Another regular season of football is in the past. This one has been turbulent and trying, most times lurking somewhere below that level of comfort and success to which we in Baltimore have grown accustomed. Many things have changed: coaches, players, philosophies, heroes, injuries, careers. But others remain the same: AFC North champions, AFC finalists for the third time in five years, all due in no small part to the inspiration and motivation of #52. Some things stay the same. And, of course, another playoff game, another championship game, in Foxborough.
Baltimore wasn’t supposed to beat Peyton Manning. The Ravens weren’t supposed to be here (again). We know. We’ve heard. And none of that matters now. As good as the Peyton-Brady would surely have been, (and we have no doubts that it would have lived up to the hype), Baltimore-New England is a great matchup. It’s a great rivalry. Only in the era of Peyton and Brady will Ray and Brady have to play second fiddle.
Though you’d never know it from the Vegas odds, these teams play each other very close. A 31-30 Ravens win in week 3. The 23-20 Patriots win one year ago. These teams are 2-2 in their last four. And while no team can claim an answer to Brady’s no-huddle quandary, the Ravens have typically found a way to slow him. With that in mind, we’ve gone to the film for a preview of what to expect on Sunday.
RB Split Wide
Situation: 1Q 3:04 1st and 10 on HOU 40
Toward the end of the first quarter, the Patriots are driving. They line up in a One Back Doubles formation (two receiving threats on each side) with their 21 personnel (two RBs and one TE). The defense is moving as Brady barks out the snap count. #29 SS Glover Quin moves toward the LOS, #38 S Danieal Manning slides to the deep middle of the field, and #53 ILB Bradie James moves outside to cover #34 RB Shane Vereen, who is split wide right.
Prior to the snap, #83 WR Wes Welker goes in motion toward the formation and will start his route just inside of #85 Brandon Lloyd. Vereen is alone at the top of the formation against a plodding linebacker giving him an 8-yard cushion.
Brady takes the snap and quickly throws to Vereen, who catches the pass and has only James to beat—no one else is even visible in this cap.
Vereen beats LB James, but FS Danieal Manning comes across to (barely) make the tackle. Vereen nearly spins free and would have had a clear path to the endzone.
What Can We Take Away From This?
First and foremost, the Patriots offense is versatile. It is based almost exclusively on matchups, and the Pats tailor their offense to have success against whatever defensive front they are seeing. For example, the Ravens like to play their corners off in Cover 3 or Cover 4. In response, Brady will likely throw WR screens and bubble screens. We have a feeling the Ravens will see this on Sunday, especially because the Steelers had success against the Ravens with such passes when Charlie Batch was playing quarterback.
If the Patriots are successful with these passes, Baltimore will likely respond by pressing their corners (playing Man across). At this point, the Pats are able to work off of matchups, and they can almost always find a favorable one. One of the matchups to watch is Cary Williams vs. Brandon Lloyd (Lloyd had success against Williams with several comeback routes in the week 3 contest). Another is any Patriots running back on a Ravens linebacker (likely Ellerbe). New England will try to get their RBs to catch passes out of the backfield and out of alignments like the one detailed above, where the RB lines up wide. To counter this, the Ravens defense will need to have built-in check calls, such as automatically switching the coverage if a RB is split wide. Simple, right?
The Patriots, shockingly, have a counter. One of New England’s greatest advantages is their speed no-huddle offense. By moving quickly to the line and running a variety of plays within the same personnel package (see below, where the formation is identical to the play drawn-up above, but the personnel differ), the Patriots are able to prevent the defense from both substituting and adjusting their defensive alignment. One of the strengths of the New England offense, detailed here in a great article by Chris Brown, is the variety of plays they are able to call with the same personnel on the field. The offense is structured around “concepts”, rather than players or route trees, and most concepts can be used by any skill player on the offense—RB, TE, or WR. In short, this system makes it extremely difficult for the defense to adjust as quickly as New England runs its plays. So how do the Ravens win on defense?
Situation: 2Q 1:01 2nd and 6 on NE 39
With little time to go in the half, the Patriots come out of the huddle with their 3WR personnel aligned, once again, in a One Back Doubles formation. The Ravens will play a variant of “Cover 1 Rover” meaning man-to-man underneath with Ed Reed playing his comfort spot (single high safety). This play doesn’t develop like any other play though, as the Ravens are toying with their defensive look via movement and alignment.
At the line of scrimmage are seven potential pass rushers that the Pat’s protection scheme must account for. The arrows denote defensive responsibilities. Paul Kruger (#2 in this screen cap) will rush the edge to widen NE Left Tackle Nate Solder. Pernell McPhee (#3 here) will rush to the face of the Left Guard Logan Mankins in order to open a lane for Ray Lewis (#1) to match-up one-on-one with RB Danny Woodhead.
Of the seven potential pass rushers, the Ravens drop three into coverage: Haloti Ngata (orange circle), Dannell Ellerbe, and Bernard Pollard. Ellerbe and Pollard are executing an inside/outside bracket on Rob Gronkowski while Ngata is dropping into a short “middle hook” zone. By scheme the Ravens get Ray Lewis matched up on Danny Woodhead, and Tom Brady must release the ball quickly.
The result of the play is an overthrow to left WR Brandon Lloyd, who is covered tightly by Cary Williams. Tom Brady was visibly frustrated after this play because it isn’t often that defenses can force the Brady-led offense into undesirable situations. The Ravens have been very good at this in the past few Ravens/Pats duels.
This play also shows a number of things that the Ravens have executed well this season:
1) Taking away a single aspect of an offense. The Ravens double-team Gronkowski here in the purest sense because DC Dean Pees felt that #87 was the biggest threat to his defense. Gronkowski being out of the game this Sunday leads us to believe that they will take away either Welker or Hernandez for the majority of the day.
2) The Ravens schemed pressure and were able to force a quick throw without rushing more than four players. This is known as “safe pressure” and will be the Ravens best friend on Sunday.
3) Haloti Ngata drops into coverage. This doesn’t happen often (5x the entire season), but adding an extra underneath zone to cushion inside breaking routes is a great strategy for taking away the short middle of the field (40% of Brady’s completions this year have been between the numbers and fewer than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage).
It is essential that the Ravens pass rush get home. Brady is of the least pressured quarterbacks in the league (facing pressure on only 25% of all dropbacks), but when pressure gets to him, Brady is also one of the least accurate quarterbacks in the league. According to ProFootballFocus, Brady’s accuracy when under pressure (56.3%) ranks 29st out of 38 eligible quarterbacks. Deception will be the key for Baltimore’s defense, not only for blitzing effectively but also for taking important pieces of the offense away.