For the second straight season, the Patriots and Ravens will meet at Gillette Stadium in the AFC title game. This will be the second meeting of the year between the two teams, and the sixth time between them in the last four years, so when we say these two teams know each other pretty well, we’re not kidding. But there’s still the potential for surprise -- with that in mind, in this edition of “Scout’s Take,” one NFL scout who has watched both the Patriots and the Ravens takes a look at some of the points of emphasis for both teams heading into Sunday’s game. (Per usual, we have the scout’s statements in italics, with our notes underneath.)
“This week against the Ravens, the Patriots should use the multiple attack that they used last week, for several reasons. They have several personnel matchup advantages against the Baltimore defense. As we saw last week, Shane Vereen out of backfield as a receiver is a winnable matchup. In addition, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd spread out the defense individually and as a group, and will also make things tougher for a Ravens’ secondary that has matchup problems. Adding Stevan Ridley and potential of the run makes it even harder for Baltimore to prepare for, especially when several of the pieces are in packages together and New England runs the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.”
Look for New England to try and put stress on the Baltimore pass defense with a combination of possibilities in the passing game. Last week against the Texans, running back Shane Vereen was able to provide a distinctly different look (not unlike how he was utilized in the Thanksgiving night win over the Jets) that gave the Texans problems. If the Patriots can get Vereen (and Danny Woodhead) matched up against the Baltimore linebackers in the passing game, that’s a winnable matchup for New England, particularly if the Patriots are able to spread things out with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. (According to Pro Football Focus, the only Baltimore linebacker who has better than a +1 grade in pass coverage this season is Brendon Ayanbadejo, and he’s more of a special teams presence than anything else.)
“As for the Ravens, they should try to quick-strike the Patriots and take advantage of every opportunity on special teams. Special teams is the great equalizer in these type of games when one team has clear advantage.”
It’s important to remember that the Patriots’ pass defense is far better than it was back when the two teams met in September, but in that one, the Ravens were able to gash the Patriots with eight pass plays of 20 or more yards. Baltimore remains one of the best teams in the league when it comes to connecting on the deep ball -- Flacco was fifth in the league in pass plays of 20 or more yards with 60. (Anquan Boldin was ninth in the league with 17, while Torrey Smith had 15.) Flacco was also third in the league when it came to pass plays of 40 or more yards with 12. New England was one of the better kick coverage teams in the league in the regular season, but the Ravens also have quick strike ability when it comes to kick returns -- Jacoby Jones led a group that averaged a league-best 27.3 yards per kick return in the regular season. (Baltimore was the only team in the league to take two kick returns back for touchdown this season.) It’s something the Patriots have to watch out for, especially in the wake of their playoff win over the Texans where Houston’s Danieal Manning had three returns of 30-plus yards, including a 94-yarder.
“Even though the Patriots have lost Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the year, it’s a case of the rich getting richer in regards to personnel. Sure, the Patriots lose Gronk -- which may have more of an affect in the red zone than in the field -- but as we saw against the Texans, New England seems to have found another way to stress defensive matchups laterally or vertically with speed of running back Shane Vereen, which gives defensive coordinators another matchup to be concerned about.”
Without Gronkowski in the lineup for the rest of the year, look for New England to rely on a variety of pass catchers -- it’ll take a complete team effort to try and pick up the slack with Gronkowski on the shelf. But in this matchup, the Patriots will utilize some of their smaller, faster guys in hopes of putting stress on the Baltimore defenders, who have struggled tracking undersized running backs in the passing game. Vereen could be the big beneficiary this week when it comes to offensive opportunities. Against the Texans, he had seven carries for 41 yards and a touchdown, but also busted out of the backfield for five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
“As for Ray Lewis, his impact will be more motivational than physical. He is still very smart and instinctive, but his ability to play in space against all of the things New England does will be hard for him.”
The linebackers’ farewell tour touches down in Foxboro this week, and while he’s been able to pile up some impressive tackle numbers over Baltimore’s first two playoff games (he’s had 30 tackles, 19 of them solo), he hasn’t been as big a factor as he was in the past. He remains the emotional centerpiece of his team, and as a result, the rest of the franchise wants to make sure he ends his career on top. As a result, there will surely be lots of talk over the course of the week about how he can still bring it (Bill Belichick touched on some of that here), and there will surely be plenty of camera shots of him as he leads the Ravens through their pregame preparations. But the simple fact is that Lewis is not the player he once was, and can be exploited, particularly by an offense that will be looking to spread the field and create some unfavorable matchups.