FOXBORO- When a team prepares for the Baltimore Ravens defense, the primary attention is focused on the usual suspects: Reed, Lewis, Ngata and Suggs.
But ignore the rest of the Ravens defense at your own peril was the message Tom Brady gave me in the Patriots' locker room Wednesday.
The Ravens' outside defenders -- corners Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith -- are worth more than a passing glance, Brady pointed out.
"They're good there," Brady said. "That's become a real strength for them. You hear about so many of those other guys and you end up taking for granted the guys on the outside. We played against Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister and they were really good and I think these guys can cover. They feel good about their matchups."
Last week, in the Ravens' Divisional Round win over the Texans, Webb came up with two interceptions. He had five during the regular season to go along with 59 tackles, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
"Webb has great hands, makes some plays on the ball -- he's a punt returner so that tells you how they feel about him -- he can make plays," said Brady. "If you throw to his side, he can make plays. He seems like he's on another level this year after playing him last year."
Brady extended the usual praise to Reed and Lewis, saying, "You always enjoy going up against the best because you can really measure where youre at. You cant take plays off against those guys. You cant take things for granted when youre out there against them. You have to see where theyre at on every play because theyre guys who change the game. Not only the games that we play them, but every single game that theyre in, theyre making plays."
There's little a quarterback can do to look off Reed and get him out of position. Even one of Brady's ability.
"You dont fool Ed too often," Brady said."Every once in a while you see him out of place but its very, very rare. When you break the huddle, you find where hes at and you make sure youre not lobbing the ball up in his zones, because as you saw in the Houston game, hes going to go up there and make the plays. Hes just an exceptional player. I dont think there is a weakness that he has."
According to Deion Branch, Reed's skill -- and Lewis' -- make the defenders around them that much better.
"They've been playing with Ray, they been playing with Reed, it's almost like playing with Tom," said the Patriots wideout. "They're guys who make playing out there a lot easier when you have confidence you know he'll be in a certain place on the defensive side of the ball. Webb and my man Cary Williams who has done a great job this year. Lardarius is doing a great job for those guys. And (strong safety Bernard) Pollard, he's a hitter. This guy is downhill. I remember playing against him in Kansas City."
There have been games when offenses have been able to beat the Ravens outside. San Diego for one. The difference is that San Diego is more of a downfield offense than New England. The Patriots are more of a horizontal, timing offense that spreads teams sideline-to-sideline instead of going over the top.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about receivers opening things up for Wes Welker.
"Theyve always had somebody to open up for Wes, it seems like," said Harbaugh. "Whether it was all of the receivers . . . Randy Moss comes to mind. But, theyve always had guys to push the coverage up field and clear out space for Wes. Thats part of their plan all the time.
"Theyve got another guy in there, Hernandez, who they do the same thing with now. He runs some of those same routes underneath. Of course, between Danny Woodhead and just all their guys, its just amazing. They all do the same things underneath, and they all are built that way. But Wes Welker is the guy that leads the charge. Gronkowski is pushing the ball up the field, it seems. Hernandez is pushing the ball up the field, it seems. And then theyve got good receivers outside that can get over top. Its pretty much the same formula. There are a couple of different faces, but pretty much the same idea.
Interestingly, Harbaugh tried to make a point about someone running vertical routes to clear the underneath area for Welker but he didn't seem like he could really muster it.
It is an "underneath" offense primarily with some seam routes and some throws to the sideline but it is predominantly an offense that works from 0-20 yards downfield. And that means Webb, Williams and Smith will be able to sit a little bit in coverage and give tight coverage, especially knowing Reed may be behind them.
The counter-attack for New England would be if they can get Reed to suck up to help in the middle and get 1-on-1 outside and downfield with Branch, Chad Ochocinco or Tiquan Underwood. But that's something New England hasn't done an awful lot in 2011.
At some point on Sunday, they will. And whether the Patriots can win that battle with the Ravens' forgotten DBs could be a game-changer.