The Patriots enter the final quarter of the season and it promises to be the most difficult one of the 2016 season. Home games against Baltimore and the Jets are sandwiched around road trips to Denver and Miami. This week the Pats play host to the Baltimore Ravens who are hitting their stride as the playoff push begins. And facing Joe Flacco, the QB who’s won playoff games in Foxboro (twice), the question is, should the Pats be aggressive this week?
If they follow the trends, they should. Flacco is a much different quarterback when under pressure as opposed to when he’s not. He, as well as the Ravens offense, has struggled for much of 2016 but they’re getting hot at just the right time. On the season, he’s completed 321 of 497 passes, for 64.6 percent with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for a passer rating of 84.1 which are hardly his best.
Entering last week’s game against Miami who had won six in a row, Flacco had thrown for just 11 touchdowns and 11 picks on the year. But he torched Miami for 386 yards (which was a career top 5) and four touchdowns in the Ravens 38-6 rout of the Fins.
Last week facing rookie Jared Goff at QB, the Patriots were aggressive and mixed up their coverages as well as their blitzes and thoroughly confused Goff on many occasions. While Flacco is hardly a rookie and has a Super Bowl win and had great success against the Patriots in the past, a similar approach may be the right idea.
Look at the numbers and they play out an aggressive approach. When Flacco isn’t sacked the Ravens are 15-4. When under no pressure, Flacco’s completed 70 percent of his passes this season with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions for a passer rating of 94.7.
But when he’s been under pressure, those numbers plummet. His completion percentage falls to 46.5 percent and he’s thrown just one touchdown and 5 interceptions for a passer rating of 48.3.
But before everyone thinks the Patriots should sell out and bring the blitz on every down, there are a couple of other factors to consider. One is the Ravens offensive line. While injuries decimated that unit up front and they were using multiple combinations earlier this season, they’re healthy now. Baltimore has stuck with the same starting combination on the OL for the past three games and the offense has responded.
Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots defense will have the challenge of trying to get after Flacco this weekend. (USA TODAY Images)
They have run for over 300 yards and passed for 872 in those past three contests. The Ravens are built to win now. Ttheir three top receivers are on the wrong side of 30 but are having very good seasons. Mike Wallace has found new life in Baltimore and has 57 catches for 851 yards (14.9 average) with four touchdowns including a 95-yarder. The ageless Steve Smith has rebounded with a very solid showing in 2016 after going on IR last year. The mercurial Smith has 54 catches for 589 yards (10.9 average) with three touchdowns. Tight end Dennis Pitta has made an amazing comeback from a hip injury. There were questions whether he’d ever play football again, but he’s finding his form at just the right time. Pitta has caught 61 passes for 529 yards and two touchdowns, both against the Dolphins last week.
The Patriots try to take away the big play and force teams to work their way down the field. The bend but don’t break approach may well find its way into the game plan this week as the coaches would be wary of the big play ability of both Wallace and Smith. With an improved offensive line, Flacco could hit the deep ball that he’s had success against New England with in the past.
That’s the approach they’ll probably take but if this season’s history is taken into consideration, a more aggressive approach may be the right call. As a result, it will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia game plan the Ravens this week. Facing the Baltimore defense is an entirely different story…stay tuned.
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