A lot of the familiar faces are now gone. But the Baltimore Ravens certainly have the Patriots’ attention and respect as the teams prepare for their fourth matchup over the past three seasons.
The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens limped out of the gate with a 4-6 record as they learned to play without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, and Dennis Pitta, who has since returned from a hip injury. And the offense hasn’t really recovered — they’re tied for 25th in points scored (21.1 per game), 29th in total yards, and 29th in red-zone offense. The veteran offensive line has struggled all season, with Joe Flacco taking 42 sacks (third among quarterbacks) and Ray Rice averaging just 3.1 yards per carry.
And yet Patriots fans have every right to feel worried about their team losing two straight games for the first time this season. The 8-6 Ravens are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, riding a four-game winning streak after their dramatic 18-16 victory over the Lions Monday night, in which kicker Justin Tucker nailed 53- and 61-yard field goals in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
And despite losing likely future Hall of Famers on defense, and getting torched for 49 points by Peyton Manning on opening night, the Ravens once again have one of the league’s best defenses — seventh in points allowed (19.8 per game), ninth in yards allowed (334.0), and fifth in yards per carry allowed (3.8). Their four rushing touchdowns allowed are the fewest in the league, and they haven’t allowed 400 yards of offense in eight straight games.
“I’ve spent most of the time watching their more recent games. They had some setbacks early, but lately they’ve been very impressive and that will be a big challenge for us this week down there,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “I think over the course of the season, you can definitely see the improvement and the growth of their team, both individually with some of their younger players and collectively with the way the units operate, the communication, the coordination, things like that.”
The Ravens’ offense isn’t operating with the same efficiency that it did last January, when it scored on all four trips inside the red zone against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Boldin, who had two fourth-quarter touchdowns that day, was shipped off to San Francisco, and Flacco’s 6.6 yards per attempt is the lowest of his six-year career.
But the Ravens can still be dangerous on offense, with a two-headed running back committee of Rice and Bernard Pierce, and the always dangerous Torrey Smith (1,032 yards, four touchdowns) on the outside. The Ravens replaced Boldin with undrafted rookie Marlon Brown, who has been a nice find with 40 catches for 443 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. The return of Pitta (72 yards and a touchdown in two games) also gives them a formidable two-tight end presence with Ed Dickson (229 yards, one touchdown).
The offensive line has been a mess, with right tackle Michael Oher, center Gino Gradkowski, and left guard A.Q. Shipley mostly responsible for Flacco’s sacks. But they did an admirable job Monday night, holding the Lions’ fearsome defensive line to one sack.
As for the Ravens’ defense, it might be even better than last year with 10-year veteran Daryl Smith replacing Lewis at middle linebacker and first-round pick Matt Elam replacing Reed. Elam, an aggressive free safety, had 10 tackles and the game-clinching interception against the Lions, while Smith leads the team with 107 tackles and has added three interceptions, 4½ sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a touchdown.
“Daryl, you can see on film, he definitely is the communicator on defense, like Lewis was,” Belichick said. “You can see him making adjustments and checks and controlling the front, moving the front over and getting them lined up and those kind of things. It looks like he’s got good command of what they’re doing.”
The Ravens are fourth in red-zone defense, which could prove problematic for a Patriots’ offense that went 1 for 4 Sunday without Rob Gronkowski. Baltimore has a ferocious front seven with Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, Chris Canty, Elvis Dumervil (9½ sacks), and Terrell Suggs (9 sacks) providing constant pressure. And the pass defense is a respectable 13th behind veterans Ladarius Webb, Corey Graham, and former Patriot safety James Ihedigbo.
But the Ravens’ biggest weapons may be on special teams. Jacoby Jones is fourth in kickoff return average (minimum 20 returns) with a touchdown and third on punt return average (minimum 10). And Tucker, their second-year kicker, overtook Stephen Gostkowski for the league lead in field goals made (35) after going 6 for 6 Monday night. Tucker has made 35 of 37 attempts this year and 6 of 7 from 50-plus yards.