5 Key Points - Patriots versus Ravens 1/22/2012 AFC Championship

Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com has long been a favorite writer for his insight and passion for covering the Patriots in direct contrast to some "Superstars of the Media" of this city that "boasts" blow-hards like Ron Borges, Dan "CHB" Shaughnessy, John Tomase, "Gresh", "Felgie", and other winners who come and go in the local sports media. Reiss has constantly reached out to the fan-base and even brought their questions directly to the coach or player at the podium while striving to actually give a well-thought, cogent opinion to go along with the news he regularly brings. This morning he posts his Things to watch: Patriots-Ravens and I just wanted to bring attention to the article add my 2 cents.

1. Pass protection for Tom Brady. If Brady has time to throw, like he did in the divisional round against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots are at their highest level of explosiveness. This puts the spotlight on left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Connolly, right guard Brian Waters and right tackle Nate Solder. If third-year offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot) is cleared to play, that would further bolster the Patriots up front. Empty sets, with no players in the offensive backfield along with Brady, are a big part of the Patriots' attack and that will be a game within the game to monitor in terms of how the Ravens defend "empty" looks. 
In addition to this being simply the one thing the Patriots did NOT do in 2009, the Patriots have the ability, if Seabass (Sebastian Vollmer) is healthy to bring Nate Solder in as a 3rd tight end and basically give the team a six man offensive line.  In that set they could line up Gronk tight to the line on the opposite side of Solder, put Aaron Hernandez in the backfield, Wes Welker in the slot strong or weak-side and Deion Branch out wide.  Hernandez then can empty the backfield to the opposite side of Welker, he can split wide to allow the Patriots to have "trips" on one side and Gronk in isolation on the other side, or simply stay in the backfield as a 7th blocker or slip out for one of his short catches where he beats a linebacker and turns it into a big game.

2. Ray Rice as dual threat There were only two running backs in the NFL who led their team in rushing yards and receptions -- Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte. This is priority No. 1 for the Patriots' defense, limiting Rice on the ground (1,364 yards, 2nd in NFL) while also accounting for him in the passing game (76 receptions) as a check-down option. Looking for a possible unsung contributor, perhaps it's linebacker Dane Fletcher. He helped "spy" Rice in a 2010 regular-season meeting between the teams. 
Ray Rice is the offense for the Baltimore Ravens. Period. Great job by Mike Reiss digging up the nugget about Dane Fletcher as spy on Rice ("like white on rice" is inappropriate and in poor taste, so I'm not making this pun here) as he did previously. Rice is a handful for any defense, and if the Ravens are to have any chance at all, they HAVE to have Joe Flacco attack the Patriots secondary deep with Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin (deep middle of the field is where he works best).  If the linebackers are up in the box, Flacco has the opportunity to strike deep.  That said, San Diego had that same game plan against the Patriots, and once their running backs started putting the ball on the ground, a back and forth battle (Phil "Biff" Rivers is much more comparable and capable to hold his own in a shoot-out than Flacco) became a strong win for the Pats.

3. Who wins inside the 20? The Ravens ranked first in the NFL in red zone defense (TD percentage), surrendering just 16 touchdowns in 42 trips. The Patriots' red zone offense was the NFL's second-best, with 47 touchdowns in 72 trips. It's a battle of strength on strength inside the 20, where the space gets tight. Look for the Patriots to go empty to try to loosen things up.
Red Zone offense and defense is something that seemingly comes up every time Bill Belichick is speaking.  That Patriots game plan is built around scoring touchdowns on offense inside the 20 and holding their opponents to field goals.  Danny Woodhead becomes a huge x-factor for New England in the Red Zone with his ability to operate out of the spread offense as a darting runner or catching a pass swung out of the backfield.  With all the attention given (and rightfully so) to the tight ends ends and Wes Welker, Woodhead could end up with the ball in his hands in space with one man to make miss making the difference of four crucial points squarely on him.

4. Ravens' coverage vs. "Boston TE Party" Few teams have had the answers to limit Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez this season. Safety Bernard Pollard figures to be involved in some form, so that will be a matchup to watch. One other possible wrinkle: The Patriots have had success going with a three-tight end package at times -- using offensive lineman Nate Solder as the third option -- and then throwing out of it. When looking to strike the balance between playing physical up front but also maintaining a threat in the passing game, that could be an effective approach at times. 
Speaking of those tight ends, am I the only one that wants to see Bernard "Brady's knee" Pollard juked out of his shoes and breaking his ankles trying to stop Hernandez or getting bowled over in the open field by the runaway Gronk train?  Again, a key in deciphering the Ravens pass defense has to start with Ed Reed and where he is on the field and what he sees going down.  The man is simply the best secondary player in this generation, bar none. Charles Woodson is great, but he's no Ed Reed (and don't throw that weak-ass Troy Polamalu crap over here...the man is Brandon Meriweather running around out of position out on the field with a better PR man).

5. Ravens' Haloti Ngata vs. Patriots' Vince Wilfork The two defensive linemen won't be on the field at the same time, but they represent what this game figures to be all about -- an all-out slugfest at the line of scrimmage. They are the two most powerful players on both teams' defense. We remember the 2009 wild-card round game in which Ray Rice raced 83 yards on the first offensive play, with Wilfork brushed to the side. If the Ravens can establish that type of command up front, it could be a long day for the Patriots. The Patriots seem better prepared to avoid that type of performance this time around.
Ah, yes. The two beasts of defense. In addition, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Shaun Ellis, Ron Brace, et al need to be stout up front.  Games are won and lost in the trenches, and the past two years (three if we count 2007 Super Bowl versus the Giants) in the playoffs the Patriots were dominated on both sides of the ball and lost winnable games.  To get to the big game, this must not happen.