Ravens at Patriots
Today, 1 p.m., Ch. 4 (Line: Patriots by 2 1/2)
When the Patriots runBenJarvus Green-Ellis runs hard and tough between the tackles. The 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pounder has good balance and agility and has shown he has a nose for finding holes quickly. Green-Ellis can push the pile and almost always falls forward. Danny Woodhead is a quick hitter with tremendous elusiveness and vision. He has the uncanny ability to avoid big hits. The offensive line, which has performed at a high level, faces its toughest test today against an ornery defense. Center Dan Koppen (he’s intelligent and technically sound) and guards Stephen Neal (he’s intelligent and has great balance) and Dan Connolly (he’s tough and deceptively quick) must be able to get second-level blocks. Massive Ravens lineman Haloti Ngata (6-4, 350) is big, thick, and quick. He has the lateral quickness to shed blockers and punish backs. Ngata’s ability to clear room allows the league’s best corps of linebackers to run free and inflict punishment. Mike linebacker Ray Lewis is one of the most destructive and disruptive forces the NFL has ever seen. Incredibly instinctive and aggressive, Lewis goes full-bore on every play. He has excellent sideline-to-sideline speed and delivers a wicked pop on every tackle. A highly emotional player, Lewis never takes a play off. Jameel McClain, who plays the Will, lacks recognition skills and relies on strength and athleticism to make plays.
When the Patriots passGetting rid of the ball quickly will be of utmost importance for Tom Brady. Because of the pressure the Ravens can apply, Brady won’t have time to wait for deep patterns to develop. Terrell Suggs is an elite edge rusher with a nifty combination of speed, size, and change-of-direction skills. Chip-blocking Suggs is a must on obvious passing downs because he’ll be coming. Jarret Johnson is an underrated pass rusher. Look for Brady to be at his distributing best and relying on his all-time favorite targets: Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Welker uses quickness and toughness to get open and move the chains. Branch is an extremely fluid route runner who excels on intermediate routes over the middle. Branch (5 feet 9 inches, 195 pounds) lacks size and strength but is explosive and uses his quickness to gain separation. Tight end Aaron Hernandez is athletic. He has great hands, catches the ball in stride, and has excellent open-field speed and elusiveness. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has tremendous size (6-6, 264), soft hands, and is a red zone monster. Baltimore cornerbacks Chris Carr (he’s athletic and quick) and Fabian Washington (he’s speedy but lacks strength) are solid but not spectacular. Safeties Dawan Landry (he’s strong) and Tom Zbikowski (he’s a big hitter) lack range.
When the Ravens runThe powerfully built Ray Rice is the driving force of the Ravens offense. A 5-foot-8-inch, 212-pounder, Rice has impressive leg strength, excellent vision, and deceptive speed. He runs low and has outstanding balance. He bounces off some tacklers and simply plows over others. Rice is not a true burner and won’t consistently turn the corner and hit home runs. However, he reads blocks well, and if he makes the right first cut, he can take it to the house from anywhere on the field. Rice is nursing a bruised knee and has a lot of mileage on him, so hitting him often and hard will take its toll. Willis McGahee is among the best backup tailbacks in the league. Formally a workhorse in Buffalo, McGahee is thriving as a complementary piece in Baltimore. The 6-foot, 235-pounder has good burst to the hole and is a master at exploiting cutback lanes. He will sulk, though, if he gets hit too hard. Fullback Le’Ron McClain is a powerful blocker and a decent runner. Center Matt Birk has excellent instincts and speed, allowing him to make the right calls and pick off active linebackers. Left guard Ben Grubbs can overwhelm defenders with his powerful arms and has the speed to pull and trap and hit moving targets. Right guard Chris Chester is quick but lacks strength. Inside linebackers Jerod Mayo (he’s tough) and Brandon Spikes (he’s instinctive) have to sift through the big uglies and pound the ball carriers.
When the Ravens passJoe Flacco is a two-face. He can look like Joe Montana one minute and Joe Bag of Doughnuts the next. A classic drop-back quarterback, the 6-foot-6-inch, 238-pounder has tremendous size and an exceptionally strong arm. But he lacks athleticism and foot speed and rarely makes plays outside the pocket. When he gets into a groove, he’s hard to stop; you can practically see his confidence growing. But when he gets rattled early, that can snowball, too. It’s important for the Patriots to get in Flacco’s face (and head) early to protect their young secondary. Flacco’s development had been hindered by a subpar receiving corps, but that’s not the case this season. The Ravens have a true No. 1 in Anquan Boldin. A tough, physical, and consistent performer, Boldin runs smooth routes, is fearless over the middle, and has hands like vise grips. Derrick Mason still gets off the line quickly and he’s nearly impossible to cover because he changes directions and speeds fluidly. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is a traditional possession receiver with quick feet and strong hands. Tight end Todd Heaps is a clutch receiver but lacks strength and is always nicked up. Patriot safeties Patrick Chung (he’s versatile) and Brandon Meriweather (he’s rangy) need to provide consistent help to the corners.
RAVENS’ KEY PLAYER: Anquan Boldin
Nobody really enjoys covering this 6-foot-1-inch, 218-pound wide receiver because he has tremendous strength, runs precise patterns, and catches everything thrown his way. Oh, and he’s one of the best blocking receivers in the game.
How he beats you: With concentration and consistency. Boldin is a smooth route runner, knows how to get open, and runs like a rampaging fullback after the catch.
How to shut him down: With extra punishment. The safeties will play two-deep to keep Boldin in front of them and then they’ll lower the boom after he makes the catch.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Branch office: Get Deion Branch involved early and let him get into a groove. If he can loosen up the middle of the field, it will open up the running game.
2. Stay balanced: No team comes out of the tunnel with more emotion than the Ravens, and running on them early is tough. But abandoning the run completely would be a mistake.
3. Return policy: The special teams have been fabulous. It’s often an overlooked part of the game, but a big return or hit can really swing the momentum. Just ask the Dolphins.
RAVENS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Time management: Ray Rice and Willis McGahee must pound the ball and keep the clock moving; that will keep the Patriots’ pass-first offense off the field.
2. Max protect: Matt Birk and his buddies have to keep Joe Flacco upright. If the big, stiff QB holds the ball too long, even the Patriots’ suspect pass rush will get to him.
3. Mob mentality: Stopping Wes Welker is a must. He’s the most dangerous of Tom Brady’s weapons. Taking Welker out his game forces the rest of the cast to step up.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Patriots 19