Break It Down: Will the Ravens get the best of Tom Brady again?
Tom Brady, as a general rule, does not play all that well against the Baltimore Ravens.
Sure, he's 5-2 against them in his career and beat them to reach the Super Bowl last season. But he had almost as much to do with the Ravens' near-upset in the AFC title game as he did the Patriots win -- Brady completed 22 of 36 passes with no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
Even when New England knocks off Baltimore, that's pretty par for the course for Brady, whose 74.1 career QB rating against the Ravens is his worst against any team in the league.
"You play against a team like this, that’s able to adjust because of their personnel and because they do a lot of things schematically, there are a lot of 'what ifs' in preparation throughout the course of the week," said Brady this week, according to the Associated Press. "That’s really what we’re trying to hone in on this week."
Brady will be down one big weapon on Sunday: tight end Rob Gronkowski. Even with Gronkowski in the lineup for the majority of last year's conference championship game, Brady struggled to find a groove against Baltimore.
Two annoying thorns in Brady's side were, not surprisingly, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The Ravens used those two as key swing points in their defense, asking them to cover, at different points during the game, just about every potential receiver the Patriots had.
Our second "Break It Down" of conference championship week looks back at Brady's AFC title-game performance against the Ravens last season ...
The Ravens most often rushed four against the Patriots in that game, but when they brought three or blitzed, that change-up often was accompanied by Jarrett Johnson's presence on the field or Paul Kruger dropping in coverage.
The Patriots do not have to worry about Johnson this time around -- he left via free agency last offseason -- but the Ravens feature many of the same pass-rushing weapons in Haloti Ngata, Kruger, Terrell Suggs, plus Ma'ake Kemoeatu, who sat out 2011.
It's not hard to figure why Baltimore chooses to simplify its rush against Brady: the more defenders in pass coverage, the better.
Here, the Patriots send five out against a two-deep look from the Ravens.
Both Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski headed to Brady's right on the play, and he looked to those two targets first -- Hernandez, who came out of the backfield, was covered by a cornerback; Gronkowski had Johnson all over him.
Brady's third option was Wes Welker, who landed right in Lewis' area over the middle.
By the time Brady made it to choice No. 4, Deion Branch, the Ravens were closing on him as well. The result was an incompletion.
Hernandez will not come out of the backfield much, if at all, on Sunday, due to Gronkowski's absence and the Patriots' solid stable of running backs.
But, back to Lewis and Reed. Their defense up the middle, ideally if you're Baltimore, takes away huge chunks of real estate right in front of Brady, pushing the Patriots' offense to the boundaries.
The tough part for Brady is that Baltimore does that in a variety of ways. In the shot below, the Ravens dropped Bernard Pollard into a one-deep look, then moved Reed up just offset from Lewis.
Lewis then just planted in the middle of the field, almost as a defender spying on the quarterback would. Reed pulled down in man coverage on Welker, leaving Pollard alone in deep help. This is a fine scenario for the Ravens -- and it resulted in a Lardarius Webb interception, as Brady tried to hit Julian Edelman deep.
Why this worked for Baltimore: Reed took away Welker, Lewis shut off the short-middle, the Ravens trusted their outside corners to defend Edelman and Deion Branch one-on-one, and both Gronkowski and Hernandez ran into tight coverage to Brady's blindside.
The Ravens rushed four, had a man deep and covered all their bases underneath.
Here's another example with a similar approach. Baltimore sent just three in the play pictured below, again setting Lewis in the middle of the field and asking Reed to come down on a receiver (Hernandez, this time).
Brady tried to hit Gronkowski out wide, only to overthrow him.
While it's true, as Brady said, that the Ravens shift their looks around frequently, the basics are relatively tame -- count on the rush to create a little pressure and work the matchups in the back seven.
This is another incompletion from Brady. He tried to hit Hernandez, sweeping wide up the left sideline, with Reed tailing him. Lewis then stepped up to cover Danny Woodhead.
The coverage was there, and Brady could not fit a pass in between Reed and Pollard downfield.
Brady's challenge is to find the holes in Baltimore's defense and adjust his play calling to hit them. He can be brilliant at that aspect of the game, but he has struggled to pick it up against the Ravens.
And those holes are there, by design. Baltimore often sacrifices a ferocious pass rush against New England (it had just one sack in last year's AFC title game) and leaves some manageable gaps, in an effort to force the Patriots where the defense wants them to go.
For example, on that play we just looked at ... here's how the field looked behind Lewis and in front of Pollard:
There's a huge gap there, but the Patriots could not find it.
When Baltimore blitzes, Brady has an easier time eyeballing those openings. Even when the Ravens blitzed conservatively last year, such as on the play pictured below with Lewis and a cornerback coming, it simplified Brady's job.
All he had to do there was throw at the blitz.
Hernandez made the catch for a 9-yard pickup above, with Welker also open next to him.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Ravens blitzed eight times in last year's AFC title game ... and Brady completed 100 percent of his passes (8 for 8 for 93 yards). When the Ravens did not blitz and still generated pressure, Brady's completion percentage dropped to 14.3 (1-for-7). And in Baltimore's Week 3 win over New England this season, Brady hit 12-of-15 passes when the Ravens blitzed.
Why the disparity?
Well, the Ravens' front is talented enough to create some havoc without extra help, and the seven- and eight-man coverage walls put the Patriots at a numbers disadvantage, even with five-receiver routes.
New England's best success in the AFC title game came when they flipped the matchups, such as in this play pictured below when the Patriots managed to get Welker in space against Lewis.
Lewis does a lot of things well, but that's not a matchup he will win often.
The Patriots found those mismatches against Houston last week by utilizing their running backs -- specifically, Shane Vereen, who bounced from the backfield to out wide, allowing the Patriots to move those one-on-one RB-vs.-LB showdowns to better spots.
With Gronkowski out of the lineup this week, the Patriots likely will try to do more of that. The question is: Can Brady find those advantageous situations and exploit them? He has not been able to do so with any regularity in the past against Baltimore, including in the 2012 AFC title game.