Youth Infusion in the Front Seven:
Defensively, the Ravens have had to endure an awful lot. Each of Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs have had various injuries this year, some effects from those are still lingering. Throw in the absence of starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain and the departure of outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson prior to the year, to make the Ravens' front seven a very young group.
Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Courtney Upshaw, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee, Albert McClellan, Terrence Cody and Brendon Ayanbadejo combined for 4,791 snaps this year, compared to just 2,209 last season. That unit does at least provide some improved athleticism over last season, but it also exposes the group's inexperience to the pre-snap ability of Tom Brady.
During last year's game, Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith were the Ravens' top three cornerbacks. Webb and Williams started the game, with 68 snaps apiece, while Smith played 63. Webb spent the majority of his snaps in that game covering Wes Welker in the slot and he also intercepted Brady. However, Webb won't be involved at all having torn his ACL during the regular season and landing on IR. Williams will start the game and is fully healthy, but Jimmy Smith, a former first round pick who also intercepted Brady last season, while still on the roster has an unclear status.
In their place, the Ravens have turned to the young, inexperienced Chykie Brown and veteran backup Corey Graham. The Broncos picked on Brown somewhat, but Graham was able to intercept a pass from Manning and return it for a touchdown early on. Neither has the size or physicality of Webb or Smith, but so long as they can keep them away from the Patriots' tight ends, they should be able to get by.
Another New Coordinator:
Chuck Pagano's new job with the Indianapolis Colts has pushed Dean Pees into the defensive coordinator role for the Ravens. Pees is a veteran coach who has guided the Ravens' defense through plenty of turmoil already this season. He hasn't proved to be a downgrade from Pagano at all.
—New England Patriots—
A Shiny New Secondary:
Last season's Patriots carried one of the least impressive secondaries in the whole league all the way to the Super Bowl. That led to some serious efforts from the front office over the past 12 months to revamp the unit. Neither Sterling Moore or James Ihedigbo are on the roster anymore, while Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib are now the starting cornerbacks. Devin McCourty has excelled since moving to safety, while Steve Gregory has arrived in free agency to solidify the other starting spot on the backend. Furthermore, the demotion of Kyle Arrington and addition of Tavon Wilson has made the unit much deeper on the whole.
In this game, Dennard and Talib will be crucial. Talib was acquired in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to provide a physical presence on the outside. He has the ability to play press coverage against Anquan Boldin, who had over 100 yards on six receptions in this matchup last season. Boldin is built like a running-back and he would bully any of the Patriots' other cover men, but Talib has the strength and size to stick with him. Dennard was a troubled, but talented college player who has surprised many since being drafted by the team in the seventh round. Dennard may not have the speed of Torrey Smith, but he has enough to track him down the field with safety help and limit his impact with big plays. On the whole, he is performing at a much higher degree than Arrington was at this time last year.
A Brand New Pass Rush:
Long gone are defensive ends Andre Carter(who actually missed the playoffs last year), Shaun Ellis and Mark Anderson, to be replaced by Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott. Jones was the team's first pick of the 2012 NFL draft, while Ninkovich has moved from linebacker to defensive end this year with some success. Cunningham is much more involved this year than last, while Trevor Scott was signed in free agency as a situational pass rusher. Ninkovich and Jones are the team's two primary rushers, but Jones has been limited since a mid-season injury.
Much like last season, the Patriots will probably need to rely more on their inside rush opposed to their defensive end coming off the edges.
With Bernard Pollard on the field this weekend, Patriots fans will be anxious every time he tackles one of the home-side's players. It was during this game last season when Pollard tackled Gronkowski and he never really got back up. Gronkowski injured his ankle then and would be limited for the team's Super Bowl against the New York Giants. This season, Gronkowski is going to miss the whole game having re-injured his broken arm against the Houston Texans last week.
The Patriots handled Gronkowski's absence with relative ease this season. However, against the best of opposition in the conference, the loss of Gronkowski definitely makes the Ravens' job on defense that much easier.