By not committing a single penalty or turnover in their divisional game against the Texans, the Ravens showed that experience, discipline and defense can get you far in the playoffs. But if Baltimore hopes to hang with top-seeded New England in Sunday’s AFC championship showdown, the team’s offense will have to improve. Three things they have to do to win:
1. Run the ball
Even though it was a tightly contested game, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron inexplicably decided to abandon the run against the Texans. Ray Rice, by far Baltimore’s best weapon on offense, had only 60 yards rushing (and 80 all-purpose yards) on the afternoon. If the Ravens are going to keep pace with the high-flying Patriots, they will need to find more of a balance on offense.
Baltimore’s O had a dismal day against Houston — the team had almost as many punts (nine) as first downs (11), finished with 227 total yards and scored just three points over the game’s final 46 minutes, with Joe Flacco struggling mightily. But if the Ravens can establish the run on Sunday, that would alleviate some of the pressure off a quarterback that doesn’t always look comfortable in the pocket (Flacco had career lows in completion percentage and yards per attempt this season).
The Patriots have had issues stopping the run (they allowed 117 rushing yards per game during the regular season) and most recently gave up 144 yards to the Broncos (the numbers could have been much higher if Denver wasn’t playing catch-up for most of the game). Rice (who finished the season first in yards from scrimmage and second in rushing) has the talent and the matchup to do some serious damage, and if he can get going that will help everyone on the Ravens offense.
2. Stay aggressive on defense
The defense defines this Ravens football team and it was in fine form this past weekend against the Texans. The unit picked off rookie quarterback T.J. Yates three times (and forced four turnovers overall), giving up just 13 points. Houston was able to move the ball (315 total yards) but just couldn’t score the knock-out punch.
Baltimore will need to get big games out of its key defensive players (Ray Lewis led the team in tackles against Houston, Ed Reed recorded his eighth postseason interception) and make things as uncomfortable for Tom Brady as possible. Opponents averaged just 16.6 points per game against the Ravens in the regular season so things won’t come easy for that Patriots offense.
This defence is very opportunistic — it can get to the quarterback (third in the league with 48 sacks) and force players into making mistakes (15 interceptions and 21 forced fumbles). Brady likes to exploit the middle of the field and he could run into all kinds of problems with this experienced and physical defense (especially in the secondary). The Ravens have the personnel to throw the 5,000-yard passer off of his game.
3. Slow down those tight ends
The duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has been giving defensive coordinators fits this season. The two combined for 2,237 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns (Gronk had 17 TDs, the most ever for a tight end) and put up 200 yards and four scores last week against Denver.
You can try to stop one, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop both.
However, the Ravens have been effective at shutting down starting tight ends this season, allowing just 517 yards to the position during the regular season. In fact, Indy’s Jacob Tamme was the only tight end to score a touchdown on the Baltimore D, while the team held Houston’s Owen Daniels to just 26 yards this past week. If the Ravens hope to slow down the Patriots’ aerial attack, containing these talented and physical tight ends is a good place to start.