As we move closer to Saturday's divisional round playoff game against Baltimore we'll take a look at one of the more under-the-radar matchups: Ravens tight end Owen Daniels vs. the Patriots combination of safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Jamie Collins.
Daniels is an underrated tight end who moves well in space and is capable of making big plays. Joe Flacco likes to look his way in tight spots, including third downs and in the red zone. Daniels finished the season as Baltimore's third leading receiver with 48 catches for 527 yards (solid 11-yard average) and four touchdowns.
Against the Steelers in last week's wild card win, Daniels came up with some key plays. He had four receptions for 70 yards with two of those representing huge plays. The first came in the second quarter when he converted a third-and-10 with a 19-yard catch on a drive that ended in a Justin Tucker field goal. The second was even bigger as Daniels' 23-yard grab moved the chains on a third-and-13 with 10 minutes to go on the drive that immediately followed the Steelers touchdown that cut Baltimore's lead to 20-15.
Daniels' catch allowed the Ravens to maintain possession and eventually tack on another field goal, which extended the lead to 23-15. While he doesn't possess the big-play potential of Rob Gronkowski, Daniels is quite effective finding gaps and running away from linebackers and safeties.
That will put some pressure on the Patriots secondary. Chung has enjoyed a solid season in the return to Foxborough but he hasn't been overly effective in coverage. Tight ends have been a going concern for the Patriots secondary all season as Kansas City's Travis Kelce, Buffalo's Scott Chandler, Chicago's Martellus Bennett, Indy's Coby Fleener and Green Bay'sRichard Rodgers all made big plays against New England.
Some of those weren't the responsibility of Chung, but he may well be asked to contain Daniels against Baltimore. Collins, whose athleticism allows him to stay with even the most mobile tight ends, also figures to be part of the equation.
The problem with using Collins in coverage is it eliminates him from the pass rush, which he's been a big part of down the stretch with fellow linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Those two have effectively utilized stunts shooting through the A-gap in concert with some moving parts up front, so if Bill Belichick needs help Chung with Collins in coverage consistently it would take something away from the overall defense.
Daniels is not the type of receiver who can take over a game the way Gronkowski can, but the Patriots need to be aware of him – especially during some key moments like the ones on which he burned Pittsburgh.