OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens and New England Patriots have uttered similar thoughts throughout the week about Saturday’s divisional playoff meeting in Foxborough.
As the rest of the world focuses on their three previous postseason encounters at Gillette Stadium, coaches and players from each side put little stock in what happened in the past. It’s difficult to argue the point from the Ravens’ side as just 19 players on the current 53-man roster were with the organization when they topped New England in the AFC Championship to go to the Super Bowl two years ago.
The biggest on-field difference between these teams may lie in the Patriots’ secondary, a unit that was their Achilles heel in recent years. When the Ravens met them in consecutive conference championship games, the Patriots ranked 31st in pass defense in 2011 and 29th in 2012, but the unit improved to 17th in the NFL this season because of two key offseason additions at cornerback.
The arrivals of six-time Pro Bowl selection Darrelle Revis and the 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner have transformed one of the Patriots’ biggest positional weaknesses into a strength, especially as the season has progressed. In addition to the veteran free-agent signings, 2013 third-round pick Logan Ryan has emerged as a solid option at the nickel in his second year.
“All three of those guys give them the ability to play man coverage more than they ever have before,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “They play a lot of single-high [safety]. They have a lot of people down in the box to stop the run. They’ll press you. They’ll play combinations where they double a certain player, take him out of the game. They can do that because they have corners that can single people up.”
The combination presents a problem for the Ravens, who have traditionally struggled against press coverage. Veteran Steve Smith certainly won’t shy away from physical play, but it’s fair to wonder if the 35-year-old has enough speed at this stage of the season to take advantage of any upper hand he can gain when the 5-foot-11 Revis tries to press him at the line of scrimmage.
After only one year in Tampa Bay that saw the Buccaneers wasting his talents in zone coverage, the 29-year-old Revis — two years removed from a serious knee injury suffered in his final season with the New York Jets — has retaken his place as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. And he’ll likely be asked to take the veteran Smith out of the game on Saturday.
“Is Revis still Revis? I think his ID and his social security number and those things [still say] ‘Revis,’” said Steve Smith as he smiled. “Revis can play. He’s a great corner. He’s a corner that you have to prepare for; you have to watch film. You can’t just walk in there thinking [it will be easy]. He’s a professional, and you have to approach it with a professional mindset.
“I have to be patient and understand he’s going to make his plays. That’s it. Be patient. It’s a long game. A lot of things happen.”
On the opposite side of the field, Browner will likely match up against Torrey Smith, who has improved against press coverage since his rookie season but generally doesn’t play with much physicality. What Browner may lack in speed he makes up for with a massive frame used to try to knock receivers off their spot.
It will present an interesting matchup as Torrey Smith has repeatedly drawn penalties from the opposition this season while Browner was flagged 15 times to lead the Patriots despite playing in only nine games during the regular season. The University of Maryland product could be in line for a big day if he can win the first couple steps of his routes, but New England will likely be inclined to shade safety help his way while entrusting Revis to handle Steve Smith.
Now in his fourth year, Torrey Smith hopes his experiences playing against both Revis and Browner as a rookie will pay dividends despite being held without a catch on three total targets matched up against them in games against the Jets and Seattle Seahawks in 2011.
“I just think they’re going to try to have a bigger body on me [and] try to be a little physical at the line,” Torrey Smith said. “I’ll check [Browner] out a little more, but I’ve played against both of them. I was a young pup, but I’ve played against them both and I’ve gotten a lot better since then. I’ll be ready for it. It was definitely different seeing Revis walk out on me as a rookie, but that’s just pretty cool.”
How can the Ravens combat the Patriots cornerbacks’ physical play?
Bunch formations, motion, and pick plays can be used to offset press coverage, but the Ravens won’t shy away from using double-moves as well as an improved play-action passing game to gain separation.
However, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak warned that the Ravens can’t reinvent the wheel in an effort to account for tough press coverage. And Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are also masters of changing up strategies and giving opponents different looks than they anticipated after a full week of preparation.
“We have to go do what we do. We can’t sit here and assume, ‘Well, this guy is going to play that guy,’” Kubiak said. “We can’t do that. We have to go out and run the things we run and do them well. But that’s a strength of their defense, and if we’re going to find a way to get it done, we’re going to have to beat as good of a man coverage as there is in football, and we understand that.”
As the Ravens have come to expect with so much postseason success over the last seven years, quarterback Joe Flacco will be the biggest factor in beating the Patriots secondary and he won’t be afraid to test Revis if the opportunities are there.
It was an aggressive approach that led to an impressive 30-17 victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday, and Flacco says the Ravens could run into trouble if they try to deviate too much from what they do best.
“As a quarterback, you have to go out there and just go through your reads. If he’s open, throw it to him; if he’s not, don’t,” Flacco said. “We’re going to have to make contested catches, contested throws — all those things. But I know in the past when we’ve played against some guys and you’ve tried to avoid him or done things game plan-wise to get matchups in other places, it usually just takes your attention away from what you should be doing.
“I think that has a bigger effect than sometimes the actual guy can.”