The rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots isn’t contemptuous, but one bred out of mutual respect. The teams are very familiar with each other, having faced off frequently in the recent past including the last two AFC Championship games. Nevertheless, both teams will look very different when they meet in Week 16.
New England is without Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, but even those high-profile names pale in comparison to who the Ravens are missing (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin).
With the new additions and missing faces comes more to game-plan for, so here are a few of the key things you should watch out for as the game unfolds at M&T Bank Stadium.
How Do the Ravens Match Up with the Receivers?
Wes Welker used to be a matchup nightmare as a shifty receiver who would pick up yards after the catch and do his damage on underneath routes. Whenever the teams met in the past, Lardarius Webb would cover Welker, and he would do a terrific job of limiting the slot receiver.
Welker isn’t a Patriot anymore, but Tom Brady now relies on Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman—two receivers cut from the same cloth as Welker.
Edelman and Amendola were both highly involved in the Patriots offense last week, and not much is going to change against the Ravens.
|Edelman and Amendola: Week 15|
The Baltimore defense will have its hands full trying to deal with the quick strikes and screen plays that both receivers are so effective on.
One thing to keep an eye on in Week 16 is how the Patriots use stacked formations. On this play against the Miami Dolphins, Amendola comes in motion to line up directly behind Edelman. Brady throws a quick pass to Amendola, who takes it up the field for eight yards behind the blocking of Edelman.
Edelman got involved on screens later in the game, including this 13-yard pickup where he weaves between the blocks of Amendola and Austin Collie.
Webb will cover one of them and do a good job, but how will Baltimore match up with the other one? Jimmy Smith has been outstanding recently (including a terrific performance against Calvin Johnson in Week 15), and he’ll be able to dominate the undersized receivers at the line of scrimmage.
But what if they get past his press coverage?
Smith doesn’t have the short-area quickness to stay with them for the whole game, and Brady will be able to capitalize on any hint of separation from his receivers.
Corey Graham is another option, but he was torched by Welker in Week 1 (against the Denver Broncos) to the tune of six catches on six targets for 47 yards and two touchdowns.
The battle between the two unique receivers and the Ravens secondary will be key in determining the outcome of the game.
Shane Vereen as a Receiver
The Patriots have a number of effective running backs, but Shane Vereen is the most dangerous one and he does most of his damage through the air.
Vereen is a valuable checkdown option for Tom Brady, and he uses speed and agility to beat linebackers in man coverage. He only caught two passes against the Miami Dolphins, but the running back caught 12 passes for 153 yards against the Cleveland Browns in Week 13.
He’s deadly working across the middle of the field, like on this 16-yard reception. He runs a simple angled post, but he completely shakes the linebacker covering him (Craig Robertson) and is wide open over the middle of the field.
The Ravens have some linebackers that are good in coverage, but even they will have a tough time matching up with Vereen out of the backfield.
More importantly, if there’s a favorable matchup (e.g. Josh Bynes), Vereen can make huge plays, as he does on their 50-yard reception where he’s again matched up against Craig Robertson.
He splits out wide, and simply runs a streak down the field. His speed is too much for Robertson to handle, and Brady recognized it and capitalized.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to be constantly aware of Vereen when he’s in the game, and be prepared for him to make plays as a receiver.
Can Baltimore Run Up the Middle?
At this point it’s probably foolish to hope for a successful rushing performance (or even an average performance) from the Ravens, but the matchup is there.
The Patriots are the second-worst run defense in the league, allowing 132.5 rushing yards per game, and they are playing without two key players that anchor the middle of their defense.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is one of the best run-stuffers in the league, and Jerod Mayo is one of the most well-rounded inside linebackers in the game. Their absence (due to season-ending injuries) has made the Pats more vulnerable to opposing rushing attacks.
Without the two defensive captains, New England is giving up more yardage on the ground and allowing teams to average more yards per carry.
|New England Rushing Average Allowed|
|Personnel||Yards per Carry|
|With Wilfork and Mayo||3.93|
|With Mayo (no Wilfork)||4.38|
|Without Wilfork or Mayo||4.46|
Furthermore, starting defensive tackle Chris Jones is ProFootballFocus’ worst-rated player at his position against the run (subscription required).
Baltimore has to try to take advantage of the weakened run defense (especially inside the tackles), and any positive yardage would be a good thing for the ground game.
Can Joe Flacco Exploit the New England Linebackers in Coverage?
Jerod Mayo has already been mentioned for his run defense, but he’s also the best coverage linebacker on the New England roster. Without him, the linebackers are vulnerable against the pass.
|Patriots Linebackers' Pass Coverage Grades|
|Player||Pass Coverage Grade|
That was never more evident than on the Miami Dolphins’ game-winning touchdown last week. Running back Marcus Thigpen runs a simple out route, but he’s covered by linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower gets turned around, loses sight of the quarterback and ends up running behind Thigpen on the out route.
With his back turned, it’s an easy throw for Ryan Tannehill since Hightower can’t keep up with Thigpen. The result is a walk-in touchdown for the Dolphins, and the play shows exactly how poor the Patriots linebackers can be in coverage.
If they do that, they’ll be rewarded with some easy completions and the chance for some big plays.
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