CRYSTAL BALL: WHERE’S WILLIS?

Battle Plans CRYSTAL BALL: WHERE’S WILLIS?

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When Baltimore acquired tailback Willis McGahee from Buffalo in March, one can assume that offensive coordinators Brian Billick and Rick Neuheisel instantly began formulating new sets and plays that will showcase the talents of their new back — a back with different skills than his predecessor.
 
When Jamal Lewis was positioned behind the line, the offense was quite rudimentary. The players generally lined up in a two-back set on first and second down, as Lewis thrived behind a lead back. Rarely did Lewis run out of a one-back set. In fact, while Jim Fassel was the offensive coordinator, he tried using the former 2,000-yard rusher in a two-tight formation, but Lewis was unable to get on track. Not until Ovie Mughelli developed into a capable blocking fullback midway through the 2006 season did Lewis experience any hint of resurgence in his game.
 
Now McGahee steps into the spotlight.
 
Although he is not dominant in any one phase of the running game, he is capable of fulfilling all duties at an average-to-above average level. He can catch the ball cleanly coming out of the backfield. He is an able and willing blocker. And most importantly, McGahee has the ability to bounce the ball inside or outside; a trait the Lewis lacked as a downhill runner, especially as his speed eroded over his final three seasons as a starter in Baltimore.
 
Given that McGahee is a multi-dimensional runner, the offense itself will become a reflection of his versatility. The coaches will strive to create more of a two-dimensional quality to the rushing attack out of two-back and one-back sets.
 
Here is a preview of some of the wrinkles to look for in the running game this coming season:
 
Going Solo: Single Back
 
This should be the go-to formation for the Ravens to turn to in 2007, as McGahee is comfortable running the ball without a blocker in front of him.
 
“With McGahee, we’ll probably be more of a one-back set,” Neuheisel explained. “That fits his style. He’s more of a draw runner, outside zone runner – able to use his speed (to get to the perimeter).”
 
In these formations, the offense will either line up with two tight ends and two receivers; three receivers and one tight end; four wide receivers and in some cases, three tight ends.
 
When the Ravens have two tights and two wide on the field, there are a couple of different ways to spring McGahee loose. The coaches can use one of the tight ends as a motioning H-Back to lead the way for McGahee in-between the tackles. Off tackle, a play can be called for him to run behind the tackle (left or right) and the blocking tight end. In some cases, two extra blockers can line up on the same side.
 
If a tight end is taken off the field in favor of a wideout, McGahee should have more room to maneuver running up the gut, as the linebacker will line up over the slot receiver. To open up the middle even more, the tight end can also line up in the other slot position.
 
Although the Ravens rarely used the four-wide formation last year, they may use more of these looks in ‘07. Not only does this set create bigger lanes for McGahee to jaunt through if the safeties and the linebackers are away from the line-of-scrimmage, but the passing game would expand.
 
“With four receivers closer to the line-of-scrimmage we have the chance to be more explosive, and get four receivers downfield quickly,” Neuheisel said.
 
If rookie playmaker Yamon Figurs develops quickly, he could be the point man in these plays as either a gadget weapon on trick plays or a vertical threat on fly and go routes.
 
Three tight ends will be on the field at the same time when the team is looking to hammer McGahee against a front seven in short-yardage and goal line conversion situations. Specifically, in the red area, the coaches will likely look to use their three tight ends in some capacity.
 
Double Up: Two-Back
 
Even though the one-back set may be a more popular alignment this season, the offense will still feature a fullback on certain plays. The Ravens are one of the few teams in the league that places importance on a position that has become somewhat obsolete in the pass happy age of football. As such, expect to see McGahee pick his way through a hole opened up by an isolation block laid out by either Justin Green or rookie La’Ron McClain. Of the two, McClain has a bigger frame and is a more natural lead blocker.
 
There will be times when the blocking back is positioned directly in front of McGahee (I-Formation) or to the left or right side (Weak-I, Strong-I). Because the Ravens are looking to employ more perimeter running plays than they did a year ago, expect less of the traditional “I” look and more of the slanted formations wherein the lead back has the chance to slide through a crack in-between the tackle and the guard, or outside the tackle box.
 
McGahee will need to practice patience when he runs the ball behind a fullback.  Not only will there be situations when he has to wait for the blocker to grab a hold of a defender, but he will also need to wait for an offensive lineman to pull out in front of him on such runs, especially on pitches and sweeps. In other instances, McGahee will only have to follow the lineman, as the fullback will serve as a decoy blocker and seal off backside pursuit.

Running on Empty

When the offense needed a spark following the bye week, Billick and Neuheisel used more empty sets, especially when the offense needed to covert on third-and-short. When there is no back in the lineup, quarterback Steve McNair becomes the most viable rushing threat on the field.
 
However, there will be instances when McGahee could split out as the fifth receiver, only to function as a ball carrier after the ball is snapped. Either McGahee can catch the ball on a receiver screen geared to have him run behind two or even three receivers (if McGahee is moving in motion), or he would grab a handoff after motioning into the backfield, leaving four receivers flanked out wide. With McGahee on the field in this set, the defense will always have to account for the possibility that he will be given the ball, while also defending a predominant passing formation.
 
Clearly the Ravens will give opposing defensive coordinators more to think about in ’07 in large part due to the arrival of Willis McGahee. Perhaps Ravens Director of College Scouting explains the value of McGahee best.
 
“Any time you present a defense with multiple things it makes them prepare for multiple things.  And any time you have a defense thinking a lot then they are not playing as fast as they can play.  So with more sets, more formations, more personnel groupings now that we have flexibility, it’s going to slow defenses down a little bit and that will help us be more explosive.”
 
Now that’s something to talk about!

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Dev Panchwagh

About Dev Panchwagh

Dev Panchwagh is a versatile analyst who breaks down the Xs and Os of the game and has been a columnist/analyst for Ravens24x7.com since the summer of 2004. In his regular season column Battle Plans, Dev highlights the Ravens' keys to success against each upcoming opponent. Dev started modestly as a sports journalist, but his contributions to sports talk radio were noticed, leading to duties as a regular columnist for the Scouts.com network before joining RSR.  It would be very difficult to find his rare combination of youthfulness, knowledge and insight in all facets of football anywhere else.  Fortunately, Dev brings it here each and every week.  More from Dev Panchwagh

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