2015 NFL Playoffs: Patriots vs Ravens Passing Preview ‒ Part 1

In Part 1 of our Patriots vs Ravens passing preview, Dave Archibald explains the tough matchup for Joe Flacco against a stingy pass defense. The QB must get protection from his offensive line to set up deep passes or connect with a tight end while the Patriots elite secondary complicates matters. Be sure to read Part 2, which explores the New England passing plan, and all our other extensive coverage of this matchup.

The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens square off Saturday for the sixth consecutive season, but with some new wrinkles this time. New Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak brings with him many of the schemes from his tenure as Houston’s head coach. Baltimore has new faces in wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., tight end Owen Daniels, halfback Justin Forsett, and center Jeremy Zuttah. These changes resulted in a team that finished in the top half of the league in both passing yards and passing touchdowns, but not one with an elite aerial attack.

Deep Purple

Patriots fans might associate the Ravens’ passing offense with the deep ball, and with good reason: 37 of quarterback Joe Flacco’s 129 passes (29%) in Baltimore’s three most recent contests against New England went 15+ yards in the air. The Ravens only connected on 12, but those dozen completions gained 307 yards and another five plays drew penalties resulting in first downs. This bombs-away approach has been typical of Baltimore in recent seasons, as Flacco finished sixth in the NFL in 2013 with 24.8% of his passes deep, and third in 2012 with 26.5%. Kubiak’s offenses, however, tend to de-emphasize the deep ball ‒ Houston’s primary quarterback Matt Schaub finished 32nd among 40 qualified passers in 2013 with 17.9% of his passes deep, and 31st of 39 in 2012 with 17.9%. Kubiak’s stamp on the Baltimore offense is clear, as Flacco ranks 31st of 40 qualifying quarterback with just 19.0% of his passes deep.

Wide receiver Torrey Smith has suffered most from this shift. The fourth-year speedster finished second in the NFL in percentage of targets deep with 48%, but saw a decline in the number of targets ‒ down from 137 in 2013 to 92 this season ‒ and accordingly a drop in production, slipping from 1,128 receiving yards last season to 767 in 2014. Even in a down year, Smith has a hidden source of production: an NFL-leading 229 yards on pass interference penalties, 100 yards more than the runner-up in that category. Smith doesn’t run a diverse route tree, but he excels at beating press coverage at the line, accelerating downfield, and competing for the ball:

Torrey-Smith-draws-32-yard-DPI-penalty-Antwon-Blake

Smith gets a good release to the outside, swimming past cornerback Antwon Blake’s attempt to jam him at the line. The outside release is key, positioning Blake between Smith and the pass, and making it virtually impossible for the cornerback to look back for the ball. The normally cannon-armed Flacco underthrows the pass here, but thanks to Smith’s route-running and hand-fighting ‒ and because he waits until the last moment to adjust to the ball ‒ the defender gets flagged for pass interference, resulting in a 32-yard Baltimore gain. The Ravens may not throw deep as often as in years past, but stopping plays like these will remain a major part of the New England game plan.

Señor (Tales of Mighty Mouse Power)

Flanking Torrey Smith on most plays by Steve Smith Sr., the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leading receiver. Steve Smith has enjoyed a resurgence in Baltimore, notching his eighth 1,000-yard season at the age of 35. Mark Schofield highlighted his competitiveness and toughness despite measuring at just 5’9”. The five-time Pro Bowler doesn’t have the same ability to separate against man coverage that he did in his younger days, getting the bulk of his production against zone coverage. The Ravens love to run him on deep crosses against zones:

Steve-Smith-27-yard-catch-on-deep-cross-markup

The Dolphins show two high safeties before the snap but shift into Cover 3. The Ravens run a play-fake to draw in the underneath defenders, while Smith runs behind them but in front of the deep defenders, crossing from the offensive left side to the right. Flacco hits him wide open for a 27-yard gain. If the Patriots use zone coverage, perhaps to defend against Torrey Smith’s deep routes, they’ll have to be mindful they don’t expose themselves to plays like these. The New England linebackers will have to stay disciplined against the run and play action.

Other Wideouts

The Ravens typically play only two wideouts ‒ their 2.34 wide receivers per play ranked sixth-fewest in the NFL. Marlon Brown is the third receiver and runs 70% of his routes from the slot. At 6’5”, he’ll have a size advantage over Patriots nickel corner Kyle Arrington. Former Patriots receiver Kamar Aiken will rotate in at wideout to give one of the Smiths a breather. He’s got solid physical tools with a 6’1” frame and 4.45-second speed in the 40-yard dash, but has just 24 catches over four NFL seasons, all in the current campaign. Special teams standout Jacoby Jones has seen his playing time plummet this season, from 48% of offensive snaps in 2013 to just 18% this year. He still possesses good speed and can be a deep threat at 6’3”, but he’s never had the route-running ability or receiving instincts to be a starter.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Tight Ends

