Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
The Ravens can also claim some measure of recent competitiveness against the Patriots. Baltimore has made three playoff trips into Foxborough as an underdog during the last five seasons and come away with two double-digit wins and a last-second defeat that required a dropped pass3 in the end zone and a 32-yard shanked field goal. Outscoring the Patriots by 31 points at home across three playoff games is a decidedly impressive feat.
And yet I don’t think it means as much here as it might in terms of the Carolina-Seattle matchup. Those Ravens-Pats games come across a much longer period of time; nothing screams “Irrelevant!” to the current NFL more than a game that started with an 83-yard touchdown run from Ray Rice, as the playoff game between these two teams did during the 2009 postseason. It also seems wrong to exclude the four regular-season games these teams played during that same stretch of time from any analysis, and the roles there were reversed; the Patriots won three of those four games, including a 41-7 shellacking in Week 16 last year that dramatically dashed Baltimore’s playoff hopes. The one game New England lost came on a last-second field goal that might have actually been a miss.
Combine those regular-season and postseason performances since 2009 and you get a relatively even recent history between these two teams. In seven games, five of which have been played in New England, the Ravens are 3-4. They were underdogs by a combined 18 points across the seven contests and actually were outscored by a total of 11 points. Things have gone just about how you might have expected on a cumulative basis. Stories of the past will surround this weekend’s game, but I doubt they tell us very much at all.
It’s not fair to say that this game hinges entirely upon how Elvis Dumervil, Pernell McPhee, and Terrell Suggs play. Joe Flacco could melt down or Tom Brady could blow out his knee on the opening series, and every other word from here on out could mean absolutely nothing. That’s possible. It’s hard to think of a single aspect of this matchup deeper at its crux, though, than Baltimore’s premier pass-rushers and how they can fundamentally change the matchup between these two teams when New England has the ball. My colleague Robert Mays did a great job of explaining how Baltimore gets pressure with its rushers yesterday, and you should read that before going any further.
Life would be very easy for the Ravens if they did not have to blitz Tom Brady very frequently during this game. Of course, blitzing once in a while is good, if only to throw a quarterback off, or force a shorter throw to a hot receiver, or try to give yourself a better chance of creating a takeaway. Baltimore simply can’t drop seven or eight into coverage on every play. But given that the Ravens were starting Lardarius Webb and a group of journeymen at cornerback last week and the Steelers spent the entire game picking on Webb, you can understand why the Ravens would want to commit as many resources to coverage as possible. The numbers illustrate how unfavorable that concept is for Baltimore.
First, there’s the fact that there might not be a quarterback who adjusts better to blitzes than Brady within this Patriots offense. For whatever weaknesses he might have now at age 37, Brady’s ability to read defenses before and at the snap and make quick, safe throws to open receivers remains unquestioned. He’s phenomenal against blitzes, and the Josh McDaniels–led scheme always seems to have a Julian Edelman or a Shane Vereen open for a safe, efficient completion. Brady is seventh in the league in QBR (at 73.1) when teams don’t blitz him, but when they send pressure, Brady’s 87.8 QBR is the best in all of football.
Over the past five years, the only passer with a better QBR against blitzes than Brady is Aaron Rodgers, and nobody else is within 10 QBR points of Rodgers. It’s just terrifying: Against the blitz over that time frame, Brady has thrown 72 touchdowns against six interceptions. He has a 12-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio against the blitz, and the only other guy above 4-to-1 is Rodgers. You just do not want to blitz this man unless you absolutely have to.
Getting pressure on Brady is absolutely important; he was 20th in the league in QBR when he was hit or under duress this season. The Ravens want to get pressure on Brady without having to commit serious manpower to doing so, which is why Dumervil, McPhee, and Suggs are so important. If they can win their one-on-one battles and allow the Ravens to get pressure by rushing four, they can clog up Brady’s throwing lanes, read the hot routes that Brady’s relying upon, and make quick tackles for modest gains.
When Baltimore managed to get pressure without blitzing this season, opposing quarterbacks did not fare well. How bad were they? Opposing quarterbacks went 15-of-52 for 158 yards with five interceptions and 32 sacks. They posted a passer rating of 0.2. That’s not a typo. Zero-point-two. No quarterback has thrown 10 passes in a game and posted a passer rating of 0.2 or worse since Chris Redman in 2007. That Andy Dalton game when he went 10-of-33 with three picks against the Browns? 2.0. Blows 0.2 out of the water. That Ryan Lindley playoff game we just saw when I was genuinely afraid the Cardinals wouldn’t let him fly home on the team plane? A robust 44.3.
You might figure that all defenses look better when they’re getting pressure without blitzing, and they do, but nobody comes close to Baltimore. The Patriots have the second-best passer rating in the league in the same category, and they’re at 14.6. The league average in that spot for passers is 52.7. Throw in the sack yardage and the Ravens actually gain yardage — 0.4 yards per dropback, or roughly what their running game did in 2013 — when they pull off the pressure-without-blitzing trick. Nobody else in football can say that.
