by Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
October 1, 2009

So I thought the Falcons were going to be a huge test for the Patriots? I thought it was Atlanta who was the well-balanced juggernaut? Apparently not. Oh, they’re a good team, but the way the Patriots naysayers have recategorized them as mediocre in the wake of the Patriots relatively easy 16 point win last week is not surprising from some of the familiar negative voices in the local media.

Now, this week with Baltimore coming to Foxboro, those same voices are in the process of equating the Ravens to the 1962 Packers or 1986 Bears. It’s amusing. Don’t get me wrong, the Ravens are also a very good team that presents a lot of problems for the Patriots. This, undoubtedly, will be a tough, physical, hard fought game. But the Ravens do not have the defense they used to be despite claims to the contrary. They are still good, but not the dominant Super Bowl unit of 2000. Their corners are middling at best, they have weak spots at linebacker, they have lost two important starters on defense (Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard) since last year and have a coordinator who’s only been in the NFL two years. The Patriots should be able to move the ball on them and score well in to the 20’s at least.

In fact, it’s the Ravens offense that scares me more. The offense is very well balanced, has numerous weapons, can pound it or spread it out and have one of the top up and coming quarterbacks in the NFL. They’re well coached to boot, with a multi-faceted scheme on offense that can adapt to a grind it out game or a track meet. This may be the biggest test of the improved, but banged up Patriots defense; even more so than the good Falcons offense.

Let’s take a look at some of these Ravens:

QB Joe Flacco

This kid isn’t getting enough credit. It’s almost as if the NFL-watching public still thinks of him as a rookie that has been solid, but will still hit inevitable ups and downs. Earth to everyone… ain’t happening. He isn’t just a solid quarterback who was taught to be a game manager and avoid mistakes. He’s now a game changer. For anyone not paying attention, you may want to watch closely and realize he is rapidly developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. More than the highly touted Ravens defense, its Flacco who’ll be the biggest obstacle to winning for the Patriots. One weakness is, if pressured, he can get a bit inaccurate. So if the Patriots are going to consistently get the Ravens off the field, this is one week they’ll have to mount a consistent pass rush.

RB Willis McGahee

McGahee’s role is somewhat reduced with the Ravens, but he is playing very well this season. He’s still a threat and has always played pretty well against the Patriots. This year McGahee is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry and has gotten into the end zone 5 times in 3 games. He is prone to fumbling and only mediocre as a receiver, but he is a physical runner and will do a lot of damage to a defense that doesn’t have him securely wrapped up. McGahee is still only 27 years old though it seems as if he has been around longer.

WR Kelley Washington

The former Patriot special teams ace has blossomed as a receiver with Baltimore. To date he has 12 catches for 167 yards and has converted 10 of his 12 receptions for first downs. Washington, as Patriots fans will recall, played four seasons of minor league baseball before to returning to Auburn as a football player. Given that his career minor league average was .213, it appears he made the right decision turning to the pigskin as his sport of choice. With the Patriots, Washington was a regular contributor on special teams but rarely got the opportunity to play receiver. He’s making the most of it with the Ravens, and you just know he’d love to show his former team they made a mistake by not giving him more of a shot to play on offense.

S Ed Reed

A favorite of Bill Belichick, Reed is perhaps the best playmaking safety in the NFL. At least several times a year he makes highlight-type returns off turnovers and he has turned many a game with a big play. The Patriots need to be extra careful to know where he is at all times because one mistake in his vicinity and he’ll turn it into a Ravens six on defense. In 2007 Reed came up with a big interception against the Patriots that could have changed the result of the game, but in the midst of a big return by Reed, Kevin Faulk hit him helmet on ball causing a fumble the Patriots would recover. This may have been the difference between winning and losing for the Patriots and protected their undefeated regular season.

LB Ray Lewis

Lewis, of course, is one of the all-time great middle linebackers and their biggest link back to their all-time great defense of 2000. Despite being a 14 year veteran, Lewis can still run and make plays and is difficult to deal with. So far in 2009, the Ravens rank first in the NFL against the run and Lewis’s excellent play has been a big part of that. Through 3 games the Ravens are only allowing 51 yards per game and 2.5 per carry. It’s going to take a superior effort by the Patriots to deal with that type of run defense and one way they can at least make some headway may be some unconventional runs, such as draws on early downs, or out of spread formations when the Ravens sub-packages are on the field, or perhaps some reverses. Lewis is still difficult to block head on, but he is not quite as fast as he used to be on the perimeter and perhaps the Patriots can take advantage of that.

Kicker Steven Hauschka

Hauschka is a second year kicker who was used mostly as a kick off specialist last season. For his career, he is 5 for 7 but has not yet really been tested in a big situation. Hauschka is actually a local guy from Needham, Massachusetts who went to Middlebury College. Because he played only three years of football at Middlebury, he then went to graduate school at North Carolina State and kicked for one year there. He has a big leg and the first kick he ever hit in his NFL career was a 54 yarder. Graduated from Needham High School, but played soccer there and not football. Being a local guy and presumably with friends and family at the game and playing a tough team on the road, it’ll be interesting to see if Hauschka comes through or ends up being a negative factor for the Ravens in the game in what could be the biggest test of his young NFL career.

Here’s some pre-game links for the Ravens:

Baltimore Ravens Team Site

Baltimore Sun Ravens Coverage

Ravens Roost fan site

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