When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley continues to develop — and impress — out of the backfield. No longer in anyone’s shadow, the 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound Ridley is running with great confidence and energy. He is a decisive runner — he picks a hole and goes. He doesn’t always pick the right opening, and will sometimes run into his blockers’ backsides, but he continues to improve and his excitement is contagious. Danny Woodhead’s quickness and instincts make him an ideal change-of-pace back, but he is becoming predictable. It seems as though he gets the ball every time he’s lined up in the backfield. New England’s offensive line looked out of sorts against the Cardinals; Donald Thomas and Marcus Cannon looked slow and/or lost a lot. They’ll have to shore things up against one of the most ferocious front sevens in the game. It starts up front with massive tackle Haloti Ngata (6-4, 340 pounds). A powerful player with deceptive speed and quickness, Ngata specializes in tossing bodies and wreaking havoc. Fellow tackles Terrence Cody (6-4, 341) and Ma’ake Kemoeatu (6-5, 345) will also cause aches and pains. On the second level, ageless wonder Ray Lewis (a tremendous mixture of instincts, speed, power, and enthusiasm) leads a linebacking crew featuring Albert McClellan (strong and athletic), Jameel McClain (an underrated bruiser), and rookie Courtney Upshaw (a big hitter).
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 126.0 (Ninth)
Baltimore defense: 129.0 (20th)
When the Patriots pass
Aaron Hernandez’s injury and the Wes Welker saga (it has reached saga status, yes?) have turned the most feared passing game in the league into a unit that hasn’t looked crisp. It’s a safe bet Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels will get this straightened out sooner rather than later. Brady will have to be at his decision-making best because the Ravens can bring pressure (though he catches a break with Terrell Suggs on the shelf). Front and center will be reliable options Rob Gronkowski (the league’s best pure tight end) and Welker (assuming he’s not injured or in the doghouse). Gronkowski’s special blend of size, speed, and strength make him a huge mismatch for any defender. Welker’s quickness off the line and normally reliable hands make him a go-to player underneath. Julian Edelman is athletic and instinctual, but the production hasn’t matched the playing time. Brandon Lloyd has wonderful hands and body control but has yet to develop a consistent rapport with Brady. Deion Branch’s quickness and knowledge of this offense should provide a level of comfort for Brady. Baltimore’s secondary has playmakers, led by the incomparable Ed Reed. Perhaps the best safety in history, Reed is intelligent, instinctual, and rangy. Patriot killer Bernard Pollard is dinged up, so look for ex-Patriot James Ihedigbo to step in. Corners Lardarius Webb (excellent quickness and mirror skills) and Cary Williams (strong and smart) are good.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 262.5 (Eighth)
Baltimore defense: 275.0 (26th)
When the Ravens run
Ray Rice has developed into one of the league’s premier tailbacks. A compact, powerfully built runner with outstanding vision and instincts, Rice has the muscle and quickness to sneak through creases between the tackles and the speed to hit the corner and break off long runs. Rice (5-8, 212) lacks height, but has big, thick legs (it’s as though somebody threw Earl Campbell in the dryer), and he runs low and with great balance. He uses a variety of jukes and spin moves to avoid and deflect hits, and won’t shy away from contact. Rookie Bernard Pierce (6-0, 218) is more of a slasher. He has good vision and will find cutback lanes, but he lacks quickness and speed and was perpetually hurt in college. Fullback Vonta Leach (6-0, 260) is a human battering ram. He can open holes and push the pile. Veteran center Matt Birk is smart, fast, and technically sound. He takes good angles but his lack of strength will be evident against Patriots behemoths Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love. Guards Ramon Harewood (he’s raw) and Marshal Yanda (he’s tough) are solid and are athletic enough to pull and trap effectively. New England’s hard-hitting linebackers will look to fill lanes and punish Rice. Jerod Mayo leads this crew, with running mates Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower. All three are instinctual players who can shed blocks and explode into ball carriers.
Rushing yards per game
Baltimore offense: 116.5 (10th)
New England defense: 62.5 (Fifth)
When the Ravens pass
Joe Flacco looks as though he was pieced together at Dr. Frankenstein’s Quarterback Factory. From a physical standpoint, he has everything coaches dream about: He is tall (6 feet 6 inches), and has good vision, a cannon for an arm, and surprising athleticism. He won’t rip off any long runs on broken plays, but he is deceptively quick and will make plays out of the pocket — though he’d clearly rather remain in his comfort zone. He is still prone to locking on to one receiver rather than looking to his secondary options. He can make every throw in the book, and his high-arching, deep spirals are some of the prettiest in the league. Flacco is protected on his blind side by, appropriately enough, Michael Oher. An athletic and strong tackle, Oher will have his hands full defending pass-rushing specialists Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jermaine Cunningham. Anquan Boldin is an extremely productive and consistent receiver. He has strength, size, and excellent hands. He’s not a true burner but he’s fast enough. Torrey Smith can flat-out fly. His lapses in concentration (i.e. bad routes, bad drops) have prevented him from reaching elite status, however. Jacoby Jones has a nice blend of size and speed. Dennis Pitta is an athletic tight end with great hands. He has developed into a nice safety blanket for Flacco. New England’s secondary clamped down last week and it’ll need a similar effort tonight.
Passing yards per game
Baltimore offense: 261.0 (Ninth)
New England defense: 202.0 (Seventh)
RAVENS’ KEY PLAYER
After a slow start to his rookie season in 2011, Smith came on like gangbusters over the second half and ended up hauling in a team-high seven touchdown passes.
How he beats you: With blinding speed. Smith explodes off the line and has tremendous acceleration down the field. He tracks balls well over his shoulder and is adept at making sideline catches.
How to shut him down: By stalling him. Chucking Smith at the line will temporarily derail him and prevent him from getting into his groove. He is prone to lapses in concentration and he has small hands — two factors that lead to too many dropped balls.
RAVENS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Emotional rescue: Playing with emotion is a good thing. But they can’t get caught up thinking this a rematch of the AFC Championship game. That game is long gone.
2. Ride Rice: Ray Rice is durable and productive. He is also a demon on screens, so get the ball in his hands as much as possible and let him go.
3. Quick strikes: Joe Flacco can’t hang onto the ball. He needs to locate receivers and use his superior arm strength to fit the ball in tight spaces. He can roll out if he has to, but if you root for the Ravens, you don’t want him to.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Spread the wealth: Aaron Hernandez’s injury clearly threw the offense for a loop. They’ve had a week to adjust, so get back to Brady Ball, and that means getting everyone involved.
2. Hurry up!: Tom Brady is virtually unstoppable in the no-huddle offense. So start the game this way and keep the Ravens defenders (there are some old guys out there) on the field and their tongues hanging.
3. Keep kicking: So Stephen Gostkowski missed a potential game-winning kick last week. Big deal. He is still one of the best in the game, so keep his confidence high.