OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens’ vaunted defense preparing to face the most explosive offense still standing in the NFL playoffs, the challenge isn’t a big secret for the offense against the New England Patriots in Sunday’s AFC championship game.
“We are going to have to score points to win this game,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “We have one of the top defenses in the league, and we stand by our defense and believe in our defense. They are pretty much the rock of our team. For us, we know we are going to have to help them out a lot.”
Playing a Tom Brady-led offense that’s scored 30 or more points in seven of its last eight contests, the Baltimore defense will be hard-pressed to stop the New England attack, leaving it up to the Ravens offense to produce more points than they have in recent weeks. In contrast to the Patriots’ production, the Ravens have reached the 30-point plateau only once in their last nine games.
On the surface, the Ravens appear to have a favorable matchup against the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL that surrendered 411.1 yards per game in the regular season. The Patriots’ pass defense ranked 31st, giving up an average of 293.9 yards through the air. In fact, the New England defense has come under fire by the national media and prompted many to write off the Patriots as Super Bowl contenders before the postseason began.
But the Patriots’ 45-10 win over Denver in the divisional round showed the unit in a more favorable light — at least against an underwhelming offense.
“I have never bought into the total yardage, as in terms of ranking defenses or offenses for that matter,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “They don’t give up a ton of points. They’ve had some big leads, and so when you have a big lead, you are going to play smart, you are going to give up ground grudgingly, and you may give up some passing yardage. But then you stand your ground when the ball gets to the 20-yard line.
“This is an underrated defense. I am sure they probably feel that way. We look at the tape, and it’s the healthiest it’s been, and it’s a defense that’s playing its best football right now.”
The numbers support Cameron’s argument, as the Patriots ranked 15th in points allowed (21.4 per game) and surprisingly led the conference in takeaways with 34. Coupled with an offense that committed the fewest turnovers (17) in the AFC, the Patriots ranked third in the NFL with a plus-17 turnover ratio.
Though the late-season loss of defensive end Andre Carter (10 sacks in 14 games) put a dent in the New England pass rush, the return of Patrick Chung has stabilized the secondary after the free safety missed nearly two months of action with a foot injury. The Patriots collected 40 sacks in 2011, with defensive end Mark Anderson (10) and linebacker Rob Ninkovich (6 1/2) picking up some of the slack in Carter’s absence.
While the New England pass defense has received the brunt of the criticism, the Patriots’ run defense is not as impressive as its ranking (17th in rushing yards allowed) suggests. Typically enjoying big leads against opponents while on their way to a 13-3 record, opposing offenses were forced to abandon the ground game despite the Patriots allowing 4.6 yards per carry (24th in the NFL) this season.
Running back Ray Rice will be the key as always in establishing the run, but the Ravens will not hesitate to use him aggressively in the passing game. Regardless of whether it’s Rice on the ground or Flacco using tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in the short passing game, the Ravens need to find positive yardage on first and second down to keep drives alive.
It’s a simple formula for the Ravens as they can guarantee a lower number of points allowed if they can limit Brady’s possessions and take care of the football.
“Third down is going to be really important – for both sides – getting off the field and extending drives,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Time of possession for us is going to be important in this game. It’s going to be a big red zone game on the defensive side, on both sides really.”
When they do manage to find their way inside the red zone, the Ravens cannot settle for field goals against the third-highest scoring offense in the league. Asking their defense to make stops is one thing, but matching early touchdowns with field goals is a sure-fire way to get blown out in Foxborough.
With the aggressive nature of New England’s offense, the Ravens must use every weapon at their disposal. Simply grinding it out with Rice and Ricky Williams won’t guarantee success, but allowing Flacco to throw 50 times increases the likelihood of short possessions and giving the ball back to Brady more often. Balance will be the key while mixing in some vertical shots with the running game and short-to-intermediate passes.
Ultimately, the Ravens quarterback said it best when assessing his often-maligned offense that has won 13 games this season amid all the flak.
“The bottom line is we get the job done,” Flacco said. “We score points when we need to. We are really good in situational football. If we need to be really good in two-minute [situations] – which we don’t have a lot of chances at – we are a really good two-minute team. I think that has been proven over the year. If we need to run the ball, we usually run the ball. If we need to throw the ball, we usually throw the ball. We don’t do a ton of things to be really explosive – in the top of the league statistically – but we have the ability to be a really good offense.”
That confidence and ability will never be more important than Sunday afternoon as the offense tries to hold up its end of the bargain for a defense that will likely need a big hand in sending the Ravens to the Super Bowl.