By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
Last time we saw the Ravens here in New England, they were running roughshod over the Patriots in a game that was one of the more embarrassing efforts of the Bill Belichick era.
From taking the first play of the game 83 yards for a score, to causing multiple turnovers, to going up 24-0 in the first quarter, to making Tom Brady look as bad as he’s ever looked, this was an complete and total ass-kicking. It is hard to remember after that massacre that in an earlier meeting during the regular season, the Patriots had actually beaten the Ravens at Gillette, 27-21. Now they’ll meet again for the third time in 12 months. Wes Welker, who missed the playoff game, is back but Randy Moss has, of course, left the building for good for the Patriots, and former Brady security blanket Deion Branch is back in the fold.
The Ravens are a very good team. Handing them a loss could become important around playoff time in terms of whether a fourth potential meeting in two seasons is played in Foxborough or Baltimore. Its a big game. The Patriots, the conventional wisdom is, are going a different direction on offense now that they’ve traded Moss. Its back to ball control, spreading it around and the days when Tom Brady’s favorite receiver was the open receiver. What better way to put that return to their roots strategy than against one of the better defenses in the NFL? On defense, the Patriots young group of defenders will try to continue the improvement they showed before the bye week against Miami against a Ravens team that has a lot of weapons but struggled on offense until last week versus Denver. It should be a great game.
So, lets take a look at a couple of the key Ravens for this game.
Joe Flacco (#5), Quarterback
Flacco is now in his third year and definitely has some outstanding moments. Two weeks ago against Cleveland he put up 3 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 128.7 QB rating. Other games this year he has been mediocre or bad, such as his 4 interception performance in week 2, a loss to the Bengals. For the year he has 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions and a 72.1 quarterback rating. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Flacco, given new weapons this year such in Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh at receiver, was supposed to become elite. Yet, at times you watch him this season and it looks like he’s regressed. He makes bad decisions or bad throws. It hasn’t gotten that much attention given the Ravens 4-1 start, but its there. Last year Flacco faced the Patriots twice and was pedestrian or worse in both games. In the first game which took place week 4 of the regular season, Flacco had 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions and a 78.7 QB rating. New England won the game 27-21. Baltimore scored only 14 on offense. In the playoff game, a Baltimore blowout win, Flacco wasn’t called upon to do much as the Ravens raced to a first quarter 24-0 lead. Still, it should be noted Flacco put up an astoundingly low QB rating of 10 in the game. That’s right. 10. His QB rating for 2 playoff games last year was 39.4 combined. So, his struggles stretches back to even late last year. In the last 7 games he’s played, Flacco has thrown 9 interceptions and 5 touchdowns. Not good. If the Patriots young secondary can keep him in his slump, it’ll go a long way towards the Patriots avenging that playoff loss from last season.
Anquan Boldin (#81), Wide Receiver
Boldin was traded for from Arizona this off-season and is the main piece in Baltimore’s receiving group that features similar type receiver. These would be plodding, slow receiver, but big and physical and with outstanding hands. Along with Boldin, you have Houshmandzadeh and Derrick Mason fitting this mold. Boldin is the best of the three. He’s leading the Ravens in receiving, averaging about 73 yards per game, which puts him 5 yards of his pace with Arizona last year. He’s found the endzone 3 times. You’d think a physical corner such as the Patriots Devin McCourty would be able to handle Boldin decently, but that leaves the other less physical Patriots corners to deal with the other physical receivers. This isn’t a game where you’ll see the Ravens firing it deep, but the ability of Boldin and the others, along with tight end Todd Heap, to be strong and out muscle the other Patriots defensive backs is a bit concerning.
DT Haloti Ngata (#92), Defensive End
Ngata, of Tongan ancestry, is more like a tackle, but in the Ravens 3-4 defense he is on the end of the line. He is a massive 345 former first round pick who has a couple plays a game where he seems to throw offensive linemen around like ragdolls. The Patriots offensive line is not a pure power line in the interior and could have trouble with a guy like Ngata. One way to try to attack him is to run outside of him because he is not overly fast or quick, but not terrible either. It is simply a better choice than trying to power block him. Ngata is not a great pass rusher, but has shown improvement throughout his career, including this season. When he does reach the quarterback, he usually punishes them hard. Last year was Ngata’s first Pro Bowl selection and he should earn another this season, as well as possibly adding All-Pro status to his resume.
Dawan Landry (#26) and Tom Zbikowski (#28), Safeties
The Ravens All-Pro playmaking safety Ed Reed is out for several more weeks and this is the tandem that’s been starting. Baltimore also has been missing starting corner Domonique Foxworth and he is out for the season. So secondary is an area of concern for the Ravens and they have given up some big numbers and plays in the passing game at times. Landry and Zbikowski have been criticized in the Baltimore press and by their fans for their coverage. Willing run support defenders, neither is the quickest guy in the world and neither top-flight cover guys. It would seem the middle of the field would be an area the Patriots will look to exploit, particularly with the many over the middle weapons they have. There has been some talk of giving backup Safety Haruki Nakamura some time, but you’d think the Patriots would be able to exploit him to. He may be a bit more athletic then these two, but he is very inexperienced outside the kicking game. Ravens coach John Harbaugh is very high on him, however, and he could get some run. In any event, look for the Patriots to use a variety of players in middle routes, including Wes Welker running his usual routes but also all the tight ends and perhaps use of Julian Edelman and newly reacquired Deion Branch down the seam. Without Ed Reed patrolling the middle, the Ravens are vulnerable here.