Given how cool and calm Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has looked while picking apart opposing defenses these past two weeks -- particularly after halftime in the wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts -- don't be surprised if the New England Patriots try to turn up the heat on him by sending more than four pass rushers.
As I wrote yesterday, the Patriots, emboldened by the acquisition of cover cornerback Aqib Talib, have blitzed quarterbacks on 35 percent of their snaps since Week 11, according to ESPN Stats and Info. They ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards, but since Talib joined their secondary, they are allowing fewer big passing plays.
"They're a good football team, and they're still going to attack us in what they feel like is going to put pressure on us," said Flacco, who has five touchdown passes and no picks this postseason. "I think they're going to probably come up and put pressure on our receivers. ... So we'll have to be very good this week at combating that a little bit and running crisp routes and making sure that we don't allow them to hold us up."
The Denver Broncos couldn't hold up the receivers, particularly Torrey Smith, on Saturday, and Flacco threw for 331 yards in a 38-35 win. But they also made the mistake of playing Flacco too passively at times. Flacco completed just eight of his 16 attempts for 91 yards and no touchdowns when the Broncos sent more than four rushers. He completed 10 of 18 for 240 yards and three scores when they did not.
The most obvious instance of this came in the final minute of regulation when Flacco found wide receiver Jacoby Jones behind the Denver defense for a 70-yard touchdown. The Broncos rushed just three players.
According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco's passer rating is 96.3 this season, including playoffs, when he isn't blitzed. It dropped to 79.6 when opponents sent more than four pass rushers.
The last time these teams met, the Patriots blitzed Flacco just three times on 40 dropbacks. He completed two of three throws for 37 yards. But he piled up 345 yards and three touchdowns when they did not blitz.
As I wrote Monday, this is a much different defense than the one the Ravens narrowly beat in Week 3. They have changed their personnel and tweaked their overall philosophy, so expect more than three blitzes Sunday.
And as well as Flacco has played this postseason, he admits he would not be the same without his offensive line, the reshuffled and resurgent unit that has given him time to drop all these bombs the past couple of weeks.
"If those guys are playing well, I think we play well as an offense, and I think that goes the same across the league," Flacco said Wednesday. "And these guys have really stepped up and are starting to play really well."
Led by Flacco, the Ravens offense is in harmony right now. We'll see if the Patriots succeed in knocking them out of sync.