Patriots DBs wary of Ravens' long-ball potential

201301161258467145641-p2.jpeg

Patriots DBs wary of Ravens' long-ball potential

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The Patriots have cut down on the long completions they allowed early in the season. The Ravens keep making them.

On Sunday night, New England's progress will be tested against Baltimore's strong-armed Joe Flacco and his speedy receivers in the AFC championship game.

Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib saw just how dangerous the Ravens' deep passing attack can be in their 38-35, double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos in last Saturday's divisional playoff game.

``That game summed it up, man,'' he said. ``They started the game taking shots and they ended the game taking shots. So that's what you're going to do against guys like that, play that deep ball.''

On the Ravens' second series against the Broncos, Flacco threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith. On their last series of regulation, he heaved a 70-yard score to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left.

That was the Ravens' longest completion of a season in which Flacco keeps connecting with targets far downfield. He has completed passes to receivers 13 times on gains of 40 yards or more. The Patriots, meanwhile, had just five completions to receivers that picked up that distance - and two were caught by players now on injured reserve.

``We can't allow them to just throw the ball over our heads,'' safety Devin McCourty said. ``The biggest thing is understanding how strong Flacco's arm is because I think we already know how fast some of the receivers are over there. So it's just being aware and making plays down the field.''

They Patriots (13-4) didn't do that very well in the first half of the season. They allowed 21 completions that gained at least 25 yards in their first eight games. A season-high five came in a 31-30 loss to the Ravens in Week 3.

They lowered that to 15 in their last eight regular-season games. Talib, who played in the last seven after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, helped.

``He's a good football player, good teammate,'' coach Bill Belichick said. ``He's very well respected because of his professionalism. He studies hard and prepares well. He's tough. He competes well, both in practice and on Sundays. Smart kid. I like him. The team likes him. He's a good guy to be around.''

His addition allowed the Patriots to move McCourty from cornerback, where he struggled at times, to safety, where he's solidified the secondary.

But the Ravens (12-6) have hurt teams with the long ball all season - from their very first offensive play. That was a 52-yard completion from Flacco to Smith that started a 44-13 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals.

``One of (Smith's) biggest strengths is his speed,'' McCourty said. ``If you give him a step or two, it will turn into three or four. You just have to be aware of how fast he is.''

Two weeks later against the Patriots, Smith caught passes of 38, 32 and 25 yards, Jones had receptions of a 41 and 24 yards and Anquan Boldin added a 24-yarder. And in the final minute, McCourty was penalized for defensive pass interference, moving the ball 27 yards to the Patriots 7-yard line. Two plays later, Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 31-30 win as time expired.

Flacco will be facing the Patriots for the third time in the postseason and sixth time overall. So he knows how Belichick likes to defend Baltimore's passing game.

``They're going to probably come up and put pressure on our receivers,'' Flacco said. ``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 play over the top of the outside guys.

``We'll see if they match (cornerbacks) on Torrey or Anquan or anything like that. I think they've let up some yards in that area, but at the same time, they do a good job of playing very well and playing some man (coverage) underneath.''

As usual, Belichick is sure to change some defensive tactics and show Flacco something he hasn't seen from the Patriots.

Whatever that is, he'll still have Smith, Boldin and Jones to run under his deep throws.

``They have some great receivers over there, guys with speed,'' Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. ``Flacco has a big arm. He makes good decisions with the football. So they have the ability to beat you in many ways and, definitely, over the top is one of them.''

Flacco had 40 completions of at least 25 yards, tying Denver's Peyton Manning for the most in the NFL this season.

Smith caught six of at least 40 yards, Jones did it four times and Boldin three. Even the tight ends got into the act with Dennis Pitta scoring on a 61-yard pass play and Ed Dickson making a 40-yard snare.

So when Belichick was asked if the Ravens throw the ball deep as well as any team the Patriots have faced, he answered simply and quickly:

``Yes.''

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

In latest comeback bid, Ravens TE Dennis Pitta's confidence not a problem

ravensotas052716refframe_1.jpg

In latest comeback bid, Ravens TE Dennis Pitta's confidence not a problem

Not everyone close to Dennis Pitta was immediately sold on his second NFL comeback attempt. Will his twice-fractured hip hold up? How much is Pitta risking his long-term health?

Pitta has pondered those questions for months. But after the first week of OTA’s, the Ravens’ 30-year-old tight end remained confident he had made the right decision.

“I had to convince a few people, and I’m thankful for those who have been in my corner all along and had my best interests in mind,” Pitta said. “Like I’ve said before, I know my situation better than anyone else, and I’m confident in the decision I made to come back, and certainly there were people who wanted to make sure that I was confident in that decision. I have a great support team behind me, and we all feel good about this move.”

Pitta first fractured his hip during training camp in 2013, then again on a non-contact play against the Browns in 2014. However, Pitta says he doesn’t think about his right hip when he’s on the field. He’s also not lowering his expectations, despite not playing at all in 2015, and not playing a full season since 2012.

Pitta was one of quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite targets, catching 61 passes for 669 yards during the 2012 regular season, then adding 14 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns during the Ravens’ playoff run to a Super Bowl title.

Asked if he could return that level of play, Pitta suggested, “Why not?”

“No, my expectations haven’t changed from four years ago, to two years ago, to now,” Pitta said. “My level of expectation is extremely high going into this year. Like I said, I feel confident in how I can run, how I can move, how I can play and it’s just a matter of getting those reps back to where I’m confident in doing all of that. So, yes, expectations personally are very high.”

Pitta obviously wasn’t ready to end his career. If he is on the 53-man roster Week 1, it will be a terrific comeback story.

Mike Tomlin, Antonio Brown go to Penguins playoff game

ravensotasbrentcliffrefframe_1.jpg

Mike Tomlin, Antonio Brown go to Penguins playoff game

If you didn't the the Pittsburgh Steelers enough already, this ought to help. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and receiver Antonio Brown decided to take in some hockey on Thursday and unfortunately, they were cheering for the local team.

On the one hand, what do you expect? They play for the Pittsburgh Steelers so it's no surprise to see them cheering for the hometown team. On the other hand, the Steelers are the team Ravens fans all love to hate so to see them supporting the chief rivals of the Washington Capitals, that stings.

Just one more reason to hate the Steelers this football season.

RELATED: SEAN PAYTON SAYS RAVENS LOSING WEEK OF OTAS ISN'T THAT BIG OF A DEAL

Sean Payton says Ravens losing week of OTAs isn't that big of a deal

brentcliffsegment052616refframe_1.jpg

Sean Payton says Ravens losing week of OTAs isn't that big of a deal

The Ravens forfeited one week of OTAs as part of their punishment for breaking offseason workout rules (the team dressed players in full pads during rookie minicamp, which is a no-go). But don't worry guys, Saints head coach Sean Payton says that's no biggie. 

Of course a few OTA days seem like peanuts to a guy who was suspended for all of 2012, you may be thinking. But hear the man out.  

During a radio interview with PFT Live, Payton was asked about the impact of losing those sessions. 

I don’t think it’s a big deal. The reason I say that is, look, it doesn’t keep the players from lifting and running and so a week of OTAs would be three on-the-field sessions. You don’t want to lose those opportunities and, shoot, one of those opportunities you might have some type of team building experience set up. I think each team does similar things during the OTAs. There’s a lot of offense versus defense. There’s some restrictions regarding one-on-ones but the players are out there in their element, and they’re going though a little bit of a practice format for two hours. So really that equates to about six hours on the field.

Payton explained that the offseason's first phases are valuable because players return to the facility to work out and build camaraderie.

The Ravens may miss out on practice elements, but they're still getting to do what's most important at this early juncture.