New England Patriots On Paper: The Bernard Pollard angle


Jan 22, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard (31) in the second half during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium. Gronkowski was injured his ankle on this play. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

The Great Magnet played a cruel joke on the Patriots last Sunday afternoon, but nowhere near as cruel as the one he played on the Baltimore Ravens last January.

Eerily similar, both games featured epic endings:  The Ravens losing to the Patriots after driving the length of the field with mere seconds to play, having to settle for a field goal attempt that would have tied the game after Ravens’ receiver Lee Evans failed to haul in a Joe Flacco pass in the end zone that would have won the game and sent Baltimore to it’s second ever Super Bowl…

…while the Patriots lost to the Cardinals after New England’s defense miraculously forced a fumble in the waning moments, also having to settle for a field goal attempt after Danny Woodhead’s game-winning touchdown run was nullified by a phantom holding call…

…and both kickers missed their attempts wide left.  The biggest difference between the two incidences is that the Patriots lost in an early season struggle, while the Ravens failed on one of the biggest stages in sports…

Even so, many football fans would look at the crazy ending to New England Patriots loss to the Arizona Cardinals and think, “well, that’s Karma for you”.

Truth is Karma doesn’t work like that.

Hard work, attention to detail, sweat, blood, film room, training table…That’s what makes Football Karma.

Football is cyclical – It has no omnipotent being that dishes out justice to keep the playing field level.  Al Davis and Richard Nixon and Hunter Thompson are not lounging around the patio section of the Heaven Hilton sipping on Mai Tais and hand selecting who deserves to win and who deserves to lose…

…or are they?  Regardless, both teams have been on a their high cycles for the better part of the past decade, but many times not high enough, as it turns out.

Both teams have recently been to the zenith – to the edge – close enough to touch the brass ring, only to have it ripped out of their hands, probably by the snot-nosed kid riding the Unicorn in front of them.  For Brady, it’s that hick kid from New Jersey with the slow drawl – “Look!  That Manning kid just took Little Tommy’s trophy – again!  Let’s go beat up his parents!”

Indeed.  And his big brother, too.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Peyton Manning and his Broncos visit Foxborough two weeks from this Sunday.  The focus this week are the formidable Ravens and their tough guy defense.

Because when you think Ravens, you think defense.  You think Ray Lewis, you think Ed Reed.  You think Bernard Pollard?  Strange as it may seem, with the manner in which the Patriots’ offense prepares to attack the Ravens, the hated Pollard may be the player that has the most impact for Baltimore.

No, he’s not going to cripple another of our star players, not on purpose (according to him) anyway.  What the Ravens’ hard-hitting safety will do is fill in as the nickle linebacker, most likely in coverage on Tight End Rob Gronkowski while fortifying a Ravens’ linebacking unit that isn’t nearly as fearsome as they were even a year ago, though still formidable – and that’s exactly where the Patriots’ offense would like to operate.  But to do so, they will have to get past one of the most feared defensive lines in the NFL.

That fearsome defensive line and a savvy secondary sandwich a linebacking corps that took major hits in the offseason as attrition and age and injury have sapped some of their mojo.  Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs is gone for the season with a snapped Achilles tendon, and coupled with the defection of edge-setting linebacker Jarrett Johnson to the Chargers and Ray Lewis’ trouble in coverage has the Patriots breathing a little easier, but not much, especially in light of the talent along the defensive line.

The Ravens use Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata much the way that the Patriots use Tight End Aaron Hernadez on offense, moving him all over the line to create mismatches.  He’s nearly impossible to move in the running game and always demands double teams.  Ngata is just one of many reads that Brady will have to make in setting up his pre-snap protections and adjusting the receiver’s routes – and it’s a good thing that Brady is the master at running the no huddle because he may need that long to account for all of the Ravens…

…Particularly in protection.  As will be the story all year, the Patriots’ offensive line will be in the spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons.   It features a 2nd year former college Tight End as Brady’s blindside protector, a make-shift interior line anchored by a Pro Bowl guard coming off ACL surgery and a Right Tackle with a bad back.  That certainly doesn’t sound like a recipe for success – and it isn’t, particularly in pass protection – but this is a tough, capable group when it comes to run blocking and pulling out on screens.

Brady may have lost his most versatile weapon in Aaron Hernandez, but it doesn’t mean he can’t attack the Ravens where they are most vulnerable.  The key is to keep Baltimore’s aggressive pass rushers off balance, so it is imperative that New England has early success  in the short passing game.  There is no need to try to stretch the field vertically – the key is to keep the corners outside of the numbers horizontally while targeting Welker and Gronkowski in the cleared out zones, and perhaps a newly-acquired Kellen Winslow up the seam to occupy the safeties.  The Patriots won’t get many big plays this way, but they can eat up yards and clock by keeping the chains moving.

Which also opens up holes for the running game.  Stevan Ridley is at his best taking one cut and initiating contact, which helps him bounce off of the would-be tackler and gain yards after contact.  Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen may have roles as well, particularly the speedy Vereen taking a pass in the flat and using his elusiveness to move the sticks.

The Ravens defense is Fearsome, about that there is no doubt.  But they are not impenetrable.  The Patriots have the tools to move the ball and score points, but it is up to Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels to put them in the proper position to make plays and be successful, and to use the no-huddle offense to his advantage to try and catch Baltimore’s defense in the wrong formation, creating positive mismatches, a tactic that has been used too seldom thus far in the young season.

It has been said that New England’s offense can make you feel like you are in the wrong formation every time.  This is one game where the Patriots really need that to be true.

Josh McDaniels, time for you to shine.