Everyone wants to talk about the Patriots pass defense these playoffs, but has this defense turned the corner, ala the Indianapolis Colts of their title run in 2006? Or is this team destined to be wiped out like the Packers and Saints?
Personally, I believe the Patriots defense is best with their core intact and healthy. With Patrick Chung finally back at safety, Jerrod Mayo healthy and back as a tackling machine at ILB, and Vince Wilfork in the middle of the defensive line to anchor the defense, the Patriots finally have their pieces together and ready to support the offense. Much like last year, this defense is opportunistic and trained to make turnovers. Unlike last year which featured zone defense call with nickle and dime packages most of the game, this year the Patriots have mixed in a classic 4-3 to get Wilfork off the nose, a finally healthy Brandon Spikes on the field with him (good-bye Gary Guyton), and a secondary that edges out (barely) the Earthwind Moreland, Otis Smith, Randall Gay, et al. .
Yes, losing Andre Carter was a tough blow. As was losing depth on the D-line with Myron Pryor and Mike Wright. Josh Barrett was expected to be a key cog at safety, and remember that Ras-I Dowling started at CB opening day. Losing Dowling really hurt the defense as he could have allowed Kyle Arrington to move to nickel back and potentially have taken pressure off of Zone Corner Devin McCourty as he learned to play man-to-man defense this year with some serious on the job training.
That being said, this defense has trouble getting off the field on third down still. They are still susceptible to the long pass, and continue to be beaten regularly by tight ends in an embarrassing fashion (remember Pittsburgh throwing to Heath Miller at will in the Patriots loss to the Steelers?). The big question becomes whether or not Joe Flacco and the Ravens can take advantage of the Patriots defensive short-comings.
Anquan Boldin will likely have some catches, but he rarely is more than a possession target (another tight end almost). The tight ends are young (great story about how the Patriots traded up to snag Gronk and then Hernandez from Baltimore in the draft when Ozzie Newsome had a huge target on both guys and instead drafted Ed Dickson and Eric Pitta that year. Not quite the same impact there. Not. Even. Close.
Ray Rice will get his yards, but by running the ball, Baltimore plays into the strength of the Patriots defense. If the Patriots do anything well consistently this year on defense, it is stopping the run. The Ravens need an X-Factor on offense, I really wonder if Joe Flacco is able to be that person. Former Buffalo Bill Lee Evans (potent...in 2008) and or the one-week wonder Torrey Smith need to make multiple plays down field and take short passes and turn them into big gains. Are either up to the task? Without a surprise performer to make big plays and keep the score close, the Ravens will have a heck of a time keeping up with Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
To be clear, this offense--when healthy--is good. Damned good. Gronk, Aaron Hernandez or Wes Welker is going to be open almost every play because it is near impossible to cover all three. Add in Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk in the backfield and Deion Branch outside (let me say it here first: We will see more Tiquan "Kid'N'Play" Underwood (Rutgers!) on the field than Chad Ochocinco and his bloated salary on Sunday) makes for a match-up headache, ESPECIALLY with the no-huddle offense running.
Yes, the no-huddle, hurry-up is going to be in effect with Tom Brady at the controls where he makes Peyton Manning look like the conductor missing the baton. On a side note, how great was it to get a full season without being subjected to that big dope schilling every product known to man on every other commercial? I still get the willies thinking of Eli and Peyton Manning Oreo Cookie Lick-off against Serena and Venus Williams commercial from a few years ago. (Involuntary Shudder). But I digress...
The Patriots should score at minimum 30 points against the Baltimore defense. Baltimore is a different team on the road, and they have played one top-tier offense all year. FYI, it was San Diego and the Ravens defense got shredded by Philip "Biff" Rivers and the not-explosive-as-the-Patriots offense of the Chargers 34 to 14. (Doesn't Rivers look like a Biff? And why does no one refer to him as Phil? Just wondering.)
Patriots have best bring that A-game on both sides of the ball and on special teams. If they do, another Super Bowl trip is right around the corner.
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