AFC Title Game Preview: New England’s Tight End Tandem

Baltimore Ravens, Inside the Game, New England Patriots, Playbook War Room

A great deal has changed since the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens faced off in the 2009 Playoffs.  For one thing, this year they are the top seeds in the AFC and are facing off in the AFC Championship game, not the Wild Card round.  We understand that both teams still have a lot of the same faces on both sides of the ball, but we think that it is the faces that were not in that ’09 game that are going to make all the difference in determining who reaches the Super Bowl.

Wes Welker on crutches before the 2009 Wild Card playoff game vs the Ravens (AP)

The New England Patriots finished the 2009 season with the 3rdranked offense in the league. However, some people forget that Wes Welker got injured in the final week of the regular season and was unable to play in the Wild Card game against Baltimore.  Not only that, but the Patriots seemed to lack a true identity in that game.  They had no Welker and Randy Moss looked like a shadow of the guy who caught 22 touchdowns in 2008.  So, they were forced to rely on guys like Sam Aiken and Julian Edelman to win.  This season the Patriots are equipped with a pair of weapons, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, that are on a level the Ravens have never seen.

When the Patriots and Ravens played in Week 6 of 2010, Gronk and Hernandez were both on the roster, but their involvement within the offense was not nearly what it is today.  Both players were rookies playing in only their 4thNFL game .  Up until then Gronk had only 6 catches for 61 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Hernandez had 18 catches for 240 yards and no touchdowns. This production is not even close to the same level that it was this season. Through four games Gronk, had 18 catches for 296 yards and 5 touchdowns. Hernandez was injured for two of the first four games, but recorded 14 catches for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns through his first four games.  The difference in production shows just how much more involved these two players are in New England’s offense. They have earned Tom Brady’s trust more and more as the season has gone on, and now form a three headed monster that includes Welker.

Ron Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (AP)

These two tight ends are matchup nightmares for every team that faces them. Gronk is a physical specimen.  He is exceptional at sealing off smaller defenders and then attacking the ball in the air. Rob has shown an ability to make circus catches, and has made some of the most physical runs after the catch we have seen all season. Hernandez is more of the finesse player of the two. He moves like a receiver, but still possesses the ability to work around the line of scrimmage. By lining him up as a tight end, fullback, or as the third or fourth wide receiver, the defense simply does not have enough defensive backs to cover everyone. Teams are forced to pick and choose which player on defense will match up with each weapon on the outside. The odds are in the Patriots’ favor that there will be a mismatch somewhere.

The Patriots utilize these mismatches by attacking the middle of the field. This season they have attempted 55.8% of their passes between the numbers and completed 74.9% of those passes. The Patriots offense utilized a lot of bunch formations, rub releases, and crossing routes; all of which focus on attacking the middle of the field. The Patriots have been smart talent evaluators and have brought in players who do their best work between the numbers. This makes their offense even more frightening to defenses.

Rob Gronkowski (AP)

This weekend the Ravens are going to be challenged defensively.  From our perspective, the Ravens linebackers and safeties struggle to cover on a consistent basis. Guys like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are elite players, but their strengths are not covering in space.  However, the Patriots put teams in such matchup problems that there will be times that these players are going to have to be in coverage, specifically, up the seams.  If the Ravens try to counter the Patriots tight end sets by putting more athletic players on the field, the Patriots have shown they will commit to the run.  This dual threat offensively makes it even harder for team to try and “out-scheme” the Patriots. The Ravens are going to have to rely on their defenders to consistently win individual matchups if they want to slow down the Patriots.

Overall we think that the Patriots have the personnel to put the Ravens in some very difficult positions on defense.  As always, the best way the Ravens can slow down this high powered passing attack is to generate pressure, and in Tom Brady’s case pressure up the middle.  Regardless, we still think the Ravens defenders are going to be challenged throughout the game.

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