W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
10:30
AM ET
In a clash of projected AFC playoff heavyweights, the Patriots will travel to Baltimore on Sunday night for a matchup with the Ravens.

RavensPatriotsThe game pits a pair of 1-1 teams, each coming off a stinging loss in Week 2. The prospect of entering Week 4 at 1-2 is something neither side anticipated coming into the season, rendering this game among the most intriguing of the weekend.

The teams also are roughly eight months removed from a narrow AFC Championship Game that propelled the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI while leaving the Ravens wondering what could have been, as a ball sailed left off the foot of kicker Billy Cundiff in the waning moments.

Both teams appear to have effectively put 2011 in the past and are laser-focused on this week's game.

As kickoff draws closer, here are the five things we'll be watching for.

1. Retooled passing attack? The Patriots lost not only the game in Week 2, but also their most versatile offensive weapon in tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is expected to miss Sunday's contest with an ankle injury. With Hernandez out and Deion Branch and Kellen Winslow in, the Patriots might feature a retooled passing attack. Branch is well-versed in Josh McDaniels' system, having spent the entire offseason picking it up, but Winslow presents sort of an unknown, as he'll have had just three days of practice under his belt before kickoff. Beyond the immersion of these two into the game plan, it's worth monitoring how the Patriots structure their passing attack as a whole. Could Hernandez's absence result in a bigger role for Wes Welker?

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaIs wide receiver Wes Welker being "phased out" of Bill Belichick's game plan in New England?
2. Speaking of Welker ... Although he saw an uptick in his snaps during Week 2, the role Welker will play in Week 3 and going forward remains a storyline of note. His increased workload last week could have been a direct result of the Hernandez injury or a part of the team's game plan, which is subject to change by the week. Might Welker reassume a role we witnessed him in during 2011 and previous seasons this week, now that the Patriots are shuffling parts on offense? Or will he continue to play a role similar to what we've seen in the first two weeks of the season? Thus far, Welker has been used to push the field vertically quite a bit, and less so as an at- or near-the-line-of-scrimmage receiver catching bubble and tear screens. Perhaps the team could re-employ Welker in that role, as early as this week.

3. Defending the no-huddle. Yes, the team that receives more attention for its no-huddle/up-tempo offensive attack in this matchup is certainly the Patriots, but the Ravens have found life and production out of their no-huddle offense this season. Weapons of note include wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, and tight end Dennis Pitta, who often aligns split out and has been targeted more than any other tight end thus far in football. Never to be overlooked is running back Ray Rice, a dynamic receiver and runner out of the backfield.

4. Beware of middle of Ravens defense. Bill Belichick made it clear during his Wednesday news conference that three players -- defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed -- fortify the middle of the Ravens' defense. The coach has been particularly effusive in his praise of Reed in the past but stressed that all three, and the Ravens' defense as a whole, compose an extremely formidable group. The interior of the Cardinals' defensive line was disruptive this past Sunday, and the Patriots will need to be strong across the offensive line to ensure that Tom Brady has ample time to throw.

5. Handling a hostile environment. Traveling to Baltimore isn't easy for any opponent, as the Ravens boast one of football's most boisterous home crowds, which likely will escalate its support under the lights of a nationally televised, prime-time game. The Patriots, in particular their offense, will be forced to deal with the ambient crowd noise, which could lead Tom Brady & Co. to rely on nonverbal communication at the line of scrimmage. Oddly enough, despite the number of marquee matchups between the two teams in recent seasons, the Patriots have traveled to Baltimore just once to face the Ravens, a 27-24 victory in 2007. They'll look for a repeat result this Sunday.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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