Curran's Patriots-Ravens preview
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
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.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
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.
THE KICKING GAME
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.
PATRIOTS SICK BAY
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)
RAVENS SICK BAY
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)
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
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.
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP …
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.
RAVENS GOTTA STOP …
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.
DON'T BE SURPRISED IF …
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.
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“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.
THAT SUMS IT UP RAVENS STYLE
“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 coach,
THE WINNER IS...
Ravens 21, Patriots 20