Ravens on Offense: Is there a well-known quarterback you’d be less likely to recognize on the street than Joe Flacco? He’s like that one kid in high school that other kids would make fun of for half an hour before realizing he had been sitting there the whole time.
If you’ve watched the Ravens for more than five minutes this season, you’ve probably learned exactly what stats could tell you about them: typically excellent defense, wildly mediocre offense. Football Outsiders, a website which basically tries to do to football what the book Moneyball did to baseball (prove that you know nothing about it), has the Ravens as the best pass defense in football and the 7th-best run defense. The Patriots, in the meantime, have started playing wide receivers in their secondary. So there’s that.
Question is: What will Joe Flacco be able to do with the terrible defense facing him? It’s anyone’s guess which terrible cornerback Bill Belichick will assign to Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ only real deep threat. However, whether the horrendous player in question turns out to be the horrendous Devin McCourty or the horrendous-but-can-make-picks Kyle Arrington, he will probably get help from one of the horrendous safeties/receivers, just like the Patriots did with the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas in last week’s game. If they do this, Anquan Boldin will have an even better matchup against New England’s attempt at a pass defense. Great news for the Ravens mitigated somewhat by the fact that Joe Flacco only completed about fifty-eight percent of his passes this year — a level of competency best described as “slightly worse than Rex Grossman,” — and spent most of the win over the Texans looking like he was trying to bounce-pass the ball to open receivers.
Rice, for this reason and others, might be the most important player in the game for either team. A good performance from him will be the best chance Baltimore has of extending drives to keep Tom Brady off the field, and his ability as a receiver (second-most of any running back) gives Flacco a screen pass option if New England has everyone else covered. Incredibly, the one area in which the Patriots defense has actually excelled this season was in neutralizing the receiving threat of running backs.
Even with Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes returning to bolster the Patriots’ run defense, Rice will likely pick up his share of yards on the ground no matter what happens. However, if the Patriots can hold him in check as a bailout plan for Flacco, they’ll make it that much more difficult for him to match Brady score for score. If the Ravens want to have even a chance in this game, Rice must pull out another performance like the 159-yard, two-touchdown sucker punch that knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs two years ago. If you have any doubts about that, here is Joe Flacco’s line from that game: 4/10, 34 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. Quarterback rating: 10, or twice the number on his back.
Patriots on Offense: There are many different paths to having the number one defense, and for the Ravens that path has been to scar the bad offenses for life (Jets, Rams) while being surprisingly average against the good ones (Chargers, Texans), none of whom could compare to New England’s. If New England executes its game plan, they really can present a virtually impossible challenge for a team hoping to stop them at every turn. If a defense is focusing on Rob Gronkowski deep, Brady can hit Wes Welker on an underneath route. If a team somehow neutralizes both Gronkowski and Welker, then there is still Aaron Hernandez, who has lined up everywhere from tight end to wide receiver to running back. If they draw coverage back to Hernandez, then one of the other two will be free. It’s an enormous number of options for a defense, even a really good defense, to contend with, and the Patriots can throw all of them at the Ravens at a pace which will test the endurance of a team that has shown its age at times this year.
At the same time, the Ravens do have the personnel to at least take a shot at dealing with the problem at the chokepoint. Baltimore, like the Jets and Steelers, can generate a pass-rush with only four linemen while dropping seven into a man-to-man coverage. New England’s offensive line has been decent but not great in pass-protection (losing Dan Koppen, their starting center, in the first five minutes of the season didn’t help), and if Haloti Ngata and Terence Cody can get consistent pressure on Brady up the middle, he has shown in the past that he can be rattled by constant hits (the Giants also did that once, a few years ago. I forget what happened).
Where the Ravens get into trouble is that, unlike the Jets and Steelers, they don’t have any really great cornerbacks who can jam receivers at the line (which the Jets have had success doing against New England) and play one-on-one ball. Cary Williams would probably line up against whichever player the Ravens are most worried about, but teams have still managed to complete half of their passes against him. Lardarius Webb has shown incredible playmaking ability when T.J. Yates is throwing against him, but his season numbers are worse than Williams’. Jimmy Smith, their rookie corner, has shown the flashes of greatness, but has spent most of the year coming off the bench after he sprained his ankle on the first play of the season.
None of these corners, from a physical standpoint, has a realistic shot at defending players like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, which means that the Ravens have another impossible choice: Devote safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard to helping out with the tight ends and ignoring Welker and Deion Branch, or try to have Terrell Suggs and a diminished Lewis match up with them one-one-one and leave the middle of the field open for everybody else?
While the Patriots don’t run the ball all that much, they have been effective when doing so, lining up in the spread formation to create holes along the defensive line and then simply running through them. Baltimore, while they have certainly defended the run well, have struggled to stop running backs at the line of scrimmage, which they’ll have to do if the linebackers will be busy covering receivers man-to-man.
Not to say that the Patriots will score at will.Like the Saints and the Packers, Brady and the Patriots are playing at the level where defenses can only hope to keep the point total manageable and hope their own offense can match them. A defense as good as the Ravens is a great bet to deny the Patriots extra chances with missed tackles and blown assignments, and their top-ranked defense in the red zone indicates that New England may have to settle for a few field goals along the way, although it’s hard to think that they will be denied the end zone entirely.
Then again, there is that more simple possibility that the great Patriots offense just might suffer an off-day, and that this might be Baltimore’s best chance of all. On paper, they are not a good bet to kill themselves with turnovers like the Saints or dropped passes like the Packers, but for that matter, neither were the Saints and the Packers. The Giants defense had one of the best postseason performances ever against Green Bay, and still the Packers’ offense put themselves in good position after good position, only to squander those chances with dropped passes, fumbles, and off-target throws. As successful as the game plans of the Jets and Giants were in pressuring Brady into submission, they succeeded in tandem with two shockingly average games by his standards. In each case, he never looked quite right, and the teams took advantage.
The Ravens better hope that they get a chance like that, whether it’s from turnovers or an offense mysteriously out of sync. What’s more likely is that Brady won’t embarrass them on Sunday but will push the score high enough that Flacco and Rice won’t be able to reach it. The Ravens will put up a fight — they’re too good not to — but this isn’t their year. Patriots 30, Ravens 21.
Timothy Bernstein is a junior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org