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Patriots defensive line looks to avoid being cut down by Ravens zone-blocking scheme

01.07.15 at 4:07 pm ET
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Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots defensive front will face a unique challenge this Saturday in the Ravens zone-blocking scheme. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots defensive front will face a unique challenge this Saturday in the Ravens zone-blocking scheme. (Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — This week, the Patriots will be going against a Ravens’€™ offensive line that utilizes a zone-blocking scheme. The zone-blocking front operates differently than many traditional lines in that the focus is on clearing lanes and specific spaces as opposed to blocking individual defensive linemen. The goal is to create lanes for a running back or quarterback. In this system, quickness, coordination and technique often trump size and strength.

It’s a philosophy backed by Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who implemented the system when he was an offensive coordinator in Denver and a head coach in Houston. It’s a system that Bill Belichick has schemed against several times over the years.

It’s also an approach that not all defensive linemen are crazy about, because it also calls for cut blocking — a move that calls for offensive linemen to occasionally dive at a defenders knees in hopes of taking him out of the play. It’s a completely legal maneuver, but one that could ultimately be addressed sooner-rather-than-later in the name of player safety.

When asked Tuesday if Baltimore utilizes cut blocks, Belichick flashed a small smile.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” he replied.

“The same offense they ran in Denver, the same offense they ran in Houston is the same offense Kubiak runs in Baltimore,” he added. “So, all the characteristics from those other teams are the same characteristics in Baltimore.”

When asked about the challenge of facing a zone-blocking scheme this week in the Ravens, veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said the first thing you look for are the cut blocks, utilized primarily in hopes of springing running back Justin Forsett.

“Facing a team like this, they cut block,” he said. “And then, also, they make the play-action pass look the same exact way. That’s probably one of the hardest things to figure out during the course of the play is if it’s a [bootleg] or if it’s a run. And they make it look exactly the same, so that’s a credit to them.

“It’s always challenging to face a team that runs this type of an offense, just because there are so many things that they can do off of it with the cut blocks, with the play-action pass, trying to get the ball vertical, not knowing where the running back is going to cut,” he added. “So, it gives their offense a lot of different areas that they can actually create lanes up front. So, we’re going to have to do a real good job up front of just playing good technique.”

In his first season as a starter with the Ravens, Forsett has done very well. Serving as a multidimensional threat, the Cal product ended the season with 235 carries for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns, and became the only running back in the NFL to finish with at least 1,200 rushing yards and average at least five yards per carry (5.4). The 5-foot-8, 197-pounder also has 44 catches on 59 targets for 263 yards.

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Gary Kubiak

Class in class: Matthew Slater says Ravens ‘really play the game the right way’

01.07.15 at 2:30 pm ET
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Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh have met several times in the past. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh have met several times in the past. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — For all the hyped-up feuding between Terrell Suggs and Tom Brady and the trash-talking of Steve Smith, Matthew Slater provides the other end of the spectrum in the great rivalry the Patriots and Ravens have shared in the last six years.

Respect. And for Slater, the mutual respect starts with the head coaches and front offices, namely Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh.

On Wednesday, Slater, who has seen all three previous playoff meetings between the two since Jan. 2010, characterized the rivalry.

“It’€™s a special matchup,” Slater said. “I think that organization and what they do there, they really play the game the right way. They coach it the right way. Organizationally, they have good leadership. Obviously their coach is one of the better coaches in this league and we feel strongly about our program over here. So, you have two programs that try to approach this game and play it a certain way and as a result you get a physical, well-played football game usually when these two teams matchup. It’€™s going to be a battle. It always has been. We have to get ourselves ready for the challenge.

And how, exactly, is ‘playing the right way’ defined?

“I think playing disciplined, playing together, playing hard; preparation,” Slater added. “You can tell when teams are prepared. I think they do all of those things. It starts at the top obviously and it goes on down through the ranks. They certainly have all those attributes as a football team.”

For Slater, he and the Patriots will appreciate the rivalry and the game Saturday if they make a big play early on special teams against another team that takes pride in its own special teams.

“We feel it’€™s important that we go out and set the tone,” Slater said. “Obviously we’€™re the first play of the game. I think it’€™s important in a game like this where the teams are so evenly matched, if you can gain an edge in that third phase, it can make a huge difference. I think if we can go out and set the tone early, it would be big for us. We know they’€™re going to be ready to go. We know Jacoby is going to be ready to go. We have to match their intensity and hopefully come out and start well.

