It’s divisional round playoff week in the NFL and Pats fans are gearing up for the big tilt with the Baltimore Ravens and we’ll be looking at keys to the game, opponent tendencies, specific units, and more, so be sure to check out our developing coverage as we update it.
As we look forward to the AFC Divisional Playoff between the Patriots and the Ravens, a key individual matchup will be New England left tackle Nate Solder and Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Solder has had an up-and-down year while Suggs continues to be a key cog in the Ravens’ defensive front and has accumulated 12 sacks.
Though the Patriots and Ravens have played each other four times since Solder was drafted, the two players have only gone head-to-head in two of those contests: the AFC championship games following the 2011 and 2012 seasons. In each game Solder did an excellent job of containing Suggs, preventing him from recording a sack.
In this play with 9:48 remaining in the first quarter of the 2012 AFC Championship Game, Suggs attempts a speed rush. Solder executes well by maintaining his balance, staying between Suggs and New England quarterback Tom Brady, and getting a great shove that to forces Suggs well out of the play.
Later in the game, with 12:46 remaining in the third quarter, Suggs tries a bull rush. Solder gets caught slightly off-balance and is pushed back in the pocket, but holds up well enough to prevent direct pressure on Brady. The play results in a quick pass from Brady.
It was not all great for Solder though. With 11:04 remaining in the fourth quarter Suggs lines up in a wide-9 alignment. He gets a great jump on the snap and bursts past Solder into the backfield. Solder is able to dive and get enough of a push to prevent the strip-sack as Brady gets the ball out.
While Solder was generally able to keep Suggs away from Brady, this last play is cause for slight concern. Suggs has primarily lined up in a wide-9 alignment in 2014 as Baltimore has looked to get him in space and up to speed out of the reach of his opposition.
I reviewed this season’s film to uncover how Dean Pees used Suggs. On the first play against the Houston Texans in Week 16 the linebacker lines up in wide-9 on the defensive right side. Suggs gets a good jump out of his 2-point stance, but Houston left tackle Duane Brown easily guides him behind the pocket and out of the play, even though he doesn’t make contact until Suggs is nearly five years into the backfield.
With 2:26 remaining in the first quarter, Suggs again lines up in wide-9, though this time in a 4-point stance. On the snap he rushes straight at Brown who easily arrests the linebacker’s momentum and keeps him out of Houston quarterback Case Keenum’s face before the ball is thrown. Suggs breaks free at the very end by changing directions quickly while Brown is off balance, but it is too late to disrupt the pass.
Suggs generated much more pressure against the Steelers in their Wild Card playoff. With 9:31 remaining in the first quarter, he lines up well outside the tight end. At the snap he builds momentum and as he engages the tackle he easily powers him backward towards Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. This pressure forces Roethlisberger to step up in the pocket where he is quickly taken down by Haloti Ngata.
With 7 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Suggs lines up in his typical 2014 position, well outside the shoulder of the offensive tackle. Off the snap he starts his rush, bats away the feeble attempt of Beachum to stop him, and runs right at Roethlisberger. The QB attempts to spin away from the rush, but turns into the arms of Dumervil coming in unblocked from the other side.
Suggs creates pressure with two primary techniques. This season he has typically lined up in a wide-9 (or further) but rushes from a variety of stances. Looking at the Patriots’ opponents this year, Buffalo is the most schematically similar. The Bills regularly align Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams as wide-9 rush ends and the Buffalo DEs have a similar size to the Ravens’ linebacker.
I also examined Solder’s performance against the wide-9 alignment in 2014. On this play, with 11:31 remaining in the first quarter of their Week 6 matchup in Buffalo, Hughes lines up wide outside Solder. Off the snap, he attempts a pure speed rush, but Solder quickly engages and guides him behind the pocket. Brady steps up into the clean throwing lane and delivers the pass.
Later in the first quarter with 4:29 remaining, Hughes is again lined up wide. This time he tries to overpower Solder but the Patriots’ tall tackle maintains position and leverage, preventing the rusher from forcing the quarterback off his spot while he delivers his pass.
Another way the Patriots have assisted Solder with wide outside rushes is by using quick passes and legal cut blocks. With 5:26 remaining in the third quarter we see an excellent example of this. Hughes lines up in his typical wide-9, two-point stance and begins his rush toward the passer. As he shifts his momentum toward the quarterback, Solder goes low to force him to change direction again. By the time Hughes has cleared the large roadblock the pass is well away.
The upcoming game pits two teams that have faced each other often. They know each other’s tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. The matchup between the Ravens’ talented rush linebacker and the Patriots’ oft-criticized left tackle will likely be a major piece of this chapter. While Suggs’ skill set allows him to create pressure from wide fronts, Solder has done an excellent job in handling similar players this season. Errors in pre-snap line protection assignments have created some pressures, but overall it seems that Solder’s strengths this season line up well with the Ravens’ schemes.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jturner1540.
Jeremy Turner is Inside The Pylon‘s isolation expert. He has looked in-depth at Russell Wilson, Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley and Nate Solder.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.