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Harboring hope

The key ingredient in Ravens’ recipe for success is simple: a lot of Rice

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 18, 2012
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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

If the Patriots expect to beat the Ravens in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, they are going to have to bottle up one of their ghosts of playoff failures past: running back Ray Rice.

The Patriots learned the lesson well in the 2009 wild-card game when Rice ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns - 83 yards on the first play off the game - in the Ravens’ 33-14 victory at Gillette Stadium.

It was important before, but this season it has become increasingly so as Rice, in his fourth season, led the NFL in net yards from scrimmage (2,068), set a franchise record with 15 touchdowns, and finished second in the league with 1,364 rushing yards.

The coaching staffs that know the Ravens the best - those in the AFC North - know the teaching points as well as anyone.

“I think it gets back to the obvious, in that Ray Rice is the key to their offense, both in their run game and the pass game,’’ said Kevin Coyle, the University of Massachusetts graduate and former Holy Cross assistant who has been the Bengals’ defensive backs coach for the past nine seasons. “He’s their leading rusher, leading receiver, he’s the guy that if he can get going, they have a chance to be successful offensively.

“As he goes, so do the Ravens, I really believe that and that’s kind of been their history since he’s been there.’’

Coyle is correct. If Rice gets at least 20 touches in the game, the Ravens win. They were 11-0 this season when that happened. In all four of their losses, Rice did not hit that number.

Rice closed the regular season with 191 yards on 24 carries in a 24-16 victory over the Bengals as he broke touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards. Cincinnati had the league’s fifth-ranked run defense headed into that game.

To keep that from happening Sunday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick will keep things basic.

“I think, No. 1, is you have to be extremely gap-sound,’’ Coyle said. “You have to make sure that your players on the back side of plays are extremely disciplined because a number of his plays come out of the back side. Plays that are not designed necessarily to be cutback plays, he can turn it into a cutback run, and when he does, if you overpursue, he can really make you pay for it.’’

The Patriots could not have had a better practice run than the Broncos’ offense they stomped in a 45-10 victory Saturday. Defending Denver calls for players to be very disciplined in their gaps and responsibilities.

On every play, especially against the run, players are told they are to fill a specific gap in the blocking scheme. The “A’’ gaps are on either side of the center. The “B’’ gaps are between the guards and tackles. The “C’’ gaps are between the tackle and tight end. The “D’’ gap is outside that.

Players on the second level - linebackers and defensive backs - are assigned to “fit’’ between the defenders depending on which gap they are supposed to maintain.

If the players do their jobs, there should be no holes for a player to break off an 83-yard touchdown run.

The Patriots cleaned up many of their issues from that 2009 playoff loss in their 23-20 overtime victory against the Ravens on Oct. 17, 2010.

Rice got his touches - 28 carries, 10 receptions - but had only 126 total yards. He averaged 3.1 yards per carry and 4.8 per catch.

Though that game was well over a year ago, the Patriots played with similar personnel on defense, and with many of the techniques they featured against the Broncos.

The Patriots played an aggressive 3-4 defense, with a safety - normally Patrick Chung - close to the line of scrimmage. The defensive line featured Brandon Deaderick at left end, Gerard Warren at nose tackle (Kyle Love’s position), and Vince Wilfork at right end. Rob Ninkovich played strong-side linebacker, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were inside, and Jermaine Cunningham was in the outside linebacker spot now played by Mark Anderson.

Mayo, Spikes, and Wilfork all had standout games reading the run and attack. Cunningham played surprisingly well, too.

The only change in the secondary was Brandon Meriweather as one of the safeties. He has been replaced by James Ihedigbo or Devin McCourty, depending on situations.

The Ravens, however, have had many changes.

On the offensive line, Bryant McKinnie is at left tackle and Michael Oher has shifted to the right side. Ben Grubbs and Matt Birk continue to be the left guard and center, respectively, although Birk is much healthier this season. Marshall Yanda has moved inside to right guard from tackle and was voted to the Pro Bowl.

Fullback Vonta Leach was signed as a free agent from the Texans and is going to his second straight Pro Bowl. Rookie burner Torrey Smith has replaced veteran Derrick Mason at one receiver spot, and Lee Evans was acquired in a trade from Buffalo but hasn’t played much. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta have brought young legs at tight end.

Even with the changes, the passing game directed by quarterback Joe Flacco isn’t inspiring. That’s why taking Rice out of the equation is so important.

“I think offensively the Ravens are pretty challenged,’’ said NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell. “We know their run game, that can be a factor any given week. I think the pass game is a lot of basic concepts, not a lot to defend tactically. I think their receivers struggle to win against man coverage.

“I think that they don’t do a lot in the pass game. And it’s a tough pass game to watch, quite frankly.’’

The Ravens’ passing game relies on the run to set it up.

“People have been able to get pressure against them,’’ Coyle said. “This is the type of team that doesn’t want to get into an obvious passing-down situation where you can tee off and just blitz or aggressively rush the quarterback.

“When they’re at their best, they’re throwing it on first and second down, running the football, and when they do get into third-down situations, it’s very manageable. I think that’s going to be the key for New England, to be able to create those longer-yardage situations because that to me is where they give up pressure.’’

In the 2010 loss to New England, Flacco was actually very effective - 27 of 35 for 285 yards and two touchdowns (119.3 rating) - even without Rice being a big factor.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron likes to use a deep passing game, so this will be a test to see how far the Patriots’ maligned secondary has come. Last year’s group took some hits but emerged with a victory - because they kept Rice from making the big play. Late in the game and in overtime, the Patriots used linebacker Dane Fletcher to match Rice’s speed out of the backfield. We could see that again.

Whatever it takes to stop Rice.

“You control Ray Rice, and you don’t let them throw it over your head,’’ Coyle said. “It goes back to the old Marv Levy saying: ‘What it takes to win is simple, but it’s not easy.’

“To me, when you look at this team, it’s very simple. You stop 27, and you don’t let Torrey Smith or Lee Evans or [Anquan] Boldin run deep down the field and catch it over your head. Keep the ball in front of you and don’t allow them to establish their run game.

“But that’s easier said than done. Because what happens inevitably is you start to overload to defend the run and they get their one-on-one situations out on the perimeter or they get you into short-yardage situations and then they come off a real good play-action shot down the field and they can generate a big play.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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