsibility and having more weapons to throw to, the task is no longer the better option – more or less, it’s now a game of pick your poison.

Who knows?  Perhaps the Patriots play the Ravens straight up, matching strength against strength.  The way that the New England Defense has shown major improvement in the first two games, that may be enough to get the win.

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Tags: Baltimore Ravens Joe Flacco New England Patriots

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