New England Patriots: Drawing Up a Game Plan for Stopping Joe Flacco, Ravens
Things couldn't have been better for the New England Patriots last week. The offense was clicking, the defense was flying around and Kevin Kolb and the lackluster Arizona Cardinals were up next on the schedule.
Could things have changed any more drastically in the course of a week?
One of the best and most versatile tight ends in the game is now hobbled and out, the kicker is a headcase, the star receiver's missing in action, the play-calling has come under fire and that gimme on the schedule turned into a gut-wrenching last-second loss.
Oi. How can it get any worse? Well, playing the Baltimore Ravens on the heels of all of this certainly doesn't make it any better.
Despite the sky-is-falling situations listed above (as well as the ones not mentioned, and there are some), the fact remains that it is still September and this is a very good Patriots team with plenty to look forward to.
That being said, the Ravens are going to be a test. They were going to be a challenge even with a healthy Aaron Hernandez, happy Wes Welker and mentally stable Stephen Gostkowski, so getting a win Sunday night just became all the more difficult.
Still, the Patriots can, and very well might, win this rematch of last year's AFC championship game. Here are the keys that can bring the Patriots back over the .500 mark.
Keep It Up Along the Front
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Another week, another running back test. Just like in the opening week against Tennessee, the Patriots are faced with a situation in which, if they stop the opposing running back, they go a long way in shutting down the offense as a whole.
It's the same blueprint from January, and it's the one every team dusts off when they play Baltimore. Stopping Ray Rice is priority No. 1. The offense is run by Joe Flacco, but it runs through the 5'8", 212-pound Rice.
Last year, the Patriots aced the exam, holding the dynamic Rice to 67 yards on 21 carries. That's an average of 3.2 yards per carry. If Rice is averaging that type of yardage, this Ravens offense loses a lot of its bite.
The Patriots just need to do what they've been doing, both against Baltimore and during this season in general. Chris Johnson was a non-factor with four yards on 11 carries in Week 1, and Beanie Wells put up only 44 yards on 14 carries in Week 2.
That's mediocre-to-zero production from a pair of good running backs, but both are also in the midst of disappointing seasons. Rice, on the other hand, has already rushed for 167 yards and is averaging 6.4 yards a pop. He'll be by far the biggest challenge yet.
There's also the challenge of stopping Rice in the passing game. The Patriots have had that figured out in past matchups, too: Rice caught one pass for 11 yards last year and eight passes for only 38 yards in 2010.
If New England gets a repeat performance, it will be set up well for victory No. 2.
Watch out for No. 82
The Ravens don't have a Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson or Jimmy Graham to worry about—you know, that pass catcher that can shred you because he's simply better than anyone you match him up with.
They do, however, have Torrey Smith. And if the Patriots let him get loose, he'll be a problem.
It's tempting to think of the Ravens, with their controlled passing game and running back-focused offense, as a team you just have to physically match up with up front. Don't worry about what's behind you. Everything the Ravens can do to beat you will occur at the line or just in front.
Smith blasts a hole in that outlook. He's one of the game's fastest and most natural downfield threats. He is a big play waiting to happen on every snap.
He doesn't pull off those plays with the frequency of the players listed above, but it hurts just as much when he does. He averaged 16.8 yards per catch last year, and though he has only four catches this season, one went for 52 yards and another went for 40. He was a difference-maker in last year's championship game, catching three passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
These are the receivers who have given the Patriots trouble in the past—players who can take advantage of the poor coverage instincts and abilities of the Patriots' secondary.
Vincent Jackson comes to mind. As does Calvin Johnson. And Mike Wallace. And Stevie Johnson.
The Patriots, however, provided optimism for their chances last Sunday against Larry Fitzgerald. A matchup that last year would have been a nightmare for New England this time ended with one catch for four yards for the Pro Bowler.
Fitzgerald is a far better player than Smith, but Smith is the better deep threat. How the Patriots want to handle him—whether it's by using a safety to double as over-the-top insurance, as Steve Gregory often did with Fitzgerald, or another method—remains to be seen.