Putting pressure on somebody else is a good way to mask your own insecurities, and sure enough, that’s exactly what the Ravens do when they apply heat to opposing passers. Teams basically can’t throw downfield when the opposing team gets pressure on defense. On throws that travel 15 yards or more in the air, the passer rating for quarterbacks when they’re not pressured is a robust 92.2, roughly in the Ryan Tannehill/Eli Manning range. (That’s better than it sounds.) When they are pressured, though, that falls all the way to 63.6, which is three points worse than Blaine Gabbert’s career passer rating. It’s a distressing gap.
Baltimore’s biggest weakness on defense, bar none, is dealing with teams when they throw downfield. By any measure you can find, the Ravens are downright abysmal against deep passes.4 By QBR, they’re the third-worst pass defense in the league, allowing a 99.3 figure to opposing quarterbacks. By passer rating, the 110.4 mark they put up against those deep passes is the fifth-worst rate in the league.
The Ravens don’t do a notable job of encouraging or suppressing those passes, finishing right around league average among defenses in terms of deep pass frequency, but they get through and turn into big gains far more frequently than the Ravens would care to see. Teams complete 51.2 percent of those 15-plus-yard throws against the Ravens, more than against any other team remaining in this year’s playoffs.
The good news for them is that the Patriots aren’t really a team built to throw downfield. They don’t have the personnel at wide receiver to really challenge teams deep, with those duties often falling to Brian Tyms or even Brandon LaFell, who has been limited in practice this week with a foot injury. Concerns about Brady’s arm strength from earlier this season are overstated, but it’s been fair to say that the primary strength of Brady’s game has been his accuracy on short and intermediate throws as opposed to his ability to sling the ball downfield, especially in the post–Randy Moss era. Brady is just 21st in the league in QBR on throws 15 or more yards downfield, where his 88.7 passer rating is 14th among qualifying quarterbacks.
Naturally, you won’t be surprised to hear that Brady makes his hay on those shorter routes. On passes that travel 0 to 14 yards in the air, Brady’s a wizard, finishing third in the league in both passer rating and QBR this season. The problem for Brady is that the Ravens are good at stopping those throws; Baltimore has posted the sixth-best passer rating in the NFL on those attempts, albeit with a less impressive 16th-placed rank in QBR. The easiest way to beat the Ravens is to throw it deep. The Patriots won’t necessarily need a bomb on Saturday to beat Baltimore, but it sure wouldn’t hurt matters if Tyms found his way past the likes of Darian Stewart and Will Hill for a huge chunk of yardage at some point.
Ravens fans will likely eye tape of the disastrous Patriots loss to the Chiefs in Week 4 and hope that they can emulate that on Saturday. It makes some sense; the Chiefs have a pair of dominant edge rushers, as do the Ravens, with a couple of bigger bullies in the middle, as Haloti Ngata and the returning Timmy Jernigan stand in for Dontari Poe. The Chiefs use their pass rush to compensate for a middling secondary, and the Ravens would be happy to do the same.
You could see how Baltimore might emulate that approach, but the Patriots haven’t been overwhelmed by teams with great pass rushes every time they’ve gone out this year. The Bills didn’t give New England much trouble when the Patriots scored 37 on them in Week 6, and while Buffalo dominated in Week 17, that was mostly against backups. The Jets manufactured a pass rush almost solely out of Rex Ryan’s dark dreams and slowed Brady in Week 16, but the Patriots were fine against them in a short week in Week 7, and the Jets don’t have the sort of edge dominance that the Ravens and Chiefs share.
With the Patriots having settled on a far superior offensive line combination and having seen the return of the real Rob Gronkowski after that Chiefs game, it’s going to be tough for the Ravens to dominate in the same way that the Chiefs did in September. Not impossible, mind you. Just tough.
In a way, it’ll be more intriguing to see how the Patriots decide to match up on defense against Baltimore’s passing attack, a unit that lines up with the vaunted New England secondary in strange, awkward ways.
Start with Brandon Browner, whose mix of size and strength has been a welcome addition to the Patriots secondary this season. Browner is a great matchup against physical wideouts who focus on winning at the line of scrimmage and maintaining their timing throughout routes … so whom does he match up with here? Steve Smith is not a great fit for him, because Smith is physical but far shorter than Browner. There’s a point where having a half-foot of height on a receiver simply isn’t an advantage, because it’s so much easier for the receiver to gain a lower center of gravity; tall cornerbacks have never been able to eat Smith up. The logical move for the Patriots would be to stick Darrelle Revis on Smith around the field.
