Ravens Notebook: Patriots have made changes, but still vulnerable against the pass

Ravens receiver Torrey Smith hauls in a catch in front of New York Giants cornerback Corey Webster during the Ravens' Dec. 23 win over the Giants in Baltimore.
Ravens receiver Torrey Smith hauls in a catch in front of New York Giants cornerback Corey Webster during the Ravens' Dec. 23 win over the Giants in Baltimore. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

OWINGS MILLS - Torrey Smith exploited Kyle Arrington for a 25-yard touchdown during the second quarter. He got behind Sterling Moore for a 38-yard gain a quarter later. And he later beat Devin McCourty for a short scoring catch as the Baltimore Ravens mounted a comeback during the fourth quarter.

It was all part of Smith's 127-yard, two touchdown performance against the New England Patriots in Week 3, a game during which he - and the rest of the Ravens' passing game - had success regardless of which member of New England's secondary was being targeted.

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw for a season-high 382 yards and three touchdowns amid the 31-30 win against the Patriots.

New England's secondary has changed since then - adding cornerback Aqib Talib and moving McCourty to safety - but its pass defense is still an area of vulnerability heading into Sunday's AFC championship matchup with Flacco and the Ravens.

"I have a lot of respect for all those guys," Smith said. "It'll be another tough challenge, but ... it's just going to be on us to go out there and just execute, block the guys up front and just make plays when the ball comes our way."

But it will be a different Patriots backfield than what Baltimore faced in September.

The troubled but talented Talib has provided New England with a big, physical cornerback to match with an opposing team's top wide receiver.

New England traded for Talib - a former first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - in early November.

His acquisition also allowed the Patriots to move the athletic McCourty to safety, where he has three interceptions in the last nine games.

"They definitely have different guys in different positions personnel-wise," Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "From the first time we saw them to now, I think both teams are different."

But, even with the acquisition of Talib and McCourty's move to free safety, the Patriots have still struggled to stop the pass.

They gave up 343 yards and two scores to Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub this past weekend. It was the fourth time in the last eight games New England has yielded 301 yards or more through the air.

Flacco threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns during the Ravens' divisional round win against the Denver Broncos. He played only sparingly in Baltimore's regular season finale, but he's thrown for a combined 922 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception in the last three games that he's seen extensive playing time.

"I think they're probably going to come up and put pressure on our receivers," Flacco said of the Patriots' secondary. "They always - throughout the years - like to get up and not allow our tight ends and our inside guys to get off the ball very well and then play over the top of the outside guys. ... We'll have to be very good this week at combatting that a little bit and running crisp routes and making sure that we don't allow them to hold us up [at the line of scrimmage]."

NO SECOND THOUGHTS: Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis reiterated his intent to retire following the conclusion of the season.

Lewis was asked Wednesday whether he's second guessed his decision to retire at all after making his announcement earlier this month.

"No," Lewis responded. "No. ... I always said to myself, I know when it's time. ... One day, my career is definitely going to end, and for the ride to keep going the way it's going, it's just awesome ... [but] my kids are calling for daddy.

"It's a great reward to see the sacrifice my babies have made for me, and it's time that I sacrifice for them, [but] I'm proud the ride is still going."

Lewis has 30 tackles in Baltimore's two playoff games, including 17 in the win over the Broncos this past weekend.

NOT SUPERSTITIOUS: Featured on the cover of this week's regional Sports Illustrated, Flacco was asked whether he believes in the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx and if he thinks there's a curse that goes along with being on the cover of the magazine.

"Sure hope not," Flacco joked. "It just depends on how we go play on Sunday. We'll see."

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was asked a similar question.

"I didn't even know he made the cover of Sports Illustrated," Harbaugh said. "That's cool. ... I'm not superstitious. I don't believe in that stuff."

INJURY REPORT: Injured Baltimore running back Bernard Pierce was a limited participant in practice Wednesday and told reporters that he expects to play against the Patriots Sunday.

Pierce left the divisional round win over the Broncos after aggravating a pre-existing knee injury that limited him in practice during the week leading up to the game.

Pierce didn't play in the fourth quarter or overtime and was walking with a noticeable limp in the locker room after the game.

The physical rookie from Temple University rushed for 532 yards and a touchdown during the regular season and accumulated 103 yards on just 13 carries amid the Ravens' 24-9 wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Including the win over the Colts, Pierce had rushed for a combined 315 yards in the three games prior to Saturday while averaging more than six yards per rushing attempt.

He had 14 yards on five carries prior to exiting against Denver.