When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley continues to develop — and impress — out of the backfield. No longer in anyone’s shadow, the 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound Ridley is running with great confidence and energy. He is a decisive runner — he picks a hole and goes. He doesn’t always pick the right opening, and will sometimes run into his blockers’ backsides, but he continues to improve and his excitement is contagious. Danny Woodhead’s quickness and instincts make him an ideal change-of-pace back, but he is becoming predictable. It seems as though he gets the ball every time he’s lined up in the backfield. New England’s offensive line looked out of sorts against the Cardinals; Donald Thomas and Marcus Cannon looked slow and/or lost a lot. They’ll have to shore things up against one of the most ferocious front sevens in the game. It starts up front with massive tackle Haloti Ngata (6-4, 340 pounds). A powerful player with deceptive speed and quickness, Ngata specializes in tossing bodies and wreaking havoc. Fellow tackles Terrence Cody (6-4, 341) and Ma’ake Kemoeatu (6-5, 345) will also cause aches and pains. On the second level, ageless wonder Ray Lewis (a tremendous mixture of instincts, speed, power, and enthusiasm) leads a linebacking crew featuring Albert McClellan (strong and athletic), Jameel McClain (an underrated bruiser), and rookie Courtney Upshaw (a big hitter).
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 126.0 (Ninth)
Baltimore defense: 129.0 (20th)
When the Patriots pass
Aaron Hernandez’s injury and the Wes Welker saga (it has reached saga status, yes?) have turned the most feared passing game in the league into a unit that hasn’t looked crisp. It’s a safe bet Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels will get this straightened out sooner rather than later. Brady will have to be at his decision-making best because the Ravens can bring pressure (though he catches a break with Terrell Suggs on the shelf). Front and center will be reliable options Rob Gronkowski (the league’s best pure tight end) and Welker (assuming he’s not injured or in the doghouse). Gronkowski’s special blend of size, speed, and strength make him a huge mismatch for any defender. Welker’s quickness off the line and normally reliable hands make him a go-to player underneath. Julian Edelman is athletic and instinctual, but the production hasn’t matched the playing time. Brandon Lloyd has wonderful hands and body control but has yet to develop a consistent rapport with Brady. Deion Branch’s quickness and knowledge of this offense should provide a level of comfort for Brady. Baltimore’s secondary has playmakers, led by the incomparable Ed Reed. Perhaps the best safety in history, Reed is intelligent, instinctual, and rangy. Patriot killer Bernard Pollard is dinged up, so look for ex-Patriot James Ihedigbo to step in. Corners Lardarius Webb (excellent quickness and mirror skills) and Cary Williams (strong and smart) are good.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 262.5 (Eighth)
Baltimore defense: 275.0 (26th)
When the Ravens run
Ray Rice has developed into one of the league’s premier tailbacks. A compact, powerfully built runner with outstanding vision and instincts, Rice has the muscle and quickness to sneak through creases between the tackles and the speed to hit the corner and break off long runs. Rice (5-8, 212) lacks height, but has big, thick legs (it’s as though somebody threw Earl Campbell in the dryer), and he runs low and with great balance. He uses a variety of jukes and spin moves to avoid and deflect hits, and won’t shy away from contact. Rookie Bernard Pierce (6-0, 218) is more of a slasher. He has good vision and will find cutback lanes, but he lacks quickness and speed and was perpetually hurt in college. Fullback Vonta Leach (6-0, 260) is a human battering ram. He can open holes and push the pile. Veteran center Matt Birk is smart, fast, and technically sound. He takes good angles but his lack of strength will be evident against Patriots behemoths Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love. Guards Ramon Harewood (he’s raw) and Marshal Yanda (he’s tough) are solid and are athletic enough to pull and trap effectively. New England’s hard-hitting linebackers will look to fill lanes and punish Rice. Jerod Mayo leads this crew, with running mates Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower. All three are instinctual players who can shed blocks and explode into ball carriers.
Rushing yards per game
Baltimore offense: 116.5 (10th)
New England defense: 62.5 (Fifth)Continued...