1. Contain Ray Rice
Thus far, the Patriots have been tremendous against the run, but they’ve yet to square off against a back with game-changing skill. (Yes, that is a dig at Chris Johnson.) Regardless of the numbers Rice has posted in the two meetings between the Patriots and Ravens since 2010, the memory forever embedded in the minds of every Pats fan is that of Rice dashing for a 70-yard touchdown on the first play of the 2009 Divisional Round in Gillette Stadium. Rice continued going off all day and the Patriots could not slow him down. Basically, Rice single-handedly dismantled a team that hadn’t lost a playoff game at home during the Brady/Belichick era. Let Joe Flacco beat you. Let him prove his personal proclamations as a top quarterback. Don’t let Rice be the guy.
2. Don’t let Flacco become too comfortable
Still, Flacco can be a weapon as much as he can be a kryptonite. The Patriots placed a moderate amount of pressure on Cardinals’ quarterback Kevin Kolb last week, but the attack was unbalanced. Rob Ninkovich would try and bring out his inner Mike Vrabel by darting around the edge and beating his opponent to the spot; however, he’d simply get bumped around the quarterback giving amble time to throw in the pocket under limited pressure. Chandler Jones would beat his man and chase the quarterback out of the pocket, but without any pressure from the opposite side, the quarterback would easily keep his feet moving until an option opened up on the sideline or underneath. With Flacco, the Patriots need to find a balance in their pass rush. Flacco works well on the move and could pick apart an impatient and relatively raw Patriots secondary. The Patriots best move would be to seal the edges on their rush and keep Flacco under fire inside of the pocket where he becomes antsy. The Patriots also need to mature (and quickly) in the secondary. Flacco’s strong arm always gives the potential for big plays, especially now that he’s getting comfortable throwing to Jacoby Jones. The Patriots need to make sure they’re ready for the possibility and need to avoid crippling pass interference calls that have plagued them recently.
3. Don’t forget Ridley
The Patriots offense was in a state of disarray after Aaron Hernandez went down last week. They simply couldn’t put it together until the waning minutes of the game. A big part of that was Stevan Ridley’s inconsistencies running the football. However, Ridley still showed flashes of the explosiveness and brilliant decisiveness that he made apparent in the opener in Tennessee and with the Ravens surprising struggles against both the run and pass so far this season, gives the Patriots and Ridley the great opportunity to become balanced and therefore unpredictable.
4. Utilized Welker and Winslow
Heading into camp, the Patriots had an embarrassment of riches at the receiver and tight end position. Several cuts and one big injury later, the Patriots found themselves targeting newcomer Brandon Lloyd a big more than they expected. With Hernandez out, Rob Gronkowski mysteriously vanishing and a heavy-dose of Julian Edelman on the field, Wes Welker once more was equalized and made out to be sort of a non-factor. It could be that the Patriots new style of offense doesn’t feature Welker as much. Likewise, it could be that Belichick is disciplining Welker for reasons unknown. It could even have something to do with his current contract dispute. No one knows for certain. But the Patriots will need to utilize Welker against the Ravens and avoid becoming one-dimensional like they did against Arizona. That also means throwing Winslow to the sharks (if he’s comfortable enough with the playbook, that is). The Patriots seemingly live or die on two tight end sets and Winslow has the Hernandez build and style of play to be an adequate fill-in. He’s not as dangerous as Hernandez, but if he proves capable, the Ravens will need to concern themselves to keep an eye on him, especially with Tom Brady throwing him the ball.
5. Everything about Tom Brady
The Patriots special teams unit deserves a mention after they laid an egg in Week 2, but really this will be another game that lands on the shoulders on Brady. The offensive line has been good, not great compared to the state of disarray that they were in during the preseason. This week, it seems the Patriots received a definitive answer on guard Brian Waters. With him officially out of the picture, this line has no more helping coming to their aid. If there were ever a game to step up and play like they haven’t before, it’s this one. If Brady is under pressure, the Patriots will lose. Probably badly. As for Brady… For crying out loud, just play like Tom Brady, please. Last week was something that Patriots fans don’t want to see again. It reminded us all that he’s 36 years old.