Saturday, January 10, 2015

Patriots ready for street brawl with Ravens

The key to beating the stingy Baltimore defense is to run the ball and achieve balance - a few of these wouldn't hurt...
Reputations have a way of following you around - for good or ill.

Take the Baltimore Ravens for example.  As a unit, they are still dining off of the Ray Lewis era, the physical and hard-charging teams that laid waste to many a Patriots' fan's championship aspirations, even though Lewis and most of the other violent cretins have long-since been shown the door, but their reputation remains a huge bruise on the brains of Patriots fans.
Jones, Siliga and Ninkovich are vital to stopping Baltimore's run game

And why not?  The recent history between the two teams reads like a macabre poem by the Ravens' namesake and runs all the way back to 2007, when Baltimore came within a field goal of ruining the Patriots' perfect regular season, then the two teams played a close match during the regular season in 2009 which New England won, only to get spanked by the Ravens in the rematch on Wildcard weekend.

2010 saw the Patriots gain a small measure of revenge in a week four overtime thriller, that was pretty much the extent of the New England success against Baltimore until Lewis retired.

While it is true that New England took the Ravens in an epic AFC Championship matchup the following season, it is also true that the Patriots had both an extreme measure of good fortune when Ravens' kicker Billy Cundiff pulled a chip shot field goal attempt to hand the victory to New England, and also a measure of misfortune, coming out of the contest bruised and limping, with tight end Rob Gronkowski a shell of his dynamic self thanks to a bum ankle, courtesy of self-professed "Patriot Killer" Bernard Pollard...

...who also doomed the Patriots' title chances in the following year's AFC title tilt when he knocked running back Stevan Ridley out cold with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit that forced a fumble that New England could not recover from.

So it's easy to see where Patriots' fans and media would be a bit gun shy when considering this weekend's Divisional round playoff game against the Ravens, but the truth is that the team that New England is hosting in Foxborough on Saturday evening is a far cry from those of the Ravens' violent past.

But that's a cheap cop out.

The real reason why the Ravens have been an albatross around the Patriots' necks for the past eight seasons is the same reason why the New York Giants were able to beat the heavily favored Patriots in both of their most recent Super Bowl appearances: They both have been able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball - which also happen in last January's AFC Championship against Denver.

So instead of automatically fearing the Ravens, it would behoove fans and experts alike to ask themselves this one simple question: Have the Patriots' done enough to ensure that they can control the line of scrimmage against the Ravens, or anyone else in the playoffs, for that matter?
Blount found the end zone twice against the Ravens' defense

On the defensive side of the ball, the answer to that question is a resounding "yes", as the front seven seems to be tailor-made to stop the zone blocking scheme that the Ravens employ.  It is no secret that when Gary Kubiak took over as offensive coordinator for Baltimore this past offseason after being canned by the Houston Texans, he brought the blocking scheme with him...

...not to mention running back Justin Forsett - in a roundabout way via Jacksonville - and tight end Owen Daniels.  Forsett is small (5' 8", 195lbs) and offers very little resistance after initial contact, meaning that he gets what's blocked for him and little else.  The issue is that Baltimore's excellent offensive line generates effective push to the degree that Forsett averaged 5.4 yards per carry during the regular season.

The only way that this is possible is that the Ravens offensive line has been able to control the line of scrimmage in the majority of their contests, and the record speaks for itself: When the Ravens are able to rush for 100 yards or more, they are 9-1, but when they fail achieve that milestone, they are 1-5.

But it's more than just gaining yardage on the ground.  Everything that the Ravens do on offense is a direct result of establishing their running game, and everything rides on not just the success of the running game, but in it's consistency.

On the four occasions that the Ravens could not achieve balance with the running game, all four of them losses, quarterback Joe Flacco was forced to the air an average of 50 times and the opposing pass rush got to him for 13 sacks - but when the Ravens were able to commit to their running game, meaning that they ran the ball 30 or more times, Flacco only had to drop back an average of 28 times and was sacked just four times.  Needless to say, all eight times resulted in wins.

It bears saying that New England's run defense has struggled with offenses that commit to the run this season, but most of those struggles have come in games in which injury has sapped their defensive tackle rotation. For example, in the time frame that it took the Patriots to bring in Alan Branch to shore up the rotation after Sealver Siliga went down in week 3, teams were averaging nearly 150 yards per game against them...

...but once he was in the fold with Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones, that number dropped by almost half - and when Siliga was activated from the Injured reserve list, the numbers dropped even lower.  And with the return to health of Chandler Jones and the additions of Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas to the linebacking corps to supplement the talent of Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots are in good shape to limit the running game of the Ravens.

