By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff

Earlier in the season, we had a nice chat with Right Off Russell, a Baltimore area sports blog. This week, we’re renewing acquaintances with the guys, and talking about this week’s playoff matchup between the Patriots and Ravens.

How are the Ravens a different team from what we saw early in the season? Is the defense back to being the unit we’ve come to know over most of this decade?

Defensively, the Ravens are not as good as they have been in previous seasons. They still struggle to pressure QB’s and the secondary is holding on by a thread after losing a lot of depth to injury. What I think the Ravens do have now is a greater sense of who they are and how they need to gameplan on defense. It took some time for this team to realize how it needed to play on defense after some key personnel and coaching changes. Sure the defense is still vulnerable, but they have a better sense of how they need to play and are better at limiting big plays than they were in the first half of the season. The other main difference I see in the Ravens is a greater focus on the running game. Joe Flacco got off to a hot start and the Ravens had the look of a pass first team. Well some injuries to Flacco and defenses adjusting to what he likes to do have limited some of his effectiveness, so the Ravens have made a necessary shift to running the ball more and I think it is why they are in the playoffs.

Ray Rice is an amazing back, and from afar, it looks like Willis McGahee had some good games as well. There’s also Le’Ron McClain in the mix. Rice gets most of the carries, but what is the Ravens strategy with their backs? McGahee isn’t just a goal line back, as we saw last week. How do they deploy them?

Your guess is as good as mine. There are roles that have been pretty consistent over the course of the season, but Cam Cameron seems content to mix up how he uses the backs on a game to game basis. Rice is a lot more effective than the other two in the passing game. McGahee has been very good on the goal line and McClain in short yardage and closing out teams with a pounding running game. I think Cameron has been flexible to use the back who gives him the best chance for success against a particular defense. He is also willing to ride the hot hand, evident last Sunday in Oakland with the use of McGahee. The three backs have not been used in consistent ways all season, but they have been very effective and at times dynamic.

Has Joe Flacco continued to progress in his development? Early in the season, there was a lot of talk about how much better he was, and how much more wide open the Baltimore offense was. How has it been since then?

I think Flacco has had a very good year for a 2nd year QB. When you consider his progress, in some ways Flacco has been the victim of his own early success. Flacco started out of the gates very quickly and you could see the difference in his game from last year. Then, as I mentioned above, some injuries caused some struggles, and defenses focused more and more at taking away the things the Ravens were trying to do in the passing game. This led to some struggles that are normal for any QB, let alone a 2nd year one. Because of the injuries and struggles the Ravens have looked to run the ball more in the 2nd half of the season. Flacco still can make all the throws, but the offense has shifted to rely more on it’s bread and butter.

If you had to design a plan to beat the Ravens, where would you attack?

To move the ball on the Ravens defense you have to attack the Ravens secondary. The corners are small and depleted and struggle against big, physical receivers. The Ravens still have a run stuffing defensive front, but they have also struggled to bring consistent pressure on opposing QB’s. Defenses that have been effective at stopping the Ravens offense have been able to pressure Flacco and take him out of his comfort zone by trying to take Derrick Mason out of the game. The Ravens do not have a lot of playmakers in the receiving corp, if Mason is neutralized it can be hard for the Ravens to move the ball through the air.

As a fan, is it frustrating at times that the Ravens seem to get hit with so many costly penalties right at the worst possible times? Who is to blame for this happening so much? The players? The coaches? Do the Ravens have a target on their backs from the officials? What’s the deal here?

Honestly, it has been a bit of all those factors. The Ravens have been out of position, especially in the secondary and that will lead to penalties. Perhaps those numerous penalties have led the officials to scrutinize the Ravens. There have definitely been plenty of calls that I thought were questionable to down right bad. Heck there were a few of those bad calls the first time the Ravens travelled to Foxboro, but that is part of the game and as frustrating as it is the refs are not going to change the calls after they have had a chance to watch them on tape. It has happened a lot this year, but I am certain that the Ravens are not thinking about that heading into Sunday’s matchup. The play-offs are a new season.

You can see our answers to their questions here: Scouting the Patriots.