Daniels followed Kubiak from Houston to Baltimore, and the veteran has contributed heavily after being thrust into a starting role following Dennis Pitta’s season-ending hip injury. The 32-year-old finished third on the Ravens in catches (48) and receiving yards (527). Daniels is a bit undersized at 6’3” and 245 pounds, but the Ravens primarily use him as a conventional tight end, putting him in the slot only 19.3% of the time, about half the league average of 38.2%. That’s surprisingly low for a tight end considered more of a pass-catcher than a blocker, but there’s a method to Baltimore’s madness. Offenses often put a defensive back on a slot TE, but few DBs are comfortable inside where they face more run-stopping responsibilities. An in-line tight end gets a lot more matchups on linebackers. Daniels may not have the burst he had in his younger days, but he’s still got plenty of route-running savvy to get open against linebackers:

Owen-Daniels-19-yard-catch-against-Steelers

Daniels lines up tight left on 3rd and 10. He runs up the seam, covered by Pittsburgh’s Pro Bowl linebacker Lawrence Timmons. At the top of his route, Daniels gives a little shimmy, faking inside before cutting outside to create just enough separation. Flacco zips in a nice anticipation throw and Daniels picks up the first down. This is typical of the tight end’s work; not flashy or overpowering, but steady and efficient. The Patriots have largely used strong safety Patrick Chung to cover tight ends and the 27-year-old matches up well with Daniels’ size and skill set. It will be interesting to see if Kubiak uses Daniels to get him in matchups with Jamie Collins or Dont’a Hightower, and whether the Ravens can exploit the New England linebackers.

In the Backfield

Forsett had a breakout season as a runner, more than doubling his career-best with 1,266 rushing yards. He finished fourth on the team in catches with 45, but averaged just 6.0 yards per reception. He’s a checkdown option, not a downfield threat ‒ according to ProFootballFocus.com, he was not targeted on a pass over 10 yards all season.

Kyle Juszczyk plays a similar role to the one James Casey did for Kubiak in Houston: a fullback/tight end hybrid that lines up anywhere and serves as a hammer in the running game while contributing something as a receiver. The second-year man from Harvard finished second among fullbacks in both snaps and receptions. Juszczyk averaged a little more than one catch per game, but this play against Tennessee illustrates that defenses can’t ignore him:

Kyle-Juszczyk-16-yard-catch-against-Titans-markup

The Ravens line up in 21 personnel, with Juszczyk offset right and a tight end also to the right. They run a play-action fake to that side, with Juszczyk leaking back towards the weak side, which has been cleared out by two receivers running vertical routes. After the play fake, Flacco bootlegs to the weakside where the fullback is wide open for a 16-yard catch-and-run.

This play has been a Kubiak staple for years, and Pittsburgh got a taste of it Saturday as well. Kubiak is famous for his zone blocking scheme in the run game, but he also builds a suite of constraint plays like this one to keep defenses honest so they can’t just fixate on shutting down the run. If the defensive front all flow to the running back and ignore the fullback, the Ravens will rack up easy gains like this. The Patriots generally stay disciplined and avoid this kind of over-pursuit, but they’re not immune; they allowed a big gain to Minnesota’s Rhett Ellison on a similar play back in Week 2.

Every Man Must Need Protection

The Ravens fixed holes at left tackle and center with trades for Eugene Monroe and Jeremy Zuttah over the past 15 months. Third-year guard Kelechi Osemele and second-year tackle Ricky Wagner have had breakout seasons, while right guard Marshal Yanda is a Pro Bowl fixture. It’s no wonder that Flacco has been sacked a career-low 19 times this season. When healthy, the Ravens have a fine offensive line.

Health is a major issue, however: Wagner and Monroe both suffered injuries during Week 15, forcing two rookies into the lineup: undrafted tackle James Hurst, one of ProFootballFocus.com’s worst-rated players, and fifth-round guard John Urschel, who has held up reasonably well in limited work at all three interior spots. These injuries also have shifted Yanda from right guard to right tackle, where he has allowed one sack and one hurry in two games. Wagner is on injured reserve and out for the season. Monroe missed the playoff game against Pittsburgh and it is unclear if he will play against New England, or how effective he will be if he does.

It’s unlikely that the Patriots will sack Flacco often, but winning the battle with the makeshift offensive line will still be a major factor. According to ProFootballFocus.com, while Flacco has been sacked just four times in his past three games, he’s completed only 25% of his passes under pressure during that time span, and just 41% of his passes under pressure all season, one of the league’s worst marks.

The Final Word

The Ravens have a passing offense that can move the ball against most teams, but the New England defense is a bad matchup for them. The Patriots use a ton of man-to-man defense that isn’t as vulnerable to the easy zone-beater throws the Ravens like getting to Steve Smith and Daniels. The Patriots are disciplined enough to avoid being victimized by Kubiak’s fakes and misdirection. Baltimore’s receivers will likely struggle to get separation against tight man coverage.

The key for the Ravens is winning the battle up front. If the Ravens can run the ball, they can keep drives moving and force the Patriots to alter their defense, which might open up holes against the pass. If the Patriots can’t generate pressure on Flacco, even solid coverage might not hold up, leading to big plays. Still, New England has the matchup edge when the Ravens attack through the air, and Baltimore figures to struggle passing the ball Saturday.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

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