Jan 22, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws the ball as he is pressured by Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis (52) in the first quarter during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
This Sunday we have a rematch of last year’s AFC championship, as the Ravens take on the Patriots. These teams seem extremely similar to last year; the Ravens are a tough physical emotional team that is led by one of the best defenders to ever play the game in Ray Lewis. The Pats are a high octane, electric offensive team that is complimented by its young defense, and of course they are led by a future Hall of Famer in Tom Brady. The Ravens defense is different than what it used to be and the Pats offense is also different from last year. I will look in depth at why they are so different from just one year ago.
Starting with the Ravens, their defense is not as great as it was a year ago, it is older and is not able to keep up with some of the young explosive offenses. Last year they ranked 3rd in total defense, 4th in pass defense, and 2nd in run defense. Those were very solid numbers and in my opinion that defense was elite. This year however they are not nearly as good. This year they are 17th in total defense, 17th in pass defense, and 20th against the run. Those are not good numbers and not even close to elite. So what happened to that elite defense? It is pretty simple. I think it all comes down to injuries.. We all know about Ray Lewis’ injury against Dallas in week 6. That was a huge blow to them, not so much physical, but his knowledge of the game and his leadership ability is incredible. In fact I could make a case that Dannell Ellerbe is a better option at this point physically than Ray Lewis. The second major injury was Terrell Suggs. During the offseason he tore his Achilles, and did not come back until week 7 of the season, and then later in the year tore his bicep. That is an extremely tough break for such a talented player. He has not been the same player we knew all year because of those injuries, and that severely hampers the Ravens ability to rush the passer. The last major injury has been to Lardarius Webb, their number one cornerback. He was lost in week 7 along with Ray Lewis. This was an injury that in my opinion could have been even more devastating strategically than the Lewis injury, because of his great cover skills. Webb is such a great cover guy that while he is not among the Revis’ of the world he certainly is making his way up there. He is a guy the Ravens could put on an island one-on-one with anyone. They now have no player that can do that, and it hurts their ability to defend the pass.
The Pats offense may appear the same on paper, but it is very different from where it was last year in the AFC Championship game. The keys are all still there, they still have Brady directing the show, and have Welker making it go, but some of the important players are gone and others have been added. The Pats lost starting left tackle Matt Light and starting right guard Brian Waters in the offseason, and people (including me) were really worried about the Pats ability to protect Brady. But the Pats plugged in Ryan Wendell, and Nate Solder, and the unit produced, finishing tied for 4th in the league for fewest sacks allowed. The second major change is the implementation of Brandon Lloyd into the offense. He has had a good season and has been extremely overlooked. When he came in, for some reason people were comparing him to the 07 version of Randy Moss, and that is just flat out not fair. Lloyd had a very good season, finishing with 74 catches for 911 yards and 4 touchdowns. But his impact has gone beyond the numbers; his ability to make plays outside the numbers on the field opens things up for Welker, and the two tight ends.
The biggest change from last year to this year has been the Pats running game. Steven Ridley stepped into the starting role when BenJarvus Green-Ellis was signed by the Bengals in the offseason. He has improved a great deal from his rookie year; he has great vision and can burst through holes with the best of them in the league. His backup Danny Woodhead is a great 3rd down back that can make big plays in big moments. When that is coupled with the emergence of Shane Vereen in the divisional round, the Pats have the 7th best running attack in the league. This takes an enormous amount of pressure off of Tom Brady to make more plays in the passing game, which makes him even more lethal.
These changes make for a great rematch between these two teams with a trip to New Orleans on the line. It will be exciting to see how these two units match up against each other when they square off on Sunday.