The Baltimore Ravens host the New England Patriots on Sunday night. The last time these two teams met, it was for the right to represent the AFC in last year's Super Bowl. This time, the stakes are similarly high—or as high as they can be in the third week of the season.
Both Baltimore and New England are trying to stave off a 1-2 start—a record that can severely hinder one's chances to reach the postseason.
This is going to be an intense contest and it may just be the marquee matchup of the week. Neither the Ravens nor the Patriots want to lose a second consecutive game in a row, and both sides are going to make it hard for the other to score points.
Here's a three-step plan for the Ravens to employ against the Patriots that should result in a win this week.
Bring the Pass Rush
Without Terrell Suggs, the Baltimore Ravens' pass rush relies heavily on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and defensive end Pernell McPhee, along with a healthy dose of linebacker blitzing, particularly from Courtney Upshaw and Paul Kruger. For the most part, however, just McPhee and Ngata have had consistent success, with the two combining for three sacks, five quarterback hits and two hurries.
Now, it's a given that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be expecting pressure from the Ravens' defensive front seven, but that doesn't mean they should lay back and take it relatively easy on him.
Through two games, Brady's performance under pressure has been less than stellar. On his 31 total drop backs (subscription required) while under pressure or facing the blitz, he threw 26 times, with 12 completions for 138 yards and two scores.
There's always the threat that a quarterback under pressure will roll out, run with the ball or find someone open in the middle of the field while the bulk of the defense is committed to the pressure. Clearly, that's something Baltimore will have to avoid this week, but with the Patriots' offense being so Brady-dependent, they'll be remiss if they don't try to get to him often.
Targeting Dennis Pitta
Interestingly enough, Joe Flacco's most-preferred target so far this season has been tight end Dennis Pitta. He's thrown his way 23 times already, and Pitta has pulled down 13 of them for 138 yards and a score.
Though Flacco needs to be careful to not over-target Pitta lest it become too predictable, this many throws Pitta's way helps open up receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin as corners and safeties need to shift coverage the tight end's way.
This week, that's a great approach for the Ravens, first for the aforementioned ability to draw coverage away from Flacco's scoring threat Smith, and second because his likely matchup is going to be to his advantage.
Pitta will mainly see the attention of the Patriots' nickel corner, a job that has fallen to both Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore over the last two weeks. Six total passes have been thrown Dowling and Moore's way thus far, and all six have been caught by their intended receivers.
Only corner Devin McCourty has stepped up this season, allowing just 36.4 of the passes thrown his way to be caught. Clearly, the Patriots won't want to line up their best corner against a tight end all game long (Pitta's talented, but he's no Jimmy Graham), which means Pitta's likely going to have another successful outing.
Again, this doesn't mean that Flacco's attention should be drawn away from Smith, Boldin or even Jacoby Jones. However, the matchup this week is very much in Pitta's favor, and it would be smart for Flacco to exploit it.
Consistent, Balanced Offense
We're just two games into the season and already we're seeing previous patterns emerge when it comes to the Ravens offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who had just under 300 passing yards in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals and completed 21 of his 29 pass attempts, had a completion percentage of just 52.4 on 42 pass attempts last week against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Up-and-down has been the hallmark of Flacco's week-by-week production over the years, though it's produced similar results: around 3,600 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
It seemed, based on Week 1, that the Ravens were more interested in the quick passing game, employing more no-huddle and allowing Flacco to make more decisions at the line. However, it appears that Baltimore got too pass-happy after that initial outing, considering how many times Flacco threw last week compared to the number of runs called.
Asking Flacco to throw so much—especially on third-and-short—while also facing the kind of pressure the Eagles brought him is never a smart move. That's not Flacco's forte, nor does it have to be; not when the Ravens have arguably the best running back in the league in Ray Rice and the (non-arguably) best fullback, Vonta Leach.
So far this year, Rice has just 26 carries to his name—when he should be getting around that number per week. Of his 106 offensive snaps, Leach was only on the field for 38 of them, which clearly indicates that the Ravens aren't approaching the run game in a way that maximizes its strengths.
Trying to engage the Patriots in a shootout is a dangerous gamble. It worked, to an extent, in the AFC Championship Game. Both Flacco and Brady attempted 36 passes with 22 completions apiece, but Brady had a lower yards-per-completion and threw two picks.
That kind of performance isn't guaranteed from Brady this time around, and if Flacco's asked to throw 42 times (without playing from significantly behind, as was also the case last week), it's not going to be a pretty outcome for Baltimore.
What the Ravens need is offensive balance. Flacco needs enough called passes to maximize matchups (like the Pitta vs. Dowling/Moore one mentioned above), but they also need to run the ball, with Leach lead-blocking for Rice.
Flacco, and the Ravens' offense as a whole, fares far better when there's more of a balance between the run game and the pass. A methodological approach to dismantling the Patriots' defense is a far better game plan than having Flacco make the kinds of decisions he did last Sunday.
Running more and passing less will allow the Ravens to maximize their offensive strengths, which will do them wonders in their quest to defeat New England this week.