The matchup between the Baltimore Ravens offensive line and New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork could decide the AFC Championship Game. That's certainly the case if last year's encounter is anything to go by.
Wilfork destroyed the Ravens offense from start to finish. He wrecked the running game and crushed the pass pocket.
The Ravens' hopes of containing him will involve relying on a revamped offensive line—that front five was superb against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round.
Here is a breakdown of this crucial matchup.
The Battle for Supremacy on the Ground
Wilfork is the Patriots' best weapon against the run. Head coach Bill Belichick uses the mammoth tackle in a variety of ways to clog the rushing lanes. A look back at last year's AFC Championship Game shows one way how.
In the screen shot below, the Patriots have aligned their 4-3 personnel in a 3-4/5-2 hybrid front. Wilfork is the key and is aligned in the 5-technique, defensive-end position.
His alignment is shown in the highlighted portion:
The Patriots are challenging the strength of the Ravens' run front, notably the right side. Wilfork is tasked with holding the point of attack against tackle Michael Oher and guard Marshal Yanda.
The screen shot below shows Wilfork's dominance against the run. He wins off the snap and pushes Yanda into the backfield.
His command of two gaps is shown in the highlighted portion:
This allows Brandon Deaderick (71), to scrape off his block and eventually tackle Ray Rice for no gain. Deaderick's path to the ball-carrier is indicated by the red arrow.
Combating Wilfork and the Patriots' run fronts won't be easy, but the Ravens will feel confident after their exploits in Denver. Their offensive line used tandem and mobile blocking to knock open holes for Rice.
One of the keys was their ability to create running lanes from three-wide-receiver sets. The screen shot below shows one such example on a key play from the third quarter:
The Ravens are aligned in a three-receiver look, with a tight end lined up next to left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
They soon use double-teaming on the inside and mobile blocking to create a huge hole. The screen shot below shows how:
The tight end on the left side, Dennis Pitta, plays a key role in setting the edge. This is shown in the highlighted portion. Pitta's block allows McKinnie to crash down inside and form a double-team block with the left guard, Kelechi Osemele.
The Ravens then pull right guard Yanda behind this tandem blocking. Yanda's path is indicated by the red arrow.
The play succeeds in creating a major hole for Rice, shown in the screen shot below:
Using Yanda (73), as a pulling, lead blocker, allows him to take out a linebacker. The highlighted portion shows McKinnie and Osemele combining first on the defensive tackle, before McKinnie moves up to block the other linebacker. Rice now has major open field to aim for, indicated by the blue arrow.
Last year the Ravens attempted to block the Patriots simply with a man on a man. The running game suffered, and Rice was held to just 67 yards on 21 carries.
If they want a repeat of last week's 30 rushes for 131 yards, the Ravens must use double-teams and mobility to best Wilfork and company.
That concludes a look at the running game, but how will the Ravens fair against Wilfork in pass protection?
Protecting/Collapsing the Pass Pocket
Just like in the running game, the Patriots can rely on Wilfork to disrupt the pass pocket. The Ravens found this out to their cost last year and must make Wilfork the focus of their pass protection.
The screen shot below shows how easily Wilfork uses his size and strength to collapse the pocket. He is lined up as a shaded 3-technique, just to the guard side of the guard-tackle gap. Wilfork's alignment is shown by the highlighted portion:
Just like in the running game, the Ravens made the mistake of relying on single, head-up blocking. The screen shot below shows how they soon paid a heavy price for their error in judgement:
Wilfork pushes the left guard right back into Flacco, giving him limited vision downfield and preventing him from stepping up to launch a throw. Wilfork's pressure forces Flacco out of the pocket. He was eventually chased down and sacked by Mark Anderson (95), for a key loss.
When the two teams met again in Week 3 of this season, the Ravens appeared to have learned their lesson.
The screen shot below shows how they paid more attention to Wilfork as a pass-rush threat:
Again Wiflork is lined in the 3-technique, shown in the highlighted portion. Only this time, he has taken a wider, more obvious pass-rushing angle in the guard-tackle gap.
However, the Ravens are now ready to counter. The screen shot below shows how they focus their protection on Wilfork:
At the snap, the Ravens double-team Wilfork inside with both the left guard and center. This gives Flacco a clean pocket. He was able to step up and deliver a 20-yard strike to Jacoby Jones for a vital gain in a tense fourth quarter.
Although the Patriots boast useful edge rushers in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, Wilfork is the biggest threat to Flacco. The Patriots will likely concentrate most of their efforts on pressuring Flacco, a static pocket-passer, through the middle.
The Ravens must make Wilfork the focus of their protection scheme if they are going to give Flacco time to work deep.
Wilfork was the key to New England's win last season. If the Ravens take their chances with single blocking, he will destroy both the running game and the pass pocket.
The Ravens must use the same brand of double-teaming and pulling linemen that enabled their offensive line to dominate the Broncos. Belichick will likely counter by shifting Wilfork across the formation away from the line strength.
If they can shut down Wilfork, the Ravens will put up points on Belichick's defense.
All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, NBC Sports and NFL GamePass.