After re-watching the second half of the Patriots-Ravens tilt, passing along some observations and notes.
1. Baltimore opened up the second half with an efficient scoring driving, traveling 80 yards in just eight play and 3:24. The key? Offensive line play. The Ravens controlled the Patriots in the running game, opening up massive holes for Ray Rice to run through, and gave Joe Flacco all sorts of time to operate in the passing game. The Patriots were unable to generate pressure throughout the night, using mostly four rushers from their base defensive alignment.
2. With just under eight minutes left in the third quarter, the Patriots came out in a bunch alignment to the right side, with Deion Branch as the middle receiver in the grouping. Prior to the snap of the ball, it looked as though Branch - a cagey veteran - tipped quarterback Tom Brady off to something the Ravens were showing defensively, which prompted the quarterback to change the formation and the play. Brady ended up hooking up with Brandon Lloyd for a first down on the play, moving the Patriots into a goal-to-go situation. The entire drive was filled with non-verbal communication, which was all impressive, but Branch deserves a particular nod on this play. Though he finished with just 11 yards receiving for the night, Branch's impact on his offense was still significant.
3. As the clock ticked under seven minutes in the third quarter, Flacco hooked up with receiver Torrey Smith for a big gain down the left sideline. The Patriots were in a Cover 2 defense, with safety Patrick Chung responsible for over the top coverage. Chung had retreated back into his Cover 2 shell after intially showing a look as if he were going to be playing in the box, and was too late in getting over to assist cornerback Sterling Moore. Smith was the lone receiver to that side of the field, and it seems as though this was an instance where Chung should have been gaining width sooner than when the ball was thrown. Flacco dropped the pass into what is known as the "honey hole," a difficult area for safeties to typically reach. Nonetheless, Chung still seemed a step behind on this one.
4. Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch was on the receiving end of a gigantic hit from Ravens safety Ed Reed in the third quarter, which was properly ruled as unncessearry roughness, and is the kind of hit that could result in a fine for Reed. Two aspects of that particular play, a third down, stood out. First, Branch's toughness cannot be overlooked; he bounced right back up, and even went as far as to acknowledge Reed with a hand shake so as to say, "I know you weren't trying to anything dirty." On top of that, it was a sign of trust that Brady has with Branch, as the quarterback locked in on his target from the moment the ball was snapped and never veered from Branch.
5. Three players deserve kudos for stuffing the Ravens on a 4th & 1 attempt early in the fourth quarter: defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Jerod Mayo, and safety Patrick Chung. Jones, aligned at right end, strung out left tackle Michael Oher and set the edge, with Mayo shooting the gap and occupying fullback Vonta Leach, leaving a crease for Chung to surge through and stuff running back Bernard Pierce well short of the first down. That's fundamentally sound and aggressive run defense from the Patriots, and sure-fire tackling from Chung.
6. There's a lot that contributes to Wes Welker's ability as a route runner, but one area that stood out in particular on Sunday night was his acceleration and deceleration. Welker is so subtle in his movements, and can speed up and slow down in such a compact area, that it's almost impossible to tell what gear he'll push into at any given time. That made Welker particularly effective in underneath routes against man coverage. The Patriots did well to spread the field and give Welker room to operate, and he had easily his best performance of the season, while also putting to bed some of the questions about his role in the offense.
7. We're of the mind that complaining about officials is a largely a fruitless endeavor, but certainly last night's game was filled with egregious calls. Perhaps one of the worst that went against the Patriots was a holding call against Devin McCourty with just over six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. McCourty looked to have gotten a piece of Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, but it would be difficult to classify the move as a grasp or hold. A non-call would have left the Ravens with a 3rd & 14 from their own 16, an unfavorable spot to be in down nine points and the clock ticking away.
8. In Week 2, the Ravens offense did not attempt to drive the football down the field extensively, which could be a by product of the heavy pressure they faced from the Eagles. That changed on Sunday night, as Joe Flacco looked deep often, particularly to Smith and Jacoby Jones. That appeared to open up space in underneath coverage, where running back Ray Rice proved to be a difficult matchup for the Patriots to contain. Rice finished with 49 receiving yards, many of which came after the catch.
9. Tough night for linebacker Brandon Spikes in pass coverage. That's an area that Spikes has continued to work on throughout the young portion of his career, but his change of direction skills limit him in space. Rice and tight end Dennis Pitta were difficult matchups for Spikes to handle.
10. Elsewhere in the AFC East on Sunday, the Jets defeated the Dolphins in overtime on a field goal from kicker Nick Folk. It was actually the second kick Folk attempted in overtime, as just moments before the game-winner, he had an attempt blocked by the Dolphins. Unfortunately for Miami, head coach Joe Philbin had called timeout prior to the snap (in an attempt to ice Folk), and he had a second shot to make good on the kick. Folk did so, and some wanted to criticize Philbin for the manuever after the game. Though Justin Tucker's field goal to end the Patriots and Ravens tilt was ruled successful, it paid credence to the strategy of icing a kicker, as Bill Belichick elected to use the freeze technique himself. On Tucker's first try (which did not count as the timeout was called on the field), the ball sailed right through the middle of the uprights. The second quick was less secure, traveling just over the right goal post. Point is, there's no right or wrong as it relates to freezing a kicker. Both Philbin and Belichick did what they believed was in the best interest of their teams.