The New England Patriots travel to face the Baltimore Ravens in M & T Bank Stadium tonight hoping to rebound from last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Both the Ravens and Patriots are looking to bounce back from tight losses, as the Ravens lost in the dying moments against the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
After destroying the Cincinnati Bengals in their home opener, the Ravens are looking to beat another potential AFC playoff team and go to 2-1. The Patriots are in a similar situation as they are trying to avoid having a losing record for the first time since 2006.
The Cardinals outlined a perfect blueprint for the Ravens defense to follow entering this game, however the Patriots will likely adjust their approach after last week's struggles. Without Aaron Hernandez, and with the issues the Patriots have had in pass protection, Bill Belichick is likely to turn to Stevan Ridley more this week. That could be a tainted cure for the offense's poison however.
With Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Terrence Cody upfront, it is not easy to run on the Ravens. They may have lost Jarrett Johnson, Terrell Suggs and Cory Redding in the off-season, but the replacements have been stout so far. The Ravens have a marked advantage in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball, so Ridley's greatest contribution to this game may be to help slow down the pass rush.
Even without Suggs, the Ravens' interior pass rush is more than capable of disrupting Brady's rhythm while the Ravens' secondary is full of playmakers who will take advantage of any pressure. Ed Reed has already caught two interceptions this year while his safety partner Bernard Pollard has an infamous reputation amongst Patriots fans as the player who injured both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in recent years.
Pollard himself is struggling with an injury entering the game and isn't certain to play. Even without Pollard, the Ravens still have two superstar players to complement each other on the back end. Cornerback Laradarius Webb had five interceptions last season, but much more importantly, he was excellent in coverage all season. Webb is one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL and much like a Darrelle Revis in New York, Webb's presence allows Ed Reed more freedom because he has less of the field to worry about.
Against the Patriots, Webb will likely replicate the role of Patrick Peterson from last week. Last week Peterson trailed Brandon Lloyd and limited his impact on the game for the most part. If the Ravens can take away Lloyd without shifting coverage his way, then the rest of the defense will be able to zone in on Rob Gronkowski and the less involved Wes Welker.
The loss of Aaron Hernandez will really be felt against better defenses such as the Ravens because they will have less question marks to face.
If the Ravens aren't hesitating or dealing with problematic matchups, they will be able to fly to the football and take away the Patriots' primary options. If the Patriots want to establish the run with Ridley, they will need to prove that they can pass the ball against the secondary. While that may appear an odd scenario for this Patriots team, that is the reality of the situation when you have so many offensive line issues and are missing key piece(s) on the outside.
Offensively the Patriots need Wes Welker maybe more than they ever have during his spell with the franchise. Welker may now be the third receiving option, or even fourth or fifth, and that would imply that the Patriots have more weapons than they had when he was the first or second option, but when Welker was the second receiving threat, he was playing on a team with an excellent offensive line.
If Welker can establish himself as a threat, then the Ravens won't be able to send extra pass rushers or force Brady to hold onto the ball longer than he intends. Neither of those scenarios plays into the Patriots' hands.
Defensively the Patriots have a big problem to deal with in Ray Rice. Rice has been the focal point of the Ravens' offense ever since he became the starting back and is arguably the best back in the NFL right now. The Patriots have done well shutting down backs this year, but they have not faced a talent like Rice to this point.
Rice is exceptionally fast and agile, while also being built to bowel over defenders. His miniscule figure allows him to slip behind his offensive linemen and his receiving ability out of the backfield is terrifying.
While Rice is the most explosive player the Ravens have, their second most explosive weapon may not be available. Torrey Smith tragically lost his brother in a motor-cycle accident this morning and it is unclear whether he will play tonight. Smith is an exceptionally fast receiver who takes the top off of the defense. If he is not involved, then that drastically affects the Patriots' approach.
Without Smith the Patriots will be able to drop an extra defender in the box and force Joe Flacco to beat them while throwing to his other options. While Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin both have their talents, as does Jacoby Jones, none of them are capable of truly scaring the Patriots in the way Smith does. The Patriots will feel like if they can contain Ray Rice, then they will win the game.
Containing Rice is not easy, but doing so when you don't have to seriously worry about the outside receiving threats is a significant advantage. The Ravens' greatest weakness offensively lies in the trenches. Rookie Chandler Jones should be able to continue his impressive start to his career against Michael Oher. Oher has proven to be a good right tackle during his NFL career, but has struggled this season as a left tackle.
Even if Oher can contain Jones, Vince Wilfork destroyed Matt Birk during their last meeting in last year's AFC Championship game. Birk hasn't significantly improved since then while Wilfork has been very impressive this year.
While the Patriots will be worrying about their own offensive line, so will the Ravens. Both teams appeared to be overmatched in the trenches offensively and which offensive line stands up better could be the deciding factor in the football game.Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf