- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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Wrapping up with our final installment of picked-up pieces from a film review. Here's a look at the second half of the AFC Championship.
1. The Ravens struggled to convert third downs to start the first half, but executed on a third-and-9 on their opening drive of the second half. The first conversion came on a throw from Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin, who was being covered by veteran Marquice Cole out of the slot. Boldin ran a flag pattern and went up to find the football at the point of catch, with Cole falling down alongside of him. Cole had even leverage on the play at the snap, but Boldin beat him to the outside. Cole was able to catch up, but wasn't in much of a position to adjust to the ball. Could his technique have been better? Yes, but credit Flacco for putting the ball in a place that Boldin had the inside track toward.
2. Entering the game, there might have been some thought that Torrey Smith matching up against Alfonzo Dennard would be an advantage for Baltimore, with Smith's blazing speed and size edge. But Dennard held his own on Sunday, showing a good ability to be physical at the line of scrimmage in his jams, while also not falling off of his line in his backpedal and sticking to a receiver. Smith was kept in relative check, catching four passes for 69 yards, and Dennard's effort was a part of slowing the speedster down.
3. Interesting defensive wrinkle on the play that many have looked to as a defining moment of the game: Wes Welker's third quarter drop on third-and-7 inside Ravens territory. As it turns out, the Ravens were running a fire zone in which they sent four rushers in a disguised scheme, one of which was a safety, the other of which was a linebacker. To compensate for the blitzers, they dropped defensive lineman Haloti Ngata into coverage. Ngata was the closest man to tight end Aaron Hernandez on the play, who like Welker was open for would-be first down yardage. The fact that Ngata was even called upon to be used as a space coverage player speaks to his physical traits.
4. We highlighted linebacker coverage deficiencies in our first-half notes, and on Monday Bill Belichick talked about his defense not doing well in second-and-long situations. With just less than 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, the Patriots brought pressure via a Steve Gregory blitz, leaving Brandon Spikes in coverage of tight end Dennis Pitta. Pitta gave Spikes a shake at the top of a middle seam route, buying himself plenty of space for a first down. The Patriots may decide this offseason that they need to upgrade their sub defense with a coverage linebacker to play alongside Jerod Mayo. Pitta would later shake Gregory at the top of his route for a touchdown.
5. While linebacker coverage in man-to-man defense needs improvement, credit rookie Dont'a Hightower's instincts to defend screen passes. He routinely sniffed them out throughout the season, and did so on a first-and-10 play with 4:44 left in the third quarter. The Ravens had a screen set up for Ray Rice, who was aligned in a receiver's split outside. Hightower pursued Rice before his linemen had a chance to get out in front of the play, knocking him down for a loss. Hightower did plenty well as a rookie, and should continue to improve in 2013.
6. Brandon Lloyd was productive in his first season with the Patriots, but one notable area of his game was his lack of run-after-catch yards. It's something for him to build on this offseason, although he did have a catch in the fourth quarter in which he ran a comeback route towards Brady, swiveled outside towards the sidelines, and hustled upfield for a first down. Part of Lloyd's lack of yards after catch this season were when and where he caught the football, as he did not have the middle of the field to work with on most occasions. Nonetheless, he can improve as an open-field runner.
7. Another oft-discussed play since Sunday has been Brady deciding to throw the football on fourth-and-4 with 8:28 left to play rather than attempting to scramble for a first down. It's easy to say in hindsight, but the left side of the field had been cleared by the Patriots' offensive routes, leaving Brady enough room to break free, despite his below average speed. What prevailed as a theme in watching the game over is that the Patriots offense failed to finish drives on Sunday. That sounds like oversimplification, but it's something the offense did well throughout the year, yet not on Sunday.
8. The Patriots still had a chance to mount a comeback with less than eight minutes to play in the game, and got things rolling with a big gainer from Brady to Welker. The Ravens appeared to have man-to-man coverage with a single high safety over the top for deep protection purposes, and Welker absolutely toasted a defensive back at the top of his route. It looks like the defensive back was expecting Welker to break his route off and work underneath towards the middle of the field, but Welker pressed vertically and was wide open in the seam for Brady to hit him. Unfortunately, the Patriots weren't able to finish the drive, with a Brady interception on the next play.
9. Credit where it's due, Ravens version: on a third-and-1 play with 5:19 to go in the fourth quarter, the Ravens handed the ball off to Rice, who ran over the right side of his line for just more than the 1 yard needed. Right tackle Michael Oher made a key block on the play, washing down Vince Wilfork just enough to take him out of the play. Moving Wilfork off his spot is a tall order for two men trying to execute a double team, and for Oher to make it happen by himself is a successful assignment. That first down basically ended the Patriots' hopes for a last-gasp effort to come back.
10. Credit where it's due, Patriots version: Though the result wasn't what they hoped for, a few players deserve credit for stepping up on Sunday (this is just a sampling, not every player who played well). Cornerback Kyle Arrington held his own in replacing Aqib Talib, including a pass break-up. Ryan Wendell capped off an excellent season at center with another steady performance, and punter Zoltan Mesko helped the Patriots control the field position battle in the first half. Finally, the kickoff coverage team was very good just a week after having its worst day of the year.
EXTRA POINT: As this is our final film review entry of the season, we wanted to take a moment to thank you all for reading and sharing your feedback. With a help from the Game Rewind program at NFL.com, we've enjoyed diving into the X's and O's with you all this season, and look forward to more of the same in 2013.
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