The New England defense that will greet the Ravens on Sunday isn’t just different from the one they played in last year’s AFC championship game; it’s different from the one they dropped 31 points on back in Week 3.
The Patriots have made major changes in their secondary, none bigger than the midseason trade for talented but troubled cornerback Aqib Talib. Three rookies at prominent positions have 14 more games under their belts. And with improved personnel came an altered approach, as the Patriots are much more aggressive.
“They are much improved, even this season, on defense,” tight end Dennis Pitta said Monday. “They’re playing well, they’re playing aggressive, and they’ve got a lot of talent. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Sure, only three teams allowed more passing yards this season, and they allowed the eighth-most yards during the regular season. That is still similar to last season, when the Patriots asked a slot receiver, Julian Edelman, to play nickel cornerback and chase Anquan Boldin around on the final drive of the AFC title game.
But the Patriots have harassed quarterbacks and ball-carriers through the season. They picked off 20 passes during the regular season, and -- attention Ray Rice -- they recovered a league-high 21 fumbles. With their 41 takeaways, the Patriots ranked first in the AFC and second to only the ball-hawking Chicago Bears.
The Patriots have been forcing turnovers all season long. That’s what happens when lesser quarterbacks try to keep pace with Tom Brady and company, fall behind and then eventually have to start forcing the issue. Then, on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Patriots get the green line to pummel the quarterback.
But they are blitzing more since Talib was inserted in their starting lineup in Week 11. A former first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Talib has oodles of talent. But the new regime in Tampa Bay didn’t feel like putting up with his off-the-field nonsense and made him expendable. He had an instant impact in Foxborough, picking off Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 11 and taking it to the house.
"He is a great corner. He is a playmaker," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, who outplayed a great corner in Denver's Champ Bailey on Saturday. "He is more of a man-coverage guy, but they kind of do more zone stuff up there. I'm sure he is versatile and can do a little bit of both. It will be a nice challenge for us."
That has been the most notable of many personnel changes in the secondary. The Patriots had another new starter, rookie Alfonzo Dennard, at cornerback in their win over the Houston Texans in the AFC divisional round. Steve Gregory, who started at free safety back in Week 3, is now the strong safety. Devin McCourty, who started at cornerback against the Ravens during the regular season, has become their starting free safety.
(Oh, and Sterling Moore, the guy who stripped Lee Evans late in the AFC championship game, has been cut. No, he wasn’t a great player, but it is interesting that both are now elsewhere.)
Of course, what happens in the trenches will also play a role in the outcome. The Patriots still have Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork plugging the middle, though the Ravens neutralized him in the Week 3 win. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich has a nose for the ball and a penchant for making big plays once he gets to it. Led by Wilfork, the Patriots are stout against the run, ranking ninth in the NFL during the regular season.
The Patriots have also gotten major contributions from their two first-round draft picks, defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, though Jones, the brother of Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones, left Sunday’s win over the Texans with an injury. Hightower and Jones combined for 10 sacks and 105 tackles during their rookie season. Hightower in particular has really been coming on strong in recent weeks.
“Ninkovich, obviously, he flashes, making great plays at great times,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “He’s always going hard. We’ll have to keep him blocked and all those guys up front. They play well as a group, and they’ve made big plays when they’ve needed them. The rookie on their left side [Jones], he’s playing well, too. It’s another test for us, and obviously, we understand what we have to get done. There’s really nothing else.”
The Ravens should be able to move the ball against the aggressive Patriots, but the keys will be avoiding turnovers -- which give Brady extra opportunities, usually with a shorter field, to do his thing -- and scoring points when they near the red zone. That won’t be easy, as the Patriots ranked ninth in the league in points allowed at 20.7 per game during the regular season and were in the middle of the pack in red-zone defense.
“We know how potent their offensive can be, so we know we have to be able to put up some points against them, and that will be our challenge this week,” said Pitta, who pointed out that the Ravens are different, too.
Not as different as those Patriots, though.
*** Blogger's note: When I first wrote this post, I said that Lee Evans and Sterling Moore were both out of football. I was wrong. Moore finished the season in Dallas. My bad on that mistake.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times