The Patriots don’t enjoy defending footballs that are thrown forwards through the air. Perhaps you’ve heard this before, and when you did it was likely cited as a weakness so glaring, and so blinding that human eyes can only bear the sight of it for several seconds.
Since they played a guy named Tim Tebow who could be thrusting his pelvis in your living room soon enough, the secondary that gave up 293.0 passing yards per game was barely tested in New England’s 2012 playoff debut last week. This week against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game they’ll still face a poor passer, although Joe Flacco’s infinitely better than Tebow in that regard. They’ll also face far superior wide receivers.
That’s all swell, but New England has played average quarterbacks and above average receivers this year. They only lost three games, and bent but didn’t break against the likes of Tony Romo and Philip Rivers, and they lost by only a combined 12 points to the Giants, Steelers, and Bills, three teams with personnel that resembles the Ravens offensively, with one exception.
That exception’s name is Ray Rice. He’s small, and he’s a running back who’s pretty, pretty good at catching a football. New England hasn’t seen many running backs who fit that description this year, and they haven’t fared well against the few who kind of, sort of do.
There were 10 running backs with at least 400 receiving yards this year. Seven are crammed between 400 and 500 yards, with just three eclipsing the 600-yard mark (Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and Darren Sproles).
Taking that further, the truly elite group of pass-catching running backs this year wasn’t a group at all. It was the two players at the top with at least 700 yards, and their names were Sproles (710) and Rice (704).
Four of the top 10 backs were on the Pats’ sked (Michael Bush, Ryan Mathews, Fred Jackson, LaDainian Tomlinson). But those four RBs were more sporadic receivers, and none came remotely close to Rice.
Rice had more receiving yards than a handful of notable wide receivers, including Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress, and Deion Branch. He had 9.3 yards per catch, an average of 44 yards per game, and seven receptions of 20-plus yards. He was consistent too, with only one game as a moderate outlier when he had 83 receiving yards in Week 3 against St. Louis, and 11 games when he finished with at least 40 yards out of the backfield.
By comparison, since Tomlinson plays for the division rival Jets he was the best pass-catching running back the Pats faced most often. He ranked sixth in receiving yards for a running back with 449, but that number doesn’t reflect his inconsistent usage. A quarter of those yards (116) came in New York’s Week 3 loss to Oakland, and of the 14 games Tomlinson played, he averaged a meager 8.2 yards in five of them.
That leaves us with Jackson, Bush, and Mathews, a trio that was highly effective against New England despite being in that crowded middle tier of RBs with 400-500 receiving yards. Before he started to struggle with injuries again, Mathews went through an early-season run when he had 254 receiving yards over four weeks, and 62 of those yards came against the Patriots.
Prior to his season-ending leg injury in Week 11, Jackson was averaging 44.2 yards per game over just 10 games, and had a season-high 87 against the Patriots. Lastly, Bush faced the Pats when he was being used sparingly before Darren McFadden went down, yet he still managed 55 yards.
Combined, Jackson, Mathews, and Bush had 204 receiving yards on 16 catches for an average of 68 yards per game against the Patriots defense, and 12.8 per catch. And combined over their other 38 games they averaged 29.2 yards per game, and 10.1 per catch.
Tebow showed the Patriots something very unique, and very specific with the Broncos’ option offense, and the response was to at first force him to throw, and later make the pocket pressure insurmountable. It was a scheme that worked brilliantly, and resulted in one of Tebow’s worst games as a pro, and the Pats providing the blueprint that Pittsburgh failed to design one week earlier.
Now this week there’s a new challenge, and a new unique approach against a defense that hasn’t handled forward passes well all season.
Let’s assume/hope/pray that Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron attempts to expose more than just New England’s weakness against the pass, but more importantly their lack of familiarity this season with a versatile pass catcher like Rice. That logic should prevail, especially with Flacco completing just 51.9 percent of his passes against Houston, a percentage that’s now dipped below 55 in two of his last three games, and five times overall this season.
When Cameron does hopefully/probably/god willing run with that logic and put the ball in Rice’s hands both on the ground and through the air, then the new challenge awaiting the Patriots defense could be a challenge that plays a significant role in determining who represents the AFC in this year’s Super Bowl.