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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even though Joe Flacco was able to pick apart the Patriots secondary in last season’s AFC Championship game, the Ravens realize they are dealing with a different New England defense this season, one that’s shown improvement.
The Patriots are second in the league in total defense, containing the pass (404 yards in two games) and altogether cutting off their opponent’s running game (125 yards).
“They are playing tremendously well,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “The back end is playing sound and solid. It starts with a Cover 2 shell. It’s all disguised extremely well. They are very physical. They hit every receiver they see every opportunity they get. They are really good at it. Their safeties play with great spacing and great vision in the back end.
“They are getting nice pressure out of their front, very steady pressure out of their front. Linebackers are downhill, physical guys. The five inside players are just so physical, and the ends do a great job of pushing everything back into those guys against the run. So of course, Vince Wilfork, he’s just a force in the middle. Just a really, really good defense.”
Though they excelled in the red zone last year, the Patriots’ pass defense ranked as the second worst in the league. Torrey Smith, who caught three passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the AFC Championship game, said the biggest difference he’s seen in the Patriots defense is the personnel, particularly cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who was injured for most of last season.
Smith and Dowling have history, not just from their days in the ACC (Smith went to Maryland, Dowling went to Virginia), but also from growing up together in Virginia. Smith said he and Dowling talk often, but obviously they’ve cut off communication this week.
“I know what he brings to the table and definitely what he brings to the secondary,” Smith said.
With the emergence of Dennis Pitta alongside Ed Dickson, the Ravens have a pair of young tight ends that has drawn comparisons to the Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Pitta has emerged as a go-to target for Flacco, leading the Ravens in catches (13), targets (23), and yards (138). Taken in the fourth round in 2010, Pitta’s progress is in line with the potential Harbaugh saw in him.
“I would say it has evolved into what we envisioned,” Harbaugh said. “Hopefully even more so in the next couple of years. He is a guy that has great ball skills, and he is a good football player.”
Last Sunday against the Eagles, Pitta got the start ahead of Dickson. Dickson was Flacco’s primary safety valve last season, catching 54 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns.
Still, Harbaugh tempered comparisons to New England’s tight end duo.
“It’s different people,” Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t mean anything because they are not the same people. Maybe they will be talking about Dickson and Pitta someday in those kind of terms.”
Welcomed to nest
James Ihedigbo was a casualty of thick competition in the Patriots secondary during training camp, and when he was released at the end of August, the Ravens signed the 28-year-old safety three days later to a one-year, $700,000 contract.
“It’s training camp across the league,” Ihedigbo said. “Guys are battling for jobs across the league. So they made the decision that they felt was best for their football team and I landed where I’m supposed to be as a Baltimore Raven. So it all works out for both sides.”
He was on the field for the Ravens’ season opener seven days later, and could be called on to start Sunday night against his former teammates.
“The guys that I’m playing with in this locker room have truly helped me learn the system, the tips and pointers that they’ve given me, and just a lot of studying,” he said.