Here's a key matchup to watch in Sunday's game between the Patriots and Ravens:
Ravens defense vs. Patriots tight ends
Few teams in the NFL this season have utilized multiple tight ends as effectively and as often as the Patriots. The Pats frequently line up with two tight ends on the field, and have no problem using all three. Rookie TE Aaron Hernandez, the team's leader in receiving yards, is quick enough to play in the slot and has been one of Tom Brady's favorite targets. Fellow rookie TE Rob Gronkowski has great hands but is a better blocker. He is a top target when the Pats get inside the 10-yard line, though, with two TD grabs. Veteran TE Alge Crumpler is the main blocker of the crew.
Opponents have yet to find a way to take the Patriots' tight ends out of a game because they are all so versatile. Lock them down in coverage? Fine, they will either run-block or go downfield to block for WR Wes Welker. Put a linebacker on Hernandez? He will beat the ’backer downfield.
MLB Ray Lewis is a candidate to cover a tight end in the middle of the field, but he can't go stride-for-stride with them. Ravens safeties Dawan Landry and Tom Zbikowski are good options to shut down Gronkowski and Hernandez, but they cannot match up in size.
The Ravens obviously have tons of talent on defense, and if any team can game-plan to stop the Patriots' tight ends, it would be Baltimore, but no team has done it yet. Keep an eye on if the Ravens can take Hernandez and Gronkowski out of the game, because future opponents will attempt to use the same blueprint.