When the Ravens beat the Pats 31-30 in Week 3, New England had no one who could cover Smith -- or even stay close to him. Smith torched the Pats for six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns, as Joe Flacco targeted him 10 times. Smith had three catches for 98 yards and two scores in Denver last week.
Talib, acquired by New England at the trade deadline, figures to track Smith much of the game. New England has been much less vulnerable to the big play since Talib joined the Pats. The Pats didn't allow any 30-yard pass plays to the Texans and have yielded eight in their past eight games, after allowing 15 in the first nine games. If Talib contains Smith on Sunday, Baltimore becomes far less explosive.
2. New England's ground game vs. Baltimore's nickel defense
New England averaged 2.2 yards a carry in the regular-season meeting (77 yards on 34 carries), and many of those rushes came against Baltimore's 2-4-5 nickel alignment, Grantland's Bill Barnwell noted. The Patriots have since established themselves as a running team, especially when they go left behind Nate Solder and Logan Mankins. They rank seventh in rushing (136.5), and last week Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for 123 yards on 24 carries (5.1 ypc). Look for the Pats to run Baltimore out of the nickel, enabling Tom Brady to operate the no-huddle against an overmatched secondary.
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Coming off an eight-catch, 131-yard game in which he dropped three passes, slot man Welker figures to see a lot of Graham, the second-best corner in the playoffs according to Pro Football Focus.
“He can do it all,” Graham told the Baltimore Sun about Welker. “Everybody saw the game last week. I believe in the first half he had 100-some yards receiving. He is a very quick guy. He catches the ball well. Brady is looking for him a lot, and he makes a lot of guys miss with fakes and things like that, so he is a complete receiver. I have my hands full in the slot, but I am up to the challenge.”
Welker didn't do much damage in his first four career games against Baltimore with 22 catches for 172 yards and no touchdowns. But in the Week 3 matchup he had eight catches for a season-high 142 yards. If Welker can beat Graham consistently, New England should move up and down the field.
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