3TFO: Ravens @ Patriots, AFC Championship
The Patriots and Ravens renew one of the NFL's best current-day rivalries with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Steve Palazzolo previews the three key matchups of ...
3TFO: Ravens @ Patriots, AFC Championship
The Baltimore Ravens head to New England to take on the Patriots in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game. Not only is this a rematch of last year’s AFC Title game, but the two teams went down to the wire in Week 3 with Baltimore coming out on top by a point. The rivalry is emerging as one of the league’s best, and of course this postseason has the added storyline of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ pending retirement.
Baltimore is fresh off an upset of the No. 1 seeded Denver Broncos in a hard-fought double-overtime game, while New England disposed of the Houston Texans 41-28. It remains to be seen if the Ravens’ extra efforts in the Denver altitude will have a lingering effect this week, especially with the Patriots’ penchant for running an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Defenses are challenged by the pace of the offense every week, but Baltimore’s five-plus quarters in the thin air could make it even more difficult on Sunday.
Whether it’s Lewis’ swan song or Tom Brady’s quest for the elusive fourth Super Bowl ring, this game abounds with storylines and drama — and a trip to New Orleans is on the line.
There are a number of key matchups in the game, so let’s take a look.
Patriots Pass Offense vs. Ravens Pass Defense
Despite boasting one of the top running attacks in the league, the Patriots’ offense still runs through Brady. He hasn’t played well in the Patriots’ last three playoff losses, and their success will likely depend on his ability to play at his expected Pro-Bowl level. He posted a season-high +7.4 grade in the first matchup with Baltimore, and he was particularly effective throwing to the intermediate (10-20 yards) level, going 8 of 10 for 125 yards on such throws. The Ravens blitzed him on 17 of his 44 drop-backs, and that’s where Brady did most of his damage, going 12 of 15 for 155 yards and a QB rating of 109.7. How will the Ravens match up with Brady’s targets this week?
Wide receiver Wes Welker is never an easy cover, but the Ravens have done a nice job of slowing him down with cornerback Ladarius Webb. Unfortunately, Webb is out for the season and the responsibility will fall on CB Corey Graham who starts at LCB in the base defense before kicking inside to cover the slot in sub packages. Welker has taken his usual spot among the best in the league, averaging 2.04 Yards/Route Run when lined up in the slot, while Graham is in the middle of the pack among slot cornerbacks with his 1.30 Yards/Cover Snap. It’s not a terrible performance by Graham, but it’s certainly a downgrade from Webb who surrendered only 0.88 Yards/Cover Snap in the slot last year, before giving up only 0.32 through 92 snaps this season. Graham’s ability to keep up with Welker may be the most important matchup for the Ravens on Sunday.
This matchup will be less cut and dried compared to Welker, as tight end Aaron Hernandez lines up all over the formation. He’ll see a number of Ravens defenders, but look for the Patriots to exploit the matchups that find him covered by a linebacker. Whether it’s Lewis (-8.7 pass coverage) who, despite his exceptional career and team leadership has clearly lost a step in coverage, or LB Dannell Ellerbe (-6.4 pass coverage), the Patriots should be able to win the matchup — especially as Hernandez appeared to have his explosion back last week with 57 of his 85 receiving yards coming after the catch.
Covering the Running Backs
The final piece that could be a struggle for the Ravens is the running backs. Last week, RB Danny Woodhead was supposed to be a big part of the Patriots’ game plan but a hand injury sidelined him early in the game and RB Shane Vereen took over his role. Vereen didn’t miss a beat with 124 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. Like Hernandez, the Patriots running backs will line up at a number of spots, so expect Lewis and Ellerbe to move with them if the Ravens are in man coverage.
Ravens Pass Offense vs. Patriots Pass Defense
The Ravens also have a number of receiving weapons at their disposal, as evidenced by QB Joe Flacco’s 613 yards passing in the playoffs already. The deep passing game is a huge part of his arsenal, and his 92 regular season attempts were the second-most in the league — and last week he completed four of six deep throws for 185 yards and three touchdowns. It remains to be seen how much pressure he will face this weekend. The Patriots blitzed him only three times on his 47 drop-backs in Week 3, this despite the fact Flacco grades at+19.0, with a QB Rating of 96.4, against traditional four-man pressure, but his numbers drop to -10.7 and 76.4 when he is blitzed. The Patriots have stepped up the pressure since adding CB Aqib Talib, increasing their blitz frequency from 17% of the time before his acquisition, to 33% over the past eight games.
What is clearer is who Flacco will be throwing to.
No wide receiver saw a higher percentage of deep throws than Torrey Smith, who was targeted beyond 20 yards 42.3% of the time in the regular season. In fact, 36 of his 114 targeted passes have been ‘go’ routes, so his ability to stretch the defense is a huge part of the Ravens’ offense.
In New England, head coach Bill Belichick generally keeps his cornerbacks on the same side regardless of the matchups, but the late acquisition of Talib has expanded the options on defense. Talib has been used to shadow opposing team’s top wide receivers at times, and he did so last week against WR Andre Johnson. While Talib does not boast outstanding numbers (1.74 yards/cover snap), he’s taken to the added responsibility and Belichick has trusted him enough to play a lot more varied coverages in the secondary.
The Patriots did not assign a cornerback to Smith in the first matchup, but Talib was not on the roster at the time. Whether Talib flips sides or not, he’ll see plenty of Smith who has received 54% of his targets from a right wide receiver spot, which is opposite Talib’s natural left cornerback position.
On the other side of Smith is Anquan Boldin, who will also kick inside to play in the slot in 3-WR packages. His more physical approach to the game offers a different challenge from Smith. He’s caught all but two of the 78 on-target balls thrown his way, and he’s picked up 216 yards over the past two weeks. When lined up outside, he’ll see either Talib or CB Alfonzo Dennard who is fresh off making our PFF All-Rookie Team. Dennard’s 1.26 Yards/Cover Snap ranks in the middle of the pack among cornerbacks, but he’s allowed a league-low 78 yards after the catch.
When Boldin moves inside to the slot, it will likely be CB Kyle Arrington getting the nod. He’s given up only 0.71 yards/cover snap in the slot and he’s graded at +5.2 since Week 10.
Patriots Running Game vs. Ravens Run Defense
One of the stories of the season in New England is the dedication to the running game that has the Patriots ranked seventh in the league in rushing yards, adding a balanced dimension to their pass-first attack. On the other side, Baltimore historically has been one of the most difficult teams to run against, but less than stellar pay up front, combined with injuries to both Lewis and OLB Terrell Suggs have forced the unit to take a step back this season. Both players were forces last week, however, combining for a +6.6 grade against the run.
New England’s offensive line has proven a stellar run blocking unit, particularly at center where Ryan Wendell is our top run blocker at the position (+24.2). He’ll be matched up against the oversized, yet underwhelming duo of DT Ma’ake Kemoeatu and DT Terrence Cody who combine for 710 lbs of mass (listed), but only a -7.1 combined run stop grade. In addition to Wendell, Patriots OT Nate Solder and OG Logan Mankins split Player of the Game Honors last week on the strength of their fantastic work in the running game where they combined to grade at +5.2.
While Brady has been one of the main culprits of recent Patriots playoff losses, the well-balanced running attack may be just what they need to take some pressure off him and leave them with some margin for error.
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