For the Ravens to win their first regular-season game over the New England Patriots on Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge is convinced they'll need a heavy diet of nickel defense against quarterback Tom Brady.
Both teams are coming off losses heading into this AFC title game rematch.
So far, Brady has completed 51 of 77 passes for 552 yards, three touchdowns and one interception for a 94.7 quarterback rating.
"I'm interested to see how the Ravens choose to match up with them," Hoge, an ESPN analyst, told The Baltimore Sun in a telephone interview. "The Titans and Cardinals stayed in nickel personnel the entire game. That gave the Patriots all kinds of problems. The Ravens aren't the same without Terrell Suggs, so they don't pose as much of a problem to the Patriots' offense because they don't have to take care of Suggs. That's a nightmare in itself.
"Brady's not in any kind of rhythm right now. The injury to Aaron Hernandez [sprained ankle] took him back to the shotgun. Where's Wes Welker? They're having a hard time being consistent. They used to go to Welker on first down, now it's more third down. They've got a lot to do to establish a rhythm."
Offensively, Hoge foresees a challenge for the Ravens because of the Patriots' defensive improvement that includes talented rookie starters in defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Donta' Hightower.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo paces the Patriots with 24 tackles followed by linebacker Brandon Spikes' 14 tackles and one forced fumble.
Jones has 11 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles. And Hightower has 13 tackles, one fumble recovery for a touchdown.
"They're much better now," Hoge said. "They're got a lot more athletic ability. They've got a five linebacker look where they're all standing up and they've got two down linemen. It's hard to pick out who you're blocking and it poses a problem. Spikes is a besat. Watch him get downhill. He bloews people up. He tears them a new one. He does a great job of shedding blockers and getting to the ball carrier. The Ravens need to make Ray Rice a bigger part of what they do."
In watching the Ravens' offensive line during a 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Hoge thought that new left guard Ramon Harewood struggled mightily.
"He got roasted last week," Hoge said. "He had a tough day. THe Eagles have a great rotation."
Hoge opined that the Ravens need to utilize All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach more often. Leach had 16 plays against the Eagles.
"He's a power guy, one of the best in football," Hoge said. "The Philly defense did a heck of a job, a great job of getting pressure. When that happens, run the football. Leach and Rice should be well-rested. It's always a mistake to surrender and say, 'We can't run.' You got to try to the run the ball."
As for a prediction, Hoge thinks the Ravens, who've won 19 of their last 20 home games and 13 consecutive games following a loss, will bounce back with a close victory.
"Obviously, this is no perfect science," Hoge said. "I'm picking the Ravens in a close one. I think they're maybe a little bit better."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun