Curran's Patriots - Ravens preview review

Curran's Patriots - Ravens preview review
December 23, 2013, 12:00 am
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BALTIMORE - The AFC East is supposed to be the reason the Patriots are able to pad their record and win about a dozen games every year. Well, in the wake of this highly unexpected win over Baltimore, the Patriots have beaten the Ravens and Steelers by a combined 58 points. The Patriots were undaunted by the loss last week in Miami and by the personnel attrition they’ve been dealing with since June. Their offensive and defensive game plans highlighted the weak points of the Ravens – Baltimore just isn’t that good against the run, it seems and they can’t run it either. The Patriots simply came in and took the game from the Ravens in the first 15 minutes and snuffed the Ravens chances for rallies in the second half with excellent fundamental defense that didn’t let Jumpball Joe Flacco get going with desperation throws designed to either be caught or draw flags (though there was one PI on a barely catchable ball). The Patriots are 11-4. The AFC East is clinched. They do need to knock off Buffalo next week to seal up a first-round bye.
So many questions hover over this offense now as it tries to reconfigure – again – on the fly. Start with the offensive line. Left tackle Nate Solder has suffered brain issues in back-to-back weeks and it’s impossible to presume he’ll be in top form if he even plays. That means Logan Mankins will probably be back out at left tackle as he was in the second half last week. Josh Kline came in at left guard when Mankins kicked outside last week. There were some late-game coverage breakdowns and the Ravens front will look to exploit that side of the Patriots offensive line with Mankins out of position and Kline relatively untested. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will be a real challenge off the edge in a defense called by former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Haloti Ngata at nose and Daryl Smith at linebacker are a handful in the running game and the Ravens roll a lot of bodies in along the defensive line to stay fresh. Still, the Patriots might want to use the Ravens’ aggressiveness against them with Stevan Ridley, who only needs a crease to get to the second level. Look for some screen action as well with Stevan Ridley who the Ravens have been comparing this week to Reggie Bush. Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith (along with nickel corner Corey Graham) are very good corners with good size and length. Slants, slants, slants. And the Patriots could use Aaron Dobson back to stretch the field and open things for Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. The Patriots will move it. Getting in the end zone will be the tough part.
The Ravens allowed more than 23 points only once since their season-opening blowout by Denver. That was 26 to Minnesota two weeks ago. And while it got silly at the end with the Patriots scoring two defensive touchdowns, New England just overmatched the Ravens. Using an effective running game early to set up play-action, the Patriots cashed in on turnovers and outmuscled Baltimore. The Patriots ran for 142 yards on 34 carries. LeGarrette Blount led the way (16 carries, 76 yards) but Stevan Ridley continues to have his workload increased. He carried 15 times for 54 yards and the Patriots trusted him to handle the ball when it was clock-killing time. The injury to Shane Vereen (groin) in the first half hamstrung the offense because Brandon Bolden is a significant dropoff as a target out of the backfield. Julian Edelman had seven more catches – half of Tom Brady’s completions – for 77 yards. He was targeted 11 times.  
The Ravens haven’t scored more than 30 points all season. Since October 13, they’ve scored an average of 19.8 points per game. Even during their recent hot streak, Joe Flacco hasn’t been efficient at all. He’s got 10 touchdowns and eight picks and has taken 23 of his 42 sacks. He’s only been above 60 percent completions two times. The Ravens can’t run the ball with any real effectiveness – Ray Rice is averaging 3.1 yards per carry – and they have just six rushing touchdowns. The threat to the Patriots, though, is Flacco’s penchant for getting the ball deep and getting either pass interference flags or long completions to Torrey Smith (59 catches, 17.5 average). The game is one long field position chess match with the Ravens and then they give it over to their best offensive weapon, Justin Tucker. This is a huge game for the Patriots secondary in terms of technique (not getting flags) and communication (no deep breakdowns). With good relative health in the secondary, the Patriots have the personnel to deal with the Ravens offense. One big concern is keeping track of tight end Dennis Pitta. Flacco will lean on him for third down situations.  
Turnovers and fourth down. That was the game. The Patriots picked off Joe Flacco (laboring with an ailing knee) two times and stopped the Ravens three times on fourth down plays (and 5 of 14 times on third down) to simply suck the life out of the Ravens offense. Take out the three carries for 39 yards by Tyrod Taylor in garbage time and the Patriots held the Ravens running game to 82 yards on 25 carries. The Patriots’ pass rush was very good. New England had four sacks of Flacco and hit him seven times. They broke up 10 of Flacco’s passes as well. It was a defensive performance that they, quite frankly, didn’t seem capable of heading into the game. Brandon Spikes and Donta Hightower were allowed to run blitz frequently and it made a difference as Hightower had his third straight solid game overall. Chandler Jones didn’t have a sack but he was a significant factor in the pass rush. Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano were very good up front as well. The injury to Devin McCourty in the second half is a big concern going forward. He did drop a pair of catchable picks. Jamie Collins, I almost forgot. He keeps making subtle plays in the passing game, against the run and when called on to rush. The Ravens drive results for the game were disgusting: punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, downs, interception, downs, missed field goal, touchdown, downs, fumble, interception. Ouch.

