With the season concluding, our normal day-after-game routine has been slightly altered. We digested the immediate reactions following the Patriots' AFC Championship Game loss, and we'll take some time today to put a bow on the game.
With that in mind, here are some picked-up pieces from a first-half review:
1. Leading up to the game, a matchup of note was Sebastian Vollmer blocking Ravens defensive end Paul Kruger. Kruger exploded in the second half of the season, and has 10 sacks in his last 11 games. On the final play of the Patriots' opening-drive, it was Kruger who disrupted the pocket and forced Tom Brady to make a throw down the field that was narrowly out of the grasp of Wes Welker. The Ravens rushed just four players on the play, while the Patriots countered with six-man protection. Kruger was the only player able to generate penetration, using an inside counter move to get around Vollmer. The Ravens had double coverage on three of four Patriot receivers, and Welker came up just short on Brady's attempt. Though he was held without a sack, Kruger was again a presence.
2. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich was probably the best defensive player on the field for the Patriots on Sunday, and was once again in the right place at the right time on the final play of the Ravens' opening drive. Baltimore came out with a bunch formation to Ninkovich's side of the field, and he hovered over Anquan Boldin, one of the most physical receivers in the NFL. At the snap, Ninkovich managed to jam Boldin and press to gain outside leverage, seeing a swing pass coming to running back Ray Rice. The throw from Joe Flacco was just slightly off the mark, forcing an incompletion, which may have been for the better, as Ninkovich was waiting to bottle up Rice short of the line of scrimmage.
3. On a second-and 2 with less than 10 minutes to play in the first quarter, the Patriots missed out on what looked like a potential big gainer. Brady was under center, with two tight ends to his left and Welker aligned to the slot on his right. Brady used a play fake moving to his left with Stevan Ridley, with the entire offensive line stepping left to simulate a zone blocking scheme. Brady quickly pivoted back towards his right, where Welker had run a horizontal button hook. The right side of the Patriots' offensive line sprinted towards Welker, setting up a convoy of lead blockers to escort him down the field, but Brady came up way short on the throw. Bill Belichick addressed a series of missed opportunities on Monday following the game, and plays like this one were emblematic of his comment. (The Patriots did later run the play successfully, it should be noted).
4. We've used this space before to talk about how there appear to be times when the Patriots' offense moves too fast for its own good in short yardage situations. That appeared to be the case again on the Patriots' second drive, as on a third-and-2 from the Ravens' 12, Brady hustled the offense to the line to use Ridley on a plunging attempt for the first down. In between second and third down, the Ravens ushered Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, their two biggest bodies, onto the field, and they were used to crash interior gaps and disrupt the play. It paid off, as Ridley was stuffed for a short loss. This is a case where patience could've paid off for the Patriots.
5. It's too soon to know what will happen with Welker this offseason, as he is set to become a free agent and would be due $11.4 million if he were to once again receive the franchise tag. But one theme from Sunday's game that stood out was the effectiveness of tight end Aaron Hernandez as an underneath, slot receiver. The two are clearly different players, but if Welker were to move on, one way in which the offense could transition in 2013 is to incorporate Hernandez into a similar role that he had on Sunday. He finished with nine catches for 83 yards, and also had one carry for six yards.
6. The Patriots' pass defense did well to stop the vertical passing game of the Ravens, but it was exposed in the middle of the field, where linebackers and safeties seemed to have some struggles. The Ravens' first third-down conversion came on a third-and-4 play at the beginning of the second quarter in which tight end Dennis Pitta was left alone in the middle of the field. Baltimore aligned with a bunch formation to Flacco's left, and the Patriots countered with man coverage. A communication or coverage gaffe took place, as both Steve Gregory and Kyle Arrington picked up receiver Tandon Doss, leaving Pitta wide open for the easy catch. Between coverage breakdowns and personnel mismatches, the middle of the field was the Ravens' area to own on Sunday.
7. Red-zone offense was a deciding factor on Sunday, as the Ravens got it done inside the 20 and the Patriots didn't. The first Ravens touchdown of the day capped off a 90-yard drive, and ended in a Ray Rice off-tackle run that should never have reached the end zone. Jerod Mayo had an uncharacteristic missed tackle, while linebacker Dont'a Hightower also missed a tackle after doing a sufficient job setting the edge. The margin for error is too slim to afford missed tackles near the goal line.
8. We saw it back in Week 16 against Jacksonville, and we saw it again on Sunday on Welker's second-quarter touchdown: a rub concept to generate space near the goal-line. Welker motioned towards the formation before the snap, ending up stacked behind Brandon Lloyd to Brady's right. At the snap, Lloyd pressed outwards for a step before slanting back inside, while Welker ran a speed out towards the near pylon. The inwards-outwards concept is a difficult one for defenses playing man coverage near the goal line to handle, as natural congestion occurs with the two-man route.
9. Going up against Bryant McKinnie, all of 6-foot-8 and 354 pounds, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Ninkovich was going to have to find a way to overcome the size differential. On his first of two sacks of the day, Ninkovich used a speed move off the line of scrimmage, racing upfield and forcing McKinnie to turn his shoulders towards the sideline, opening the door for Ninkovich to eventually work back inside when Flacco stepped up in the pocket. The speed-to-power move resulted in Ninkovich corralling Flacco in the pocket, and giving the Patriots a final drive in the first half.
10. Sharing just a couple of thoughts on the final sequence of the first half: Hernandez should've gone out of bounds after catching a Brady pass on third-and-10, which would have allowed the Patriots to preserve two of their three timeouts. Nonetheless, with 26 seconds to play and 10 yards to go, there's no reason the Patriots could not have run three plays and left one second on the clock for a field goal. With a reduced field, red-zone plays don't drain as much time on the clock as plays in the middle of the field, and even Brady's scramble ate up just seven seconds. Brady admitted the day after the game that he should've taken the timeout upon the slide, and there's no two ways about it. The Patriots needed to do exactly that to at least give themselves a shot at the end zone for seven points rather than three.