Blog Entry

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

Posted on: January 18, 2012 2:20 pm
Edited on: January 20, 2012 12:16 pm
Brady and Lewis will match wits in the AFC Championship Game. (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

Tom Brady is right: the Ravens are the best team the Patriots have faced this season.

Cam Cameron’s offense poses problems for Bill Belichick’s defense, while Ray Lewis’ defense actually has a fighting chance against Brady’s offense. Here’s the breakdown.

1. Patriots formation versatility
Keep in mind, the Patriots, at least offensively, are also the best team the Ravens have faced all season. Their versatility is like nothing we’ve seen before.

Last Saturday they spent a bulk of the game in a no-huddle that featured tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and wideouts Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman. Remarkably, they were able to run effectively out of this personnel grouping, as Hernandez carried the ball five times out of the backfield for 61 yards.

Those runs are almost just gravy – something the defense must now respect. The real purpose of putting Hernandez in the backfield is the same purpose as all of New England’s other alignments: to get a potent pass catcher matched up on a linebacker. Even safeties have major trouble covering Hernandez and Gronkowski.

This game will be no exception, as Baltimore’s strong safety Bernard Pollard is simply not capable of doing it, and the Ravens are unlikely to remove Ed Reed from centerfield. Brady rarely throws in the direction of starting cornerbacks. Even when he goes to Wes Welker, it’s often when Welker has drawn a matchup against a backup slot corner or non-cornerback.

Because the Patriots don’t try to confuse defenses so much as force them into bad matchups, HOW the Patriots line up to play is almost more important than how they actually play. Most of the damage is done through crafty presnap alignment. (This is one reason so many of Brady’s throws come off three-and five-step drops; the decision of where to go with the ball is made prior to the snap.)

The Patriots frequently go up-tempo to prevent defenses from having enough time to regroup or alter matchups before the snap. The only sure way to take the chess match element out of the equations and force the Patriots to win with execution is to play press-man coverage across the board. Problem is, no defense, including Baltimore’s, has enough quality cover artists to do this.

After a win over the Texans last week, Joe Flacco and the Ravens will take on Tom Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship. Jason Horowitz and's Pat Kirwan preview this game. Watch the game on CBS at 3 PM ET. 

2. Baltimore’s response
The Ravens may not have enough cover artists to play the Patriots man-to-man, but they might be the one team capable of matching wits with them. Ray Lewis is arguably the smartest front seven defender in the league, while Ed Reed is arguably the smartest back four defender. Those two are capable of recognizing New England’s subtle tendencies and getting their teammates into the proper defensive play-call.

Of course, Brady and Bill O’Brien know this and will likely inject a few tendency-breaking wrinkles into the gameplan. Of course, the Ravens know that the Patriots know that they know this, and the Patriots know that the Ravens know that they know and ... you get the idea – this has the potential to be one heck of a chess match.

Look for the Ravens to do plenty of presnap communicating and disguising at the line of scrimmage. It helps that they’re comfortable playing a plethora of different coverages. The outcome may be decided by which side can bully the other into a reactionary position. The Patriots can do that by going hurry-up; the Ravens can do it by blitzing fervidly up the middle.

3. Ravens pass-rush
To beat Tom Brady, you have to rob him of the trust he has in his pass protection. Brady – like any quarterback – does not like pressure directly in his face. And though he’s as tough in the pocket as anyone in the game, he has a tendency to get just a tad jumpy after taking a few hits from edge-rushers.

Recent playoff history shows that if a defense can create pressure and doubt, Brady will eventually start eating up the play clock worrying about protections. That makes him a significantly less dangerous player versus when he’s hurrying things up and concentrating on his receivers’ routes.

The question is, can the Ravens generate a pass-rush? If they blitz, they likely can. But one of the best kept secrets in football is that this is generally a four-man rushing defense. Because the Ravens use so many 3-4 or 2-5 fronts, their four pass-rushers come from a variety of different spots, thus creating the illusion of a blitz:

The Ravens use a lot of zone exchange concepts in their pass-rush. A zone exchange is essentially a four-man pass-rush where linebackers or safeties rush the quarterback, while a defensive lineman or another linebacker drops back into coverage. It can be confusing, often creating the illusion of a heavy blitz. The Thanksgiving night game – in which Baltimore had nine sacks – provided a good example.

Above (click image to enlarge): Upon first glance, this appears to be a blitz featuring five, possibly six pass-rushers.

Below: The Ravens use a lot of zone exchange concepts in their pass-rush. A zone exchange is essentially a four-man pass-rush where linebackers or safeties rush the quarterback, while a defensive lineman or another linebacker drops back into coverage. It can be confusing, often creating the illusion of a heavy blitz. The Thanksgiving night game – in which Baltimore had nine sacks – provided a good example.

The Ravens’ four-man rush has seemingly evaporated over the last month. It registered a quiet five sacks over the final three weeks of the regular season and then got zero pressure on T.J. Yates in the divisional round. With talents like Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, it’s imprudent to assume the pressure can’t suddenly return.

But worth noting is that the Patriots’ pass protection in the last month has also been as sharp as the Ravens’ pass-rush has been dull.

4. Dialing in on Ray Rice
Bill Belichick always builds his defensive gameplan around eliminating the opponents’ greatest strength. This season, no man has done a better job at eliminating Ray Rice than Cam Cameron. (Rice averaged less than 10 carries a game in Baltimore’s four losses.)

To be fair, Cameron has featured Rice most of the season, and the results thus far speak for themselves: 13 wins and Rice leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage.

But if Belichick has inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo shadow Rice, or if he brings safety Patrick Chung down in the box every play or has his linebackers sellout against the run, will Cameron have enough patience to stay with his superstar?

The Patriots run defense is coming together, while their secondary can be tempting to attack.