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Baltimore Ravens, Matthew Slater, New England Patriots

Why containing Jacoby Jones Saturday is ‘priority No. 1′ for Matthew Slater, Patriots

01.07.15 at 2:17 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Matthew Slater knows explosive game-changing players when he sees them. So does Bill Belichick.

For both, the special teams weapon known as Jacoby Jones will be a priority when it comes to game-planning Saturday night against the Ravens.

Jones has returned three kickoffs in his career for 108 yards and a touchdown. One came two years ago in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII that helped the Ravens build a big lead and eventually hold on for a world championship win over the San Francisco 49ers.

Slater, the special teams captain, was asked if Jones has the rare ability to change a game all by himself and if that worries the Patriots special teams unit.

“Without question,” Slater said. “There’s no other combo returner in the league like him. He poses a lot of problems with his size and speed. You look across the board, there’s not too many guys like that. And anytime he touches the ball we have to have a sense of urgency because he can hit a home run at anytime. So he is definitely priority number one. We’ve got to do a good job with him.”

Like Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh comes from a special teams background. Slater sees an extremely high level of execution in the Ravens’ special teams unit ever since Harbaugh took over in 2008.

“I think not only this season but over the course of my career playing against these guys, they’re one of the better coached, more disciplined, more physical units that we will see over the course of the season,” Slater said. “And it’s no different this year. These guys play the game the right way. You can tell they’re well-coached. You can tell they take a lot of pride in what they do over there and certainly they have some players that are special. They are a great unit.”

What was clear Wednesday in listening to Slater is the urgency with which the Patriots are treating their preparations this week.

“It means everything. When it comes down to all the work that we’ve put in since the offseason to get to this point. This is why you play the game,” Slater said. “I truly believe this is the ultimate team sport. You work so hard as a team to get to this point in the season and you can’t take it for granted. There are eight teams left. We’re really fortunate to be in the position we’re in and hopefully we can do everything we can to take advantage of our opportunity.”

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Baltimore Ravens, Jacoby Jones, Matthew Slater

Julian Edelman on missing last 2 games: ‘What happened in December happened in December, it’s January’

01.07.15 at 1:51 pm ET
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Tom Brady will likely get one of his favorite receivers in Julian Edelman back this week. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Tom Brady will likely get one of his favorite receivers in Julian Edelman back this week. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman missed the last two games of the regular season with a concussion — the first games he’s missed since the 2012 season.

The 28-year-old spoke for the first time since suffering the injury on Wednesday, but didn’t want to talk about the past, as he is all about the Ravens.

“What I experienced is in the past,” said Edelman. “I am worrying about the Baltimore Ravens. I am looking forward to that experience on Saturday.”

“What happened in December happened in December, it’s January,” he added. “We’ve taken this last week and these last few days and tried to take advantage of them preparing ourselves and making ourselves better. You take last week and you self-scout and you do everything you can to make your strengths stronger and weaknesses better and we start this week — we find out who we’re playing, which is Baltimore and we go and try and get after what we have to do against them. That is what we’ve been doing and we have a couple more days of doing it.”

Edelman finished the 2014 season with 92 catches for 972 yards and four touchdowns. His 92 receptions were fourth in the AFC, even with missing two games. With Edelman out of the lineup, the Patriots’ offense struggled a bit — scoring only 17 points against the Jets in Week 16 and nine points against the Bills in Week 17.

The shifty receiver said it was hard watching from afar.

“Anytime you don’t get to go out and play with your teammates it’s tough, especially during the year, preparing for the postseason,” said Edelman. “All that is in the past and I am looking forward to today preparing for the Ravens and this game.”

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Julian Edelman,

Perfect attendance at Patriots practice Wednesday

01.07.15 at 12:36 pm ET
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The Patriots braved the cold and practiced on the game field at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s divisional round game against the Ravens. Every player on the 53-man roster and practice squad was in attendance at the start of practice.

The practice was held in sweats and shells in 24 degree weather, with a wind chill of 11.

There will be an injury report posted later this afternoon for the first time this week — along with tomorrow and Friday.

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Patriots practice,

Stretch drive: Patriots defense has been great late, but it’ll face a sizable challenge Saturday from Ravens

01.07.15 at 8:50 am ET
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Darrelle Revis and the rest of the Patriots defense have been stingy down the stretch. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Darrelle Revis and the rest of the Patriots defense have been stingy down the stretch. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO –€” No defense has featured a better closing act than this season than the Patriots.