But what they can't do is ignore him. If they do, he'll quickly make them pay.
Have Interior Pressure Figured out
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Generally, when a team faces a fearsome pass rush, the concern is along the sides. Defensive ends and outside linebackers are the main weapons, and tackles are the ones being put to the test.
Against Baltimore, however, the interior of the defensive line will be the challenge.
Terrell Suggs' torn ACL robbed Baltimore of its best edge rusher, but Haloti Ngata's presence inside is still enough to bother Bill Belichick—especially given the way last week turned out.
Arizona's Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell put a hurting on the Patriots interior offensive line, specifically guards Donald Thomas and Logan Mankins.
Offensive line struggles aren't common in New England, but leaks on the inside are especially troubling, as they give pass-rushers the easiest path to the quarterback and set Tom Brady up with a situation that's difficult to escape from.
Now, with the 6'4", 340-pound Ngata on tap, any weaknesses on the inside of the offense line must be addressed. Having center Dan Connolly back will add stability to the unit, but it remains a group that has struggled. They will have to make due against one of the best pass-rushers at his position in football.
Turn Patriots vs. Ravens into Brady vs. Flacco
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Joe Flacco has been solved by several defensive coordinators and coaches throughout his career. Oddly enough, the typical cause of a quarterback's pain, both mental and physical, hasn't played a large part.
Getting to Flacco hasn't been a direct cause for the Baltimore quarterback's tougher games. In his worst game from 2010, a 10-for-31, zero-touchdown, 37.4-rating performance against the Jets, Flacco was sacked twice. He was also sacked twice when he threw for 389 yards and three touchdowns the week before against the Rams.
This year, Flacco was sacked three times while throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns and compiling a rating of 128.4 against the Bengals. He was sacked twice while completing just over 50 percent of his passes and compiling a rating of 66.8 in the loss to Philadelphia.
Those are small sample sizes, but the point is that the reason for Flacco's inconsistency is just that—he's inconsistent. Moments of both excellence and mediocrity can emerge from the same situations for the Raven's QB.
That description doesn't fit the ideal quarterback for a no-huddle offense, which promotes quick reads, decision-making and accuracy. It also happens to be the offense the Ravens have tried to implement to start the season.
The Patriots, who have enjoyed tremendous success while using the no-huddle, should recognize this as their chance going in. Utilizing their up-tempo offense should increase their scoring chances and also increase the chance of this game becoming a shootout—a type of game which the Patriots always flourish in. This would also force Flacco to be the consistent quarterback he hasn't proven himself to be.
Flacco showed he had the capability of going toe-to-toe with Brady in last year's title game, but it remains the Patriots' best option to force him to do it again. A slower pace has stymied New England in the past. The Patriots need to make sure they exploit one of their clearest advantages on the field.
Special Teams Must Truly Be Special
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The Patriots and Ravens rivalry, with the exception of one afternoon in January 2010, has meant the same kind of game recently. The two teams stay close and battle through four back-and-forth quarters, with the game being decided in the final minute.
This game should fall into that category as well. And when games are that tense, special teams are all the more important.
The Patriots will have to be tight in that area. Field position is crucial, and New England can't afford to leave points on the field.
The Patriots saw the importance of special teams last week, and the damage that lapses can lead to. New England had errors in the kicking game and punt protection, and it cost the team a win it should have definitely had.
Ravens fans don't need to be reminded of the role special teams played in their last game against the Patriots.
Zoltan Mesko will have to help New England win field-position battles, and Baltimore's ability to figure out the Patriots offense makes good returns on kickoffs and punts all the more crucial.
When Stephen Gostkowski hears his number called, whether it's to put points on the board with a field goal or to come through with a touchback on a kickoff, he'll have to step up.
Special teams can go unnoticed, but not in games like this. To get a win, the Patriots will have to excel at a phase that often gets taken for granted.