5. Baltimore’s passing game
It was virtually nonexistent against Houston, mainly because deep threat Torrey Smith was nullified by Johnathan Joseph. The Patriots don’t have a corner on Joseph’s level (or even in Joseph’s stratosphere).

If the Ravens want to take their deep shots with Smith, all they’ll have to do is block a mundane Patriots pass-rush (last week’s performance at Foxboro notwithstanding). Devin McCourty was serviceable as a nickel free safety against Denver, but it remains to be seen whether the struggling corner can suddenly play a new position when facing a strong-armed quarterback and polished play-action passing game.

In other matchups, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson were quiet against Houston but should be able to work the seams against New England. Anquan Boldin will be extremely problematic for the Pats. The thought of him working outside against Kyle Arrington seems patently unfair; inside is even worse, as the Patriots don’t have a true slot corner.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Championship games

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Since: Jul 3, 2007
Posted on: January 22, 2012 1:37 pm

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

I guess today will answer the great debate for once and all: do defenses win championships, or do quarterbacks win them?

Since: Dec 17, 2007
Posted on: January 22, 2012 1:19 pm

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

I think this logic needs to be taken further and look at the fact that the Pats have not beaten anyone who finished the regular season over .500. The only two games against teams over .500 were losses to the GMen and Steelers. The GMen was also a home game and it was a great game, no doubt.

I expect a very close battle and will not be surprised if this comes down to who has the last possesion like it did in the Giants/Pats game earlier in the season.

One counter point is that the Ravens tend to follow up big wins with awful performances (beat Pitt, lose to Tenn, beat Houston, lose to Jax, beat Pitt, lose to Seattle, and threw in a road blow out to the Chargers who have an offense similar to NE), so if this thing starts to go bad, I do not expect the Ravens to mount a big comeback! 

Harbaugh needs to get them up for this game like he did for the big ones in the regular season and hope this isn't a let down game like they've had after some big wins this year. 

Since: Jan 7, 2012
Posted on: January 22, 2012 1:14 pm

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

I like the knowledge of the details there Nep, but will 85 be there? I've wondered if coach B was waiting to throw him in for some clever palyoff strategies. If the Pats bend and don't break on D, and the O-line holds, I'd give them 10 pts to 2 touchdowns on Baltimore.

Plus, Brady et al have chips on their shoulders after the last 2 years of losses in playoff games. Go Pats!

Since: Feb 5, 2007
Posted on: January 22, 2012 1:04 pm

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

U R right.

It also boils down to which is better, a great NE offense vs. a great Baltimore defense, and which is worse, a mediocre Baltimore offense vs. a mediocre NE defense.

Since: Aug 31, 2009
Posted on: January 22, 2012 1:00 pm

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

Actually I agree with you, but the records against playoff teams actually are...

New England:  2-2 (wins against Denver twice, losses to the Giants and Steelers)

Baltimore:  7-0 (wins against the Steelers twice, Bengals twice, Texans twice, and the 49ers)

As you said, I think I know who will win this game.

Since: Jun 19, 2011
Posted on: January 22, 2012 12:26 pm

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

@ items that this reporteer fall to mention,

 1) In their complete history the Patriots have never lost a game at home in the play-offs if the starting temp is below 32 degres the the last two years start time temp was vs Jets 37 and the Ravens 35 today started time temp is around 25 and it's going to drop rather fast temps being called for towards half time will be in the teens. The Patriots all this week pratice outside as they do most of the time while the Ravens held up in theri nice warm indoor pratice field over in Owen Mills.

2) Point and I'm not sure if Chad Ocho will be back or not do to his Father passing away but if he is their look for the Patriots to use him big some of the best games Chad has had have been against the Ravens he is one of the few guys that Ed Reed has issue with covering I can see the Patriot going to Chad deep in the first drive what this would do would make the Ravens have to pull off certain coverage and leave open the middle were Brady and Company are monsters.
It shall be a good game I don't think it will be a two touchdown win by the Patriot considering throwing out the play-off game two years ago all the offer game shave been won by the Patriots by 7 points or less. I see the Patriots winning 31-24

Since: Sep 6, 2011
Posted on: January 22, 2012 11:39 am

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

 Learn how to spell Barney, it's 'their'.  Flacco won't have a chance to throw deep, he'll be too busy with his skate board, practicing riding it along the sidelines while Brady wears down old man what's his name and the rest of the Barney lookslikes.  Patriots offense and defense: watch and weep! 

Since: Dec 1, 2006
Posted on: January 22, 2012 11:31 am

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

Lot of woofing going on here from homers on both sides.  Pretty funny, really.  This game is going to begin and end at the line of scrimmage, really.  The Ravens fail to get pressure on Tom Brady without blitzing, they will be in for a long day on D.  The Pats fail to keep Ray Rice out of their second level, they will be in for a long day on D.

That's it, kids.  It begins and ends right there. 

Since: Apr 30, 2011
Posted on: January 22, 2012 10:11 am

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

For all those over hyping that Ravens defense and claiming this is the best defense the Pats played all year let's look at some stats. The Ravens played four good quaterbacks all year - Roethlisberger twice, Dalton twice, Rivers and Hassleback. Roethlisberger threw for 610 yds, Dalton threw for 605 yards, Rivers 270 yards & Hasslebeck a wopping 358 yards. Who else did the Ravens play at the QB position - Bradford, Kolb, Schaub, T. Jackson, A Smith, C McCoy & Orlovsky. Oh and by the way - Brady threw for 650 yards against the Jets (mostly in dime packages) the #6 ranked pass defense (Baltimore #5) unless of course ,you don't count those two games which puts the Jets at #2.

Since: Nov 8, 2008
Posted on: January 22, 2012 9:43 am

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

Stop crying you sound like a fool!!!!

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