The Baltimore Ravens are on the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance behind a hard-hitting defense that routinely diffuses some of the league's most explosive offenses. However, the New England Patriots' high-octane offense poses unique challenges and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will need to dig deep in the playbook to come up with a game plan that slows down the league's hottest offense.
After spending some time in the film room studying both teams, here are some ideas Pagano might use this weekend against the Patriots:
Throw a variety of looks at Tom Brady
Any game plan designed to thwart the Patriots' high-powered offense is built around the premise of disrupting Brady's rhythm in the pocket. When given time to operate comfortably, he picks apart defenses with a surgeon's precision.
The Ravens must show him multiple looks and keep him from getting a clear read on their intentions prior to the snap. This means holding their disguise until the last moment before moving to their assigned spots in the back end. The Ravens traditionally have been a very active team prior to the snap, and they will need to be on their game to fool Brady. He rarely snaps the ball early, preferring to wait until the last second to gather as much information as possible about the defense's intent. This allows him to make last-second checks and adjustments to combat blitz tactics.
The Ravens must also vary their schematic approach to keep Brady from getting a bead on their game plan. He goes into attack mode when he gets a solid grasp of the defensive game plan, and that usually leads to an offensive explosion.
In speaking with an AFC defensive coach familiar with the Patriots, he suggested building the game plan around the premise of rushing four defenders. He told me it is imperative to generate pressure without needing to blitz extensively due to Brady's efficiency against pressure tactics. He went on to say that an effective four-man rush early makes Brady jumpy in the pocket. He also suggested saving a few of your blitzes until after the first half to keep the Patriots from making halftime adjustments.
In looking at the film from the Ravens' last two meetings with the Patriots, I noticed their effectiveness using a variety of coverage and pressure tactics. In the 2009 wild-card game, they used a variety of overload pressures (four defenders from one side) in the first quarter to force three turnovers from Brady. The constant harassment prevented him from getting comfortable in the pocket and his hurried throws were routinely off the mark. The Ravens later utilized their simulated pressure package (place six or seven defenders near the line of scrimmage to bluff a blitz before dropping seven into coverage) to keep Brady guessing in the pocket.
In their Week 6 game from 2010, the Ravens used a variety of man and zone coverage to disrupt Brady's rhythm. They harassed the Patriots' receivers at the line and made them work to get open. In addition, they mixed in overload pressures and eight-man zones to keep Brady off balance.
Given their effectiveness in keeping Brady under wraps in those two meetings, the Ravens should build their game plans around the tactics used in those contests.
Limit Wes Welker's touches
Welker is the top option in the Patriots' passing game and the Ravens must have a plan for neutralizing his effectiveness. The Patriots maximize Welker's talents by aligning him extensively in the slot in spread formations. His quickness overwhelms defenders, and his keen awareness enables him to routinely identify the open areas in zone coverage. Welker's unique skills have made him nearly indefensible, so the Ravens will need to vary their tactics to keep him from posting big numbers in the AFC Championship Game.
In searching for successful tactics opponents have used on Welker, jamming him at the line has been the most effective. Teams like the Jets and Steelers instructed their corners to utilize press technique to keep Welker from obtaining a free release into his routes. By making him work through physical play to get to his sweet spots, opponents have been able to disrupt the timing of the Patriots' passing game. The Ravens will certainly follow suit in some instances, but they must also prepare for the various motions, stack releases (two receivers closely aligned to create potential picks) and bunch formations used by the Patriots to shake Welker loose. This requires having a few versions of "Banjo" coverage (defenders switch receivers on pick routes) to prevent Welker from getting free on crosses and option routes from stack alignments.
Using the traditional method, the Ravens would align a defender over top of the receiver on the line, and have the remaining defenders play from depth to avoid potential picks. However, the Ravens should also utilize a changeup to keep the Patriots from getting a bead on their switch tactics. By constantly switching their tactical approach while remaining physical at the line, the Ravens can make it hard for Welker to find room over the middle.
Have a plan for Gronkowski and Hernandez
As difficult as it is to come up with an effective method for dealing with Welker, the challenge of neutralizing Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez poses a greater problem for the Ravens. The duo combined for 169 receptions for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns during the regular season, and their ability to dominate over the middle provides Brady with a pair of big targets to counter an opponent's coverage tactics.
Gronkowski is Brady's preferred target against zone coverage. He excels at identifying and sitting down in the open areas, and his superior size makes him easy to target in traffic. The Patriots take advantage of his skills by using him on an assortment of square outs, digs and corners that routinely place him in the dead areas of coverage.
Hernandez is the Patriots' designated man beater. He torches linebackers and safeties with his speed and athleticism, and is one of the best young route runners in the league. His ability to consistently run away from tight coverage allows the Patriots to feature an assortment of high-low crossing routes from spread formations. Hernandez is also used as the versatile playmaker in the running game on reverses and fly-sweeps. His speed and nifty running skills allow him to turn the corner on unsuspecting defenses.
To combat the Patriots' impressive tight end combination, the Ravens must be aware of their tendencies against various coverages and set traps for Brady. This involves utilizing combination coverage that seamlessly morphs from zone to man based on routes. In addition, the Ravens must limit the free access for Gronkowski and Hernandez at the line of scrimmage. Ray Lewis and Co. must jam the duo at every opportunity within the 5-yard box to disrupt their timing.
If the Ravens can quickly decipher where the ball should go against selected coverage, make the appropriate pattern reads and disrupt the Patriots' dynamic duo at every turn, they should be able to get Brady out of his comfort zone and force a costly miscue that leads to a game-changing turnover.
Prepare for the no-huddle
The Patriots are the best no-huddle team in the league. They have mastered the art of quickening the tempo of the game using the approach, and their ability to dictate to the defense gives them a significant advantage.
Brady routinely jumps into the no-huddle in the middle of drives to keep defenders on their heels. His intent is to take the defensive coordinator out of the game by limiting substitution opportunities. In addition, the fast-break tempo forces the defensive play caller to scale back his blitz calls due to fears about communication errors.
When Brady is on his game, the combination of tempo and flawless execution makes the Patriots offense nearly impossible to stop. The Ravens could get run out of Gillette Stadium without the right plan.
In speaking with several defensive coaches who have faced the Patriots this season, they talked about the need to stay in a flexible personnel package that allows the defense to handle the myriad of formations used by the Patriots. Most preferred a nickel package with five defensive backs on the field for the majority of the game, but they suggested having a ready list with a few different groupings to handle their exotic formations featuring multiple tight ends.
They also suggested putting the defensive game plan on wristbands, so that the entire playbook is available to the defense despite the quickened pace. With the defense no longer limited to a scaled-down playbook, the Ravens should be able to match up and attack the Patriots' offense in typical fashion.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.