Defense wins championships, but it didn’t win much in the NFL Divisional Round.
Eight teams combined for 276 points last week, and neither Baltimore nor New England can afford to break down defensively this weekend in the AFC Championship.
Joe Flacco passed for 331 yards and three touchdowns last week against the Broncos, and Ray Rice added 131 yards on the ground. New England can’t afford to let Baltimore duplicate that kind of offensive success this weekend.
The same holds true for Baltimore’s defense. Tom Brady had a terrific game last weekend against the Texans, passing for 344 yards and three touchdowns on 25-of-40 passing. If this game turns into a shootout, Brady could be in line for another huge performance.
Several defensive players will have to step up on Sunday in order to give their team a chance at a Super Bowl berth on February 3. We’ll take a look at five key defensive players who must play well this weekend.
Aqib Talib: CB, New England
Flacco and the Ravens showcased the deep ball last week against the Broncos, and Talib will have his work cut out for him this week. Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith are terrific at getting behind the secondary and making big plays.
As long as the Patriots can stop the run early and allow their safeties to play out of the box in two-deep coverage, Talib will have some breathing room in defending Baltimore’s speedy receivers. If Rice is able to churn out consistent yardage, Talib may be left alone in more man coverage situations with little help over the top.
Talib was a great acquisition for the Patriots this year, and he’s played well for most of the season. Facing Baltimore’s speedsters will be a test, though. He will be the key to taking away big plays in the championship game.
Haloti Ngata: DE, Baltimore
Ngata is the key to Baltimore’s 3-4 front. He is a massive space-eater who demands double-teams on the edge, and he opens up gaps for his linebackers to shoot through to get to the quarterback.
If given time in the pocket, Brady will pick apart defenses, and Baltimore will need an effective pass rush to stop him this weekend. Ngata has to take on blockers and collapse the pocket on Brady at every opportunity.
The 3-4 is predicated on gap control at the line of scrimmage, and if Baltimore’s defensive line can’t eat up blockers and allow its linebackers to clog running lane and collapse the pocket, it will be a long day for the Ravens defense.
Ed Reed: S, Baltimore
With so many weapons at Brady’s disposal, defending the pass becomes the responsibility of Baltimore’s entire defensive backfield.
Reed is the best ball-hawking safety in the league, and he’s also going to be asked to play some man coverage against New England’s talented slot receivers. With Wes Welker in the slot and Aaron Hernandez flexed out at times, Reed will have to defend vertical routes in the middle of the field, as well as help in support of underneath routes.
Given the high-powered nature of New England’s passing attack, and its newfound affinity for running the football more this season, the onus is on Baltimore’s safeties to be versatile and play mistake-free football.
Jerod Mayo: OLB, New England
Mayo has been New England’s best all-around defensive player, and he’s going to have to showcase that versatility against a Baltimore offense that has featured Ray Rice more often in recent weeks.
In the regular season, Mayo tallied 147 tackles, three sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception. He’s been quiet in the playoffs, but this week will be a terrific opportunity for him to come alive.
Mayo typically lines up away from the tight end, which lets him avoid an extra blocker in run support. That also means he has less coverage responsibilities and more opportunities to crash the line of scrimmage and be disruptive against both the run and the pass.
If New England is to keep Rice, Flacco and the rest of Baltimore’s offense off balance, Mayo will have to play aggressive and angry.
Corey Graham: CB, Baltimore
Graham recorded just two interceptions in the regular season, but he also picked off two Peyton Manning passes last week in Baltimore’s thrilling double-overtime win.
Manning had some terrific pass-catching weapons at his disposal, and so does Brady. Graham will be asked to do a lot this weekend against a terrific passing attack.
Baltimore’s success in defending the Patriots’ passing offense won’t solely rest on Graham, but he can’t afford to make any mistakes, either. He may be asked to play on an island in one-on-one coverage when New England lines up in four- and five-receiver sets.
If Graham has a noticeably good game, it will be a sign that things went very well for Baltimore.