And it's not as if the Patriots' defense was the issue to begin with, either.  In all of the teams' recent failures on the biggest stages the defense, as a whole, has been competitive enough to keep the team close in all of those contests, but the offense just hasn't generated enough points to compliment the work of the defense - and much of that has to do with balance, and lack thereof.

But along with all of the talk about how the Patriots' offensive line has been dominated in the biggest games - and they have - there is a sliver of hope for this season's edition, and one doesn't have to go back too far to gain a healthy perspective on where the running game - and offensive line - is right now.

A little more than a year ago, the Patriots stomped the Ravens by a score of 41-7 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, and did so with both of their starting tackles on the shelf.  Of course, it helps when you have a player like Logan Mankins who can slide over from his left guard position to bring an attitude to the blind side, but Mankins was also laterally limited...

...while Marcus Cannon manned the right edge in the stead of Sebastian Vollmer, whose season was done with a broken ankle.  Josh Kline filled in at left guard while try-hard Ryan Wendell played the pivot and Dan Connolly right guard - and the Patriots dominated the line of scrimmage against a group of Ravens' defenders that are essentially the same today as they were a year ago.

So with two starters missing, Mankins playing out of place at tackle and with an undersized center in Wendell, the Patriots still managed to impose their will on a Ravens' front 7 that included Chris Canty and Terrell Suggs at defensive ends and Arthur Jones and Haloti Ngata teamed at tackles, Courtney Upshaw, Darrell Smith and Jameel McClain at linebacker.

Some of the names are different, particularly Elvis Dumerville at defensive end/outside linebacker and rookie Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosely at interior linebacker, but New England is different as well.  Back and healthy are Solder and Vollmer, and while Mankins has since been shown the door, Connolly has been huge in his place while Wendell has shown true grit in his switch from center to right guard - and the picture becomes focused with rookie bully Bryan Stork manning the pivot.

Together, this group has been outstanding in both run blocking and in pass protection, and when New England loads up the line with rookie tackle Cameron Fleming opposite All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski on the edges, that makes seven excellent drive blockers for the Patriots' running backs to follow to the second level...

...and once on the second level, backs LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray are serious loads that are difficult to bring down.

It is important to remember that the Patriots ran the ball against the Ravens last season mostly because they had no choice, as Gronkowski had been lost for the season with an ACL and receiver Kenbrell Thompkins had leg issues that kept him out for the season as well, so the Patriots had very little choice but to employ the ground game and hope for the best.

But now, Gronkowski is healthy and in full beast mode, free agent receiver Brandon LaFell has made everyone forget about Thompkins and receiver Julian Edelman has emerged into one of the top clutch pass catchers in the league, so one could reasonably look at the fully stocked New England offense and present an argument that the Patriots have other options in the event the running game doesn't get off to a fast start...

...but that line of thinking is apt to send the Patriots season to a painful and abrupt ending.  Head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are well aware of the options available to them, but they also know that - just as it is for the Ravens' offense - everything on the Patriots' offense works better when the ground game is involved.

As has been mentioned many, many times in this blog, Running the ball to achieve balance on offense forces the defense to defend the entire field.  Revisiting last year's blowout of the Ravens, the Patriots ran the ball 21 times in the first half for a five yards per carry average, then topped off the game with a nine-play, 40 yard touchdown drive that drove a stake into the heart of the Ravens' defense.

Because the Patriots stayed with the run, quarterback Tom Brady enjoyed a quiet evening, dropping back to pass just 26 times while being sacked just twice, sticking with the running game allowing the offensive line the extra-split second combined with the play action to anchor against the terrific Ravens' pass rush - and it was a recipe that the Patriots followed the ensuing weeks against Buffalo and Indianapolis.

In those games, Brady and the offensive line enjoyed even greater success, but when matched up against Denver in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots pass catching corps had suffered so many injuries that Edelman was the only healthy receiver, so the Broncos committed eight to the box to stop the Patriots' running attack and dared Brady to beat them throwing to his one healthy receiver...

Fortunately, the Patriots are fully healthy, which means that the only team that can beat them is, well, themselves.  So following the same type of balanced game plan against Baltimore's defense should yield the same effect as last season, but not out of desperation or by having no choice...

...this time, they can do it to sap the will from the Ravens and to open up the Patriots' crazy downfield pass catching circus - but if they don't or can't commit to the ground game, all bets are off as the Patriots will be playing right into the Ravens' hands.

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