It’s important for the Patriots to establish a dedication to the run, at least to stave off Baltimore’s pass rush. The problem with that is the Ravens have defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who is one of the best run-stuffers in the league and, in some ways, is the driving force behind that defense, which is ranked 10th against the rush.
Baltimore will blitz plenty, but it’s also comfortable with trying to beat teams with one-on-one battles. Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson are the playmakers at outside linebacker, and Ray Lewis is the commander on the inside. The whole front-seven is comprised of strong, athletic, smart blitzers, and they move guys all around the defense to present different looks and cause confusion. They’re also versatile enough to capitalize off zone blitzes — sending players from the second and third level, while dropping linemen into coverage — so it’s important for Tom Brady to be on his game before the snap.
The Patriots are shifting toward that short and intermediate passing game, and they’ll have to create some space over the middle to exploit Baltimore’s blitz packages. Sunday won’t be about making the big play, but the smart one, and the ability to sustain drives, particularly against a stingy third-down defense, will be a major victory on New England’s part.
Also, if the Patriots can’t move the ball on the ground — or avoid that part of the playbook altogether — the Ravens will be in prime attacking position, like they were in the playoffs. That’s when they’ll blitz, and blitz and blitz some more.
Baltimore’s offense relies heavily upon the running game and particularly Ray Rice, who is also as valuable as a pass catcher. Rice is tough to tackle, as a speedy, shifty, deceptively strong back in the same mold as Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew. And as the Patriots found out in January, Rice is a home-run threat on every play.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is good, but he is very much a work-in-progress. (Injury or not, Flacco was abysmal in the Ravens’ playoff victory in New England.) However, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who has 28 catches in five games, has added some real legitimacy to the Ravens’ downfield passing attack, which seemed forced in past seasons but finally has some real firepower in 2010. Boldin’s presence has also commanded double teams and opened up opportunities for wide receivers Derrick Mason (a great route runner) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and tight end Todd Heap.
Most importantly, the Patriots’ defenders can’t turn their backs on Rice, who has 15 receptions and serves as Flacco’s safety blanket. Once Rice has the ball in open space, it’s absolutely important for the first guy to make the tackle, or Rice could run forever.
The Ravens might have more offensive firepower than they’ve ever had, and that creates matchup problems. But their offense is still developing, partly due to Flacco’s struggles. If the Patriots can put him in tough positions, they’ll have an opportunity to capitalize off a mistake. That might be necessary for them to beat the Ravens this weekend.
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