Every week, I hope to bring you a quick Q&A with someone who covers the Ravens’ opponent that week. On Sunday night, the Ravens host the New England Patriots in a rematch of the AFC championship game. Since it’s such a big game for both teams, let’s go with double coverage this week. I chatted with Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe and Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald about a few hot topics entering Sunday night's game.
MV: What is going on with Wes Welker? Julian Edelman replaced him in the starting lineup, but Welker ended up playing a lot after Aaron Hernandez injured his ankle early. Is Welker really being phased out?
SMY: There are a lot of theories about what's going on with Welker, ranging from plausible to ridiculous. Edelman did have a strong camp and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him on the field more -- but he has been on the field at the expense of Welker, which is the surprising part. Welker is not injured, so that is not playing a role. Even he seems to not be sure exactly what is going on -- you would think that if the Patriots were simply trying to keep him on a pitch count for the early part of the season to keep him fresh for the latter half of the regular season and playoffs that they would have told him that, and to my knowledge they haven't. Since he played in nearly 90 percent of the offensive snaps last season, that could be it. Could the Patriots be testing Edelman to see if he'll be a viable replacement next season if they cut ties with Welker? Possible. It's even possible -- though it would be sinister -- if they were deliberately keeping his numbers low to hurt his value on the open market. That also would go against Bill Belichick's mantra of always doing what's best for the team, and playing Welker is what's best for the team. With Hernandez on the shelf, and the offense now needing Welker, we may not know how much longer they would have kept his snaps down.
JH: It's one of the strangest storylines surrounding this team in recent memory. There are plenty of theories and few answers, if any. Is it a punishment for the contract negotiations? Are they trying to reduce his value for next season? Are they trying to trade him? Are they phasing him out, or preparing for life without him after this season? Really, who knows? Edelman hasn't beaten him out, and he's not a better run blocker, so those theories are weak. And it would go against everything Bill Belichick preaches to think he'd keep him off the field due to spite over the contract struggle. It really might be an experiment to see how much they've really got with Edelman. But even still, that's a dangerous line to walk, and Belichick further opens himself to criticism when Welker isn't on the field for the start of a game that turned into a surprising loss.
MV: What did the Arizona Cardinals do for the first three quarters of last weekend’s game that stalled Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, and why wasn't Rob Gronkowski more involved until the final quarter?
JH: It was simple and all-encompassing. The Patriots' offensive line couldn't block anyone, and Brady was uncomfortable all game. Brady only got into a rhythm in the fourth quarter when he used quick drops and passes. Even some of those plays were contested. The offensive line is a major issue with this team.
SMY: The Cardinals did just what Belichick said they would do, starting with being disruptive on the defensive line. Darnell Dockett got a hand on Tom Brady's first pass attempt, and Patrick Peterson made an acrobatic interception; Dockett in particular also took advantage of backup right guard Donald Thomas. Not sure what happened with Gronkowski. Taking nothing away from the Cardinals' performance, there was also some questionable offensive play-calling in the game from Josh McDaniels, and the Patriots didn't really use the no-huddle, which has been highly effective in recent years, until they were down by eight points well into the fourth quarter.
MV: Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones really stood out in the Cardinals game. There is some local interest in Chandler because his brother, Art, plays for the Ravens. I actually did a feature on their family back in January and Chandler told me the NFL advisory board told him he would likely be a third-round draft pick. Are you surprised he has been this good this quickly, and what does he do well in particular?
SMY: What's surprising is that Jones has been this good this quickly. The big knock on him coming out of Syracuse was that he might not be strong enough initially to deal with the mammoth left tackles he'd be facing, and many saw him following a Jason Pierre-Paul type path; he'd be used situationally for his first year or two until he really got his strength up, and then he'd become more of an every-down player. But from Day One in training camp Jones has been on the field for all three downs, his strength hasn't been an issue, and he still has great speed, which is what he is most successful with right now. He has good moves and a variety of them to get himself away from tackles.
JH: Jones has been great. I was surprised that he was able to contribute so quickly in training camp, as it took him less than a week to be on the field with the first-team defense. Then he just kept making plays. He's been labeled as a pass rusher due to his position on the end of the line -- and he does that well, for sure -- but Jones stays on the field because he's a three-down player. He is very good against the run, too. He keeps containment and works off his block with ease, which is scary for a rookie. Jones is a good one right now, and he's got a chance to be great.
MV: If, as expected, Aaron Hernandez doesn't play, how will that affect the offense? Specifically, will that affect Gronkowski's role in any way? The Ravens had no answer for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek last weekend, and there is a lot of concern about Gronkowski doing damage against them, too.
JH: Hernandez won't play Sunday, and he probably won't be on the field for about a month. The loss will certainly impact the Patriots' offense, but they do have enough weapons to offset the injury, providing Brady has enough time to throw. I put together a thorough breakdown in Friday's paper of the way they've used Hernandez, the significance of his loss and the way the Patriots must counter it. Here is a link to that story.
SMY: The Patriots seemingly put a lot of eggs into the Hernandez basket coming into the season, which was a potentially high-reward move that came with some risk since he had missed time in each of his first two seasons. Hernandez really could play a starring role in this offense because he lines up everywhere, so replacing him is not as simple as swapping one guy in when he goes out. They do have Daniel Fells, signed as a free agent in March, but who hasn't played yet to do an offseason shin issue. If Fells is ready to go, he may be able to help, and Deion Branch, re-signed this week, can also help. Gronkowski could be asked to block a bit more than usual if there are still O-line concerns, but he should be used because he's still a matchup problem who can help New England move the ball. Before his ankle injury against Baltimore in the AFC championship game, Gronkowski had five catches for 87 yards.
MV: The loss to the Eagles gave them more immediate things to worry about, but obviously the Ravens will have revenge on their minds after the AFC championship game. There is a lot of bad blood between these two teams after some hard-fought games over the past few seasons. How do the Patriots view this rivalry, and is this the kind of game that they also circled on their calendars when the schedule was released?
SMY: No one here would admit it if they did have this game circled. But Tom Brady has a great deal of respect for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, as does Bill Belichick, and the players know that this will be a very physical game. This is such a young team that there were only four current Patriots on the roster for that memorable 2007 Monday night game (Brady, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork and Stephen Gostkowski), and over a dozen members of the current 53-man roster weren't with the team for the AFC title game just eight months ago.
JH: The Patriots definitely view this as a rivalry. Rob Gronkowski was among the handful of players who specifically referred to the Ravens as rivals this week. It's obviously not Pats-Jets or Ravens-Steelers, but this is one of the game's best young rivalries, and the Patriots know it. They're looking forward to a physical game, and it's going to serve as a measuring stick early in the season. Despite the Patriots having the majority of the success between the two teams, the players who lost that 2009 playoff game were ticked with the Ravens' trash talking in the tunnel after the game, so it's always going to be personal for those guys.