The alternative is putting Browner on Torrey Smith, which is a disaster waiting to happen. As I mentioned on Monday, the other Smith has been a defensive pass interference penalty-drawing machine this year, drawing 11 flags for 229 yards this season before adding another 32-yarder in the first round of the playoffs. He has nearly twice as many DPI penalties and yardage drawn as anybody else in football. And Browner’s been a penalty machine for the Patriots, picking up a whopping 15 penalties (including five pass interference calls) in just nine games with New England.
So, Browner on Smith seems dangerous. A third option might be the best way for the Patriots to go: putting Browner on Owen Daniels. Tight ends have been the biggest weakness for the New England pass defense this season; the Patriots rank 17th or better in DVOA against all types of receivers besides tight ends, where they are the third-worst team in football. Daniels is very clearly the third target in a three-man group of receivers for Baltimore; he has 78 targets in 15 games, and the next most-targeted receiver for the Ravens is Kamar Aiken, who has just 33 in 16 games. Browner is far more comfortable on the sidelines than he is working in the slot or around the middle of the field, but by process of elimination, it would be best to use him on Daniels if the Patriots plan on playing a lot of man coverage. That would leave Kyle Arrington, likely with safety help on most plays, against Torrey Smith.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, the Patriots simply don’t have the sort of problems with downfield throws that Baltimore looked forward to exploiting against the Steelers. The Patriots are basically static against all kinds of passes. They’re 12th in the league in passer rating on throws of 15 yards or more downfield … and 14th on throws that travel 0-14 yards in the air.
Flacco arrested a late-season slump and produced an 85.9 QBR in an impressive performance last week, the third-best QBR he’s achieved in his postseason career behind the Super Bowl win over the 49ers and the wild-card performance that preceded it at home versus the Colts. He was only 1-of-4 on passes 40 yards or more in the air, but those passes produced 81 yards and the pass interference call for Smith.
The biggest problem for Flacco was pressure, as fill-in left tackle James Hurst allowed no fewer than six hurries against a hardly impressive pass rush. Starting left tackle Eugene Monroe is suggesting that he’s on pace to return this week, and while Monroe hasn’t been dominant this season, he would be a comfortable upgrade on the undrafted free agent starting in his place.
New England, on the other hand, can count on a healthy Chandler Jones. Jones quietly made his way back into the lineup at the end of the season, nabbing a sack and a half during his Week 15 return against the Dolphins before adding two hits while playing every single defensive snap against the Jets in Week 16. Jones played only a limited number of snaps in Week 17, but he’s now gotten some game rust out of his system and should be fresher for the postseason than he would be in most years, given how he plays virtually every snap for New England when healthy. His matchup — whether versus a gimpy Monroe or an overmatched Hurst — could be just as important as Suggs versus Sebastian Vollmer.
On a more holistic, larger-game approach, I wonder if the Ravens try to construct an offensive game plan built around running the ball and trying to retain possession while playing a field-position game. It fits several of their strengths well. By holding on to the football and reducing the tempo of the game, Baltimore would allow its pass-rushers to stay fresh for as long as possible and not subject them to a 13- or 14-possession game. Any play in which the Ravens secondary is on the sideline is a good one for John Harbaugh.
A run-heavy game plan might also allow the Ravens to starve the Patriots of critical turnovers while playing a field-position game that they’re better suited to win. While both these teams have very good special teams, the Ravens had the league’s best punting unit this season, with Sam Koch & Co. producing 17.9 points of field position value above average. New England gets above-average punt return work from the combination of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, but most of what they do best comes on field goals and kickoffs from Stephen Gostkowski.
The one concern I would have about that game plan, were I the Ravens, is that Baltimore’s style of running the football doesn’t really fit New England’s weaknesses. The Patriots are a disciplined bunch that don’t allow many big plays, but they can really be exploited in short yardage by bigger lines. The Patriots defense had the league’s worst success rate on runs in “power” situations per Football Outsiders, and stuffed opposing runners behind the line for a loss more than only four other teams.
The Ravens can’t really do that. They’re running a zone-blocking scheme that isn’t optimized for power, and they don’t have the horses to really maul the opposing defensive front into submitting. Baltimore’s offensive line is the fifth-worst line in football in terms of “power” situations, moving up to seventh-worst in terms of stuffs in the backfield for a loss. It would help to get Monroe back and possibly shift Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda back to his natural position from right tackle.
After all that, though, I still think about the Baltimore pass rush and figure that unit decides this game. If the Patriots do enough to keep Suggs and Dumervil off of Brady, it should be a long day for the Ravens in Foxborough. And if the fearsome duo on the edge for Baltimore manage to pull away and have a field day against Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, well, it shouldn’t take too much time beyond them to find Brady. The pass rush might have won Baltimore its rivalry matchup with Pittsburgh last week; this time around, it’ll have to play a bigger, more valuable game.