Dissecting Most Crucial Matchups in Patriots' Week 16 Matchup with Ravens
With a playoff spot not yet clinched and the Ravens raging toward the playoffs, this would be a signature win for the hometown squad (and one with major postseason implications).
Let's take a look at a few critical matchups that the Pats need to win.
TE Dennis Pitta vs. CB Aqib Talib
Weird idea, right? Why put your best corner on the opponent's tight end?
Well, for one, the Pats have done it before, blanketing Saints tight end Jimmy Graham with top cornerback Aqib Talib and shutting him out in a close win.
Ravens TE Dennis Pitta isn't in Graham's class, but he is primarily a receiving TE (according to ProFootballFocus, on his 66 snaps since returning from injury, he has gone out for a pass on 56 of them).
He's also a favorite of Joe Flacco's—he tied for the team lead with 11 targets in his return from injured reserve. Furthermore, the Pats simply don't have the footspeed at linebacker to keep up with Pitta if he draws Brandon Spikes or Dont'a Hightower in coverage.
Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins may draw him a few times, but the Pats would be best served to blanket Pitta with Talib, who is the Pats most physical corner and can bully Pitta over the middle.
The Ravens outside wide receivers are pure burners, which means Talib or no, they'll require safety support over the top.
That takes the safeties out of the equation and allows Pitta one-on-one matchups underneath. Talib is the only Patriot who can consistently be relied on to stop Pitta underneath in man coverage.
Ravens' Front Seven vs. Patriots' Offensive Line
Baltimore's pass-rushing talent comes from all over the field.
Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore's fierce pass-rushing LB pair, have combined for 18.5 sacks this season. Haloti Ngata is always a force. Chandler Jones' brother Arthur has chipped in another four sacks and leading tackler Daryl Smith has another four-and-a-half.
Make no mistake, this will be a huge test for a struggling Patriots offensive line.
There simply isn't much talent along New England's line; not even legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia can pull a pass-protection rabbit out of this hat full of JAGs.
Second-team All-Pro right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is out for the season. Left tackle Nate Solder is recovering from a second head injury in as many weeks, his status is in doubt.
Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Will Svitek are average players at best. Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins is on the downslope of his career and is now being asked to play LT for the first time since seeing limited snaps at the position in 2011.
The Pats will need a big game out of this unit after allowing too much interior pressure on Tom Brady each of the last two weeks.
Devin McCourty vs. Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith
The Ravens like to chuck it up, as a strategy related both to their personnel and to league trends.
Baltimore has two burners in Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith who can stretch the field, so it make sense they would attempt a few deep passes each game. But they also recognize a secondary benefit of deep throws—pass interference.
With a cornerback often trying to stay with his man and track the ball on a go-route, limbs can get tangled. The Ravens are the beneficiaries of such occurrences more than any other team. They're first in the league in drawing PI (13 times this season) and have the most yards received from such calls (272).
To that end, the Patriots CBs will need to do the best they can to stay with receivers in coverage while not disrupting their routes. That likely means not tracking the ball until the wide receiver's body language shows the pass is incoming.
One look back before the ball is in the air could mean getting dusted by the Ravens speedsters with nothing but a quick change of angle or double-move.
That means the Pats need a big game from Devin McCourty, their star center fielder at safety.
He'll likely always be the deep safety in a Cover-1 or Cover-3, as Steve Gregory's game isn't really shell support due to the awkward angles he takes to the ball. The CBs need to know that McCourty has their back on the deep shots, especially if they're playing press.
Basically, Baltimore's ability to convert the deep shots they'll take comes down to whether McCourty can diagnose Flacco's target and get to the ball in time to make a play.