Previewing Week 14: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
The Baltimore Ravens have the feel of a team that is getting hot at the right time after a 38-6 drubbing of the Miami Dolphins, a team that was riding a 6 game winning streak and viewed as a potential playoff contender. The Ravens have the best defense in the NFL and are starting to show signs of life on offense as well. With a Monday Night Football showdown against the New England Patriots looming, the Ravens will need to be at their best. HC John Harbaugh stated, “It’s going to be our toughest challenge of the year” when asked about New England, and the fact is the Patriots have been the best team in the AFC so far this season. However, the Ravens have had a lot of primetime showdowns with the Patriots and will not be intimidated by one of the most consistent winners in professional sports over the past decade. So what will it take for the Ravens to go into Foxboro and come out with the win?
(You can discuss the Ravens upcoming match-up with the Patriots on our message boards and game thread.)
It all starts with the Ravens run defense. Football Outsiders recently highlighted the fact that the 2016 Ravens run defense is playing at the highest level their DVOA metric has ever rated, including the 2000 Ravens Super Bowl winning unit. So in a league that has become pass-centric, why does the ability to stop the run matter? It matters because even when teams are passing the ball on 2/3’s of their plays, there is still 1/3 that are rushing attempts. Teams use the running game to stay on schedule so as to not face 2nd or 3rd and long. Teams also want to be able to run the ball on 3rd and 4th and short, but when the defensive front is as dominant as the Ravens have been, it often forces that high percentage run into a lower percentage pass play. And that right there is why having such a dominant unit matters, it completely takes away what offenses want to do and allows the defense to dictate how the offense calls plays.
While at first glance it may seem like the Tom Brady led Patriots are not a team that needs to run the ball to have effective offense, the Pats have actually been one of the more run-centric offenses in the NFL this season. They rank 6th in both rushing attempts and rushing yards per game. The run game may be even more important for them now that TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Danny Amendola are out with injuries. For the Ravens to win this game, their defense must be able to continue their dominance against the run and force QB Tom Brady to drop back and pass the ball. In recent weeks Brady has thrown the ball 50 and 46 times and been very inefficient along the way. Dean Pees and the Ravens defense knows how to make Brady uncomfortable and forcing him to drop back on most plays is a good place to start. Of course the Ravens will also have to be disciplined and active in the secondary while the defensive line generates pressure on Brady. That is certainly a lot to ask against a HOF QB, but the Ravens defense has been excellent all season. I think they will be able to perform well against a Patriots offense that is missing some key players.
When the Ravens have the ball they will also be facing a tough test in the Pats defense. The Patriots also stop the run well, but they have a weakness up front in their pass rush. Bill Belichick traded away their best DE Chandler Jones in the offseason, and playmaking LB Jamie Collins was similarly traded mid-season. We saw this past week that the Ravens offensive line is finally healthy and playing well. If Joe Flacco is given time in the pocket, he should be able to move the ball effectively against the Pats secondary. We have seen a recent commitment to using the middle of the field on crossing patterns, slants and skinny posts, allowing Flacco to hit his receivers in stride allowing them to pick up yards after the catch. A similar game-plan of using the pass first to set up the run when the defense is in sub-packages could work for the Ravens in Foxboro.
The Patriots are heavily favored to win Monday night on their home-field, but it won’t be the first time the Ravens have headed into New England as underdogs. The Patriots and Ravens are two of the best defensive teams in the NFL, both teams allow opposing offenses a meager 17.3 points per game, tied for 2nd best in the NFL. The reality is that this game may not be pretty to watch. The end result will likely be closer than the spread suggests, and there is a good chance it comes down to turnovers and/or crucial penalties. The Ravens have been one of the best teams in forcing turnovers, but they have also given it away too often. New England has been less successful in forcing turnovers, but they also rarely turn it over. I like the Ravens chances in this match-up if they can stay disciplined and take care of the ball.
Ravens 24 – Patriots 23
Gabe is an avid fan of the NFL and Ravens football. He grew up in Westminster, MD, and attended college at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biology. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studies cartilage development and cancer. Gabe has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan.