Our final individual matchup of the week focuses on one of the ways the Patriots might be able to combat the Ravens respected pass rush. Rather than relying totally on the offensive line to provide protection, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might opt to try to get the ball out of Tom Brady's hands as quickly as possible, and if that's the case it could be a big game for Shane Vereen.
Vereen is a gifted if inconsistent pass catcher who at times has been a valuable part of the offense. He posted career highs for catches (52) and yards (447) and added three touchdown receptions. He also has enjoyed some huge postseason games in the past, most notably a three-touchdown performance in the divisional round victory over Houston two years ago, two of which came through the air.
The Ravens like to attack off the edges with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee but don't generally ask those outside players to cover much. That leaves a lot of responsibility on the inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith. Both are athletic for the position and have the ability to move well in space.
Smith, an 11-year veteran, is the better option in coverage. He has more range and has shown the ability to drop deep into zones and create disruption in the throwing lanes. But because of that he'll likely be asked to help out on Rob Gronkowski, whether that entails bumping the tight end at the line or dropping deep down the seams to make potential Brady throws that much more difficult.
Mosley enjoyed a tremendous rookie season, one that saw the first-round pick out of Alabama earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. He finished with 133 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions a forced fumble and eight passes defensed. At 6-2, 235 he's big enough to fill the gaps on the inside but small enough to run sideline to sideline to chase the likes of Vereen.
Still, this is a matchup the Patriots are likely looking forward to. Vereen is a gifted route-runner for a running back. He's quite effective on quick outs coming out of the backfield, especially in third-and-short situations. Look for Brady to combat the Ravens pressure with quick throws out of the shotgun spread formations that Vereen generally is a part of, and for Vereen to rack up some catches.
The winner of the matchup will likely come down to Mosley's and his teammates' ability to tackle Vereen in space. If Vereen is able to make a tackler miss, he'll likely be able to move the chains and frustrate a Ravens defense that will be looking to crowd the line of scrimmage and make sure all the short throws result in similarly short gains.
At the end of the day, through all the breakdowns of individual matchups, that's exactly what the game will likely come down to – tackling – and whoever does it most consistently will win.
Other articles in this series: