Baltimore v. New England is one of the best rivalries of the past few years. Until very recently, it was extremely one-sided, with Brady destroying the Ravens. But as the Ravens rose to prominence in 2009 and the Patriots rebuilt their entire roster in 2009, the odds have become fairly even. Today, I want to take a look at a few things that may help Ravens fans not be surprised when they see certain things out of NE that they haven't seen in the past.
Surprise 1: The Patriots do have a running game
Since 2007, the Patriots have been a pass-first, pass-often team. The running game with Lawrence Maroney was mediocre at best. Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis offered value (always got 3 yards and never fumbled) but he always was set up by the pass. This year? Whole different story...
Last year, Green-Ellis got stuffed for the most part by the Ravens front. In the Super Bowl, the Giants also dominated the ground game. This year, Ridley, Bolden, Vereen, and Woodhead have all shown dominance. Ridley averaged more yards than Arian Foster, was in the top 10 for yards, and showed breakaway speed and YAC ability on numerous occasions. His blocking has improved to the point that he's able to pass-block most rushers. Woodhead has been our third-down back, capable of splitting out wide, being the hot-read, the checkdown, and break a couple tackles. Vereen, our second-round pick from last year was the surprise of the Texans game. As a second-round pick, the Patriots have always intended for him to be a star. This year, he took a while to break through, but when he did, it was in a big way. He's a great pass-catcher, has the best speed on the roster, and is well-built and shifty. Bolden, our other dark-horse back was a UDFA who showed a clear ability to be our bigger back. He runs between the tackles, trucks people, and has done a great job. You won't see him unless the game gets out of hand or injury.
The point here is that CHFF has called the Patriots running attack NUMBER ONE in the NFL. This is NOT the same team as last year. This means that Brady has done more play-action this year than in a long time, with great results.
Surprise 2: The Patriots Front-Seven has been overhauled completely
Last year, we started Mark Anderson, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter at DE, and Dane Fletcher at LB. This year? Stellar rookies Hightower and Chandler Jones showed up in a big way. Ninkovich has emerged into one of the top at his position and Wilfork continues to be dominant. This has meant that the run defense has been absolutely dominant. No one runs against us, evidenced by Foster's struggles last week. This has also meant that the front-seven is more dangerous in the pass-rush, with subs like Francis, Cunningham, Scott coming in to provide even more ability to hit the QB.
Surprise 3: Blitzing doesn't work against Brady
Brady has a 20-0 TD-INT ratio against the blitz this year. He's not being fooled by anything. With better receiving options, I believe the blueprint of blitzing simply doesn't work against this team. The best chance a team has to stop the Patriots passing attack is to rush 4 effectively, drop everyone in coverage, jam receivers at the line. With Lloyd being on the team, we now have the ability to beat 1-on-1 coverage in a way we couldn't previously. This is not a gimmick offense.
Surprise 4: The secondary is not as bad as people think it is
When we played last year, we were starting WRs in the secondary. Now? Sterling Moore, hero of the AFC CG last year is gone, McCourty is now at safety, and Arrington is now our 3rd CB. Our new CBs are Dennard (who has been very solid) and Talib who is capable of going toe-to-toe with any WR, including Andre Johnson 1-on-1. Chung was demoted to 4th safety thanks to new safeties Gregory and Wilson. Having an elite corner like Talib has created an ability to blitz more effectively and get off the field on third down. Please check the last few games to see this. Also note that our loss to 49ers came with Talib and Jones out.
Bottom line: all four starters from last year are playing different roles, with new players who have been a marked imrpovement. Our depth on the secondary is miles better than last year, with bit players like Cole (slot CB) also added.
Surprise 5: When the offense has sputtered, the defense has shown up
Check out the games we've sputtered in. Arizona: The Defense forces a fumble when the Cardinals are running out the clock. Offense shanks a field goal. Seattle: Defense holds Seahawks to 21 points, except for a blown coverage (pre-Talib, Dennard, Gregory) and the Offense leaves between 6-14 points on the field due to utterly bone-head penalties. Not to mention Brady's interceptions. Then check out their dominant display against the Texans, twice. In the other game, the offense sputtered, San Francisco, the defense still held the 9ers back significantly, losing 7 points due to an offensive fumble and keeping the Patriots in the game, allowing Brady to rally back from a 31-7 deficit.
Bottom line: Patriot fans no longer grab the edge of their seats when the defense plays. I believe they can take on any offense.
You will probably get sick of this article and write irate comments about the "idiotic Pats fan fawning over his own team on our board". I will say: the one team that could disrupt the Patriots is the Ravens. The Ravens have a good TE (something we've struggled with), Ray Lewis, a great pass-catching RB (something we struggle with), Ray Lewis, deep-threat WRs (something we have struggled with historically), Ray Lewis, a great front-seven that doesn't need to blitz to hit Brady. Also, you have Ray Lewis.