Patriots vs. Ravens: Breaking Down Baltimore's Game Plan

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Patriots vs. Ravens: Breaking Down Baltimore's Game Plan
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

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?

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

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 Edelmantwo 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
Player Targets Receptions Yards TDs
Julian Edelman 19 13 139 1
Danny Amendola 14 10 131 0

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.

NFL GameRewind
New England likes to stack their receivers to create confusion in the defense; courtesy of NFL GameRewind.

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.

NFL GameRewind
The quick screen is a frequently used weapon in Tom Brady's arsenal; courtesy of NFL GameRewind.

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

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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.

NFL GameRewind
Most linebackers can't stay with Vereen in coverage; courtesy of NFL GameRewind.

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.

NFL GameRewind
Vereen is a mismatch on the outside; courtesy of NFL GameRewind.

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?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Stats courtesy of ESPN
Wilfork and Mayo are two crucial parts of the Pats defense.

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 ProFootballFocusworst-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?

Jason Miller/Getty Images

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
Dont'a Hightower -7.6
Brandon Spikes -2.5
Jamie Collins -1.0
Dane Fletcher -2.1

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.

NFL GameRewind
Hightower's poor coverage leads to an easy touchdown; courtesy of NFL GameRewind.

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.

Joe Flacco and Co. have to attack those linebackers, using crossing routes and emphasizing Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta in their game plan.

If they do that, they’ll be rewarded with some easy completions and the chance for some big plays.

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