After squaring off 4 times in the last 3 years in Foxboro, the New England Patriots and Ravens will do battle this Sunday night in Baltimore.
Understandably there has been a lot of talk about this being a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship with discussion of this as a growing rivalry. Beyond that is the truth that this week boils down to two teams that are looking for their second win, and trying to avoid falling to 1-2 and the corresponding panic that will bring.
1) The Patriots use a 4-3 defense. At RDE is Chandler Jones (brother of the Ravens’ Arthur Jones). Chandler was selected in the 1st round this year, 21st overall. In his first two NFL games, he has had 10 tackles, 2 caused fumbles, and a sack. Next to Jones is Wilfork, who remains one of the premier DT’s in the league. In the Championship Game, Wilfork helped contain Rice, and had 6 tackles, with a sack.
2) At LB, the starters from left-to-right are Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, and Jerod Mayo. Like Chandler Jones, Hightower was also selected in the 1st round this year (25th overall). Spikes, now in his 3rd year, had off-season knee surgery. He is seen as very good against the run. Mayo was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, and was named an All-Pro after 2010. Pro Football Focus graded Mayo as the 8th best OLB in a 4-3, late in December 2011.
3) One change to the Patriots Secondary is FS Steve Gregory, who was signed from the Chargers. Gregory is probably just keeping the spot warm for 2nd round pick Tavon Wilson. The corners are Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington. McCourty had a good 2010 season at corner, but was forced to spend time at Safety last year and his production slipped. This year, he is back to exclusively being a corner. Arrington had 7 picks last year, and broke-up 13 passes.
4) Nate Solder is now the starting LT. The 2011 1st round pick played in 13 games last year, alternating between left and right tackle. During the regular season, Solder allowed just three sacks, four pressures and 5 penalties on 880 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Next to Solder is LG Logan Mankins. Mankins is a 3x All-Pro, who was ranked #64 in the NFL Network listing of the Top 100 players for 2012. After starting 5 games over the previous two years, Ryan Wendell is now the starting Center. Wendell is supposed to grade out well as a run-blocker. Dan Connolly is at RG, and the starting RT is Sebastian Vollmer. In 2010, Vollmer was an All-Pro.
5) Rob Gronkowski deserved all of the recognition he received last year. What a year for the TE. 90 catches, 1,327 yards with 17 TD’s. Through the first two games of 2012, he is on a similar reception pace (slightly above last year), but his yards per game, yards per catch, and yards after the catch have all dropped. With fellow TE Aaron Hernandez now sidelined for several weeks with an ankle injury, it will be interesting to see if Gronkowski is further slowed against likely even more attention. As a counter to the Hernandez injury, the Patriots have signed veteran Kellen Winslow.
6) Lots of talk Nationally this week about Wes Welker being off to slow start production wise. (After 122 catches, for 1,500+ yards last year; Welker has hads 8 grabs for 109 yards in the first two weeks of ’12.) If there was any truth to Welker being phased out of the offense some, I’m sure that now changes with Hernandez out. Splitting time between the Rams and Denver last year, Brandon Lloyd had a total of 70 catches. He already has 13 this year, but his yards per catch (9.9) is drastically lower than his 15.2 ypc career average. Lloyd is expected to play Sunday, but has been battling a thigh injury this week. Julian Edelman has received some of the passes that Welker typically does. Deion Branch has also been signed, and is familiar with the offense.
7) Tom Brady turned 35 in August, but coming off a year where he threw for over 5,200 yards with 39 TD’s, it is hard to make the argument that he is getting old. If you get pressure in Brady’s face, you have a chance to slow him. If you fail to get pressure, he carves you up. While the Ravens will not have Suggs available Sunday, the Baltimore home crowd noise could provide some help for the Ravens defense.
8) With Benjarvus Green-Ellis moving on, the starting RB for the Patriots is Stevan Ridley. The 2nd year back out of LSU had a big Week 1 with 125 yards on 21 carries. That was followed by 18 carries and 71 yards vs. Arizona. Over the first two weeks, he has had 5 catches for 51 yards. Ridley is 5’11, 220 lbs, and supposed to be a back that falls forward after contact. I’m interested to see how he is used against the Ravens.
9) Brought back to the Patriots organization during the playoffs last year, the Offensive Coordinator is again Josh McDaniels. McDaniels is attempting to make the Patriots offense a bit more diverse, and is already under a bit of scrutiny in Boston for an offense that has yet to click.
10) In some corners, there was talk of the New England Patriots going on another undefeated regular season run in 2012. That ended with a surprising home loss to Arizona (who appears to be better than advertised). Maybe there will be other games on the Patriots schedule which surprise. Looking at their schedule now, I would think the Patriots are one of the two teams (with the Texans) most likely to receive a bye in the AFC Playoffs. I have to believe that the Ravens have to have this game, to have a chance of finishing ahead of New England for the year.