Over the last seven games of the regular season, the Patriots yielded 22 second-half points and one second-half touchdown, the best second-half numbers of any New England defense over the last five seasons. By way of comparison, last year’€™s team allowed 96 second-half points over the last seven games of the season. The previous low came in 2011 and 2010, when the Patriots allowed 49 second-half points in the seven games down the stretch, a series of games that saw four different teams hit double-digits in the second half against New England.

For what it’€™s worth, the last second-half touchdown the Patriots allowed in the last seven regular-season games was a fluky touchdown catch from Indy offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo, who was working as an extra tight end in a goal-one package. The last offensive skill position player to post a second-half touchdown against New England came two days after Halloween, when Denver running back Ronnie Hillman caught a third-quarter touchdown pass from Peyton Manning in a 43-21 win over the Broncos.

It’€™s an impressive run –€” according to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, no team in the last 25 years has featured a better finishing kick than the 2014 Patriots. The last team to post such a record run of defensive dominance in the second half of games of the last six games of the regular season was the 1989 Redskins, who allowed a measly 10 points total in the second half of their final six games. That was enough to take them from 5-5 to 10-6 at the end of the season, a year where they finished out of the postseason.

The Patriots are hoping for a slightly better end to their year. Considering they’€™re facing one of the best second-half scoring teams in the league on Saturday, they should be in for a sizable challenge. The Ravens put 237 second-half points on the board in 2014, second only to the 240 posted by the Broncos over the third and fourth quarter during the regular season. Specifically, the biggest challenge figures to come in the fourth quarter: Baltimore’€™s 146 fourth-quarter points are second to the 148 fourth-quarter points posted by the Saints in the regular season. The Patriots ended the year as the second-stingiest team when it came to fourth-quarter scoring –€” New England’€™s 62 points allowed in the final frame were second only to the 51 fourth-quarter points yielded by the Chiefs.

In the end, the ability to play a good four quarters on both sides of the ball will determine who is worthy of heading to the AFC title game and who will be heading home for the year. But stats certainly suggest that the team who might be the best down the stretch could have an edge on Saturday afternoon.

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Baltimore Ravens,

Patriots offensive line at full strength vital to offense, Tom Brady’s success

01.07.15 at 7:00 am ET
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Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman — three very important pieces to the Patriots’ offense, but are they the most important?

Not be to overlooked is the Patriots’ offensive line, especially with the group likely getting back to full strength this week against Baltimore, as Dan Connolly is set to return. This will be especially important going against a Ravens defense, which finished second in the regular season in sacks with 49.

“I’€™m just excited to be back at practice,” Connolly said Tuesday after missing the last two games with a knee injury. “I’€™m going to do my best to work in and try to get as healthy as I can. But it’€™s good to be back out.”

All indications are the Patriots will get their starting offensive line back this week — (left tackle to right tackle) Nate Solder, Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer.

Just how important is a healthy offense line for the Patriots offense and Brady to be successful?

  • Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell, Vollmer (7-1 record) — Weeks 5, 8-14: Brady: 214-320 (66.9 percent), 2,433 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INTs, 103.6 QB rating, 4 sacks
  • Any combination besides above (5-3 record) — Weeks 1-4, 6, 7, 15, 16: Brady: 160-263 (60.8 percent), 1,675 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs, 89.8 QB rating, 17 sacks

It’s pretty clear having the starting offensive line together makes a huge difference for the offense, as well as Brady in a number of different ways. The biggest difference is sacks. In the same number of games (eight) there is a 13 sack difference between when the starting offensive line is playing and when they are not. In games not started by the regular offensive line, Brady has been sacked multiple times in five of the eight, and four times twice. In games started by the starting offensive line, they haven’t allowed a multiple sack game and had four games allowing zero sacks, which will be especially important this weekend against a strong Ravens defense.

“They’€™re great,” Connolly said of the Ravens’ pass rush. “[Elvis] Dumervil has got 19 sacks. They do a great job of getting to the quarterback. We’€™ve faced a lot of good D-lines this season. That’€™s nothing new in the NFL. It’€™s a lot of pressure on us to do a good job. That’€™s what we try to do every week. It’€™s our job to make sure Tom [Brady] stays upright, so that’€™s what we’€™re going to try to do this week, too.”

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Bryan Stork, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder



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