The NFL’s two best kickers this season have probably been Baltimore’s Justin Tucker and the Patriots Stephen Gostkowski. Tuckers is 35 for 37 this season and has gone 11 for 11 in his past three games including six Monday night against the Lions. He hit the biggest kick of the season, a 61-yarder to win it for Baltimore.  Gostkowski is 32 for 35 and has made a mountain of big kicks at the end of games to put the Patriots where they are after 14 games. He had a down week last week with a miss and a kickoff out of bounds. The game could ride on the right feet of these two players. With warm temperatures expected, there probably won’t be much in the way of kickoff returns but the punting game will be vital. Sam Koch is the Ravens punter and he’s got a modest net of 38.4. Jacoby Jones is one of the league’s most dangerous return guys so look for Ryan Allen to be strategically punting for the Patriots all game. Julian Edelman can make a big play in the punt return game.

Tucker’s luck ran out as he hooked a 37-yard attempt in the third quarter. Gostkowski bounced back with a pair of field goals from 45 and 42 yards. Koch had a 45.3 net and punted well. Edelman was only able to return one punt.
OUT: WR Josh Boyce (Ankle). QUESTIONABLE: CB Kyle Arrington (groin), CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee, shoulder), WR Aaron Dobson (foot), LB Dane Fletcher (groin), T Nate Solder (concussion), LB Brandon Spikes (knee), WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip). PROBABLE: WR Danny Amendola (groin), QB Tom Brady (right shoulder), T Marcus Cannon (ankle), S Steve Gregory (finger), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee), T Will Svitek, CB Aqib Talib (hip)
Devin McCourty left with a head injury and didn’t return. That’s a concern. So was the groin injury suffered by Shane Vereen, though he was in the locker room and claimed he was doing OK. Dont'a Hightower and Steve Gregory were both shaken up but made it back. Ryan Wendell was able to return after looking a little woozy after a third-quarter play. Brandon Spikes continues to play well despite the knee that obviously is bothering him. Kyle Arrington got blown up on an illegal pick play and had to leave the field as well.

DOUBTFUL: CB Asa Jackson (thigh). QUESTIONABLE: LB Elvis Dumervil (ankle), QB Joe Flacco (knee), LB Albert McClellan (neck), RB Ray Rice (thigh). PROBABLE: TE Dallas Clark (illness), S Brynden Trawick (ankle)
Red zone offense. The Patriots were 3 for 7 in the second half of their first meeting with the Ravens last year and 3 for 6 in the second half of the playoff game. They moved the ball in both meetings but bogged down deep and particularly late in the game. For instance, in their scoreless second half at Gillette in January saw their drives end thusly: punt, punt, fumble, downs, interception, interception. Without Rob Gronkowski, it’s a chore to get a matchup to exploit because he doesn’t drag coverage with him.
The Patriots took care of the red zone issues early. They punched it in on all three of their red zone possessions, including a pair in the first quarter. Their execution in the red zone was fairly easy. Their first scoring drive featured a pass interference that stuck the ball at the 1 and LeGarrette Blount pounded in on first down. On their next drive, Brady hit Shane Vereen in the flat when the Ravens defense got caught up on a combo route Vereen ran with fullback James Develin.  
Dennis Pitta. The tight end has been – and will likely continue to be – a thorn in the side of the Patriots defense because of the coverage difficulties the linebacker level. Special attention figures to be paid to Pitta who is in just his third game back from a hip injury.  
The Patriots held Pitta in check. Targeted seven times, he caught four balls for 34 yards. It was a combo effort with corners, safeties and linebackers all chipping in to keep Pitta under wraps.
Stevan Ridley. It feels like it’s time to put the ball in the hands of the best running back on the field and trust that the probationary period served since the Denver game had the desired impact.
Ridley and LeGarrette Blount ran effectively overall against a very good Ravens front-seven.
This game is played in the low teens and the kicking game is the determinant in who wins. And not just in the final minutes but all game long.
The kicking game factored in mildly. Justin Tucker, who’d made 33 straight including six on Monday night, missed from 37 yards away. Jacoby Jones had a good performance on returns. Ryan Allen punted exceedingly well with four of his seven punts inside the 20. Jones did take one punt back 22 yards and also had a 33-yard kickoff return. .
“The things that cause you to lose, you have to eliminate. Before you can win, you can’t lose. When you do things as a coach or as a player that cause you to lose, then you won’t be in this job long.” – Bill Belichick on his philosophy of dealing with errors.
The Patriots weren’t completely error-free but they were able to avoid turnovers and – when it came to penalties and unforced errors – Baltimore dominated.

“Obviously, you guys are disappointed, so it must be an issue. You don’t have as much material to work with, I guess, right? I don’t really have any thought on that, not really. To be honest with you, I haven’t thought too much about it.” – John Harbaugh, Ravens coch,
Maybe there should have been a little more chatter to engage the masses because Baltimore showed up flat and stayed that way all night.

Ravens 21, Patriots 20
Patriots 41, Ravens 7