1. Single back set on first and second down; two back set on third-and-long
Last season, three of the four teams that beat the Steelers set up in a one back, shotgun set on most early downs. Those teams – the Saints, Patriots and Packers – featured variations of three receiver, four receiver, and two-tight end formations to make plays in the passing game.
The act of spreading the Steelers out on first and second down not only created matchup problems for the base defense, but kept the vaunted pass rush from showing its many exotic looks.
The Ravens enter this game against the Steelers with more question marks on the offensive line than these aforementioned offenses had a year ago. Aside from left guard Ben Grubbs, the rest of the linemen are either playing a new position or returning from injury.
The line may be a work in progress, but the most optimal offensive strategy remains to use less blockers and deploy more receivers on early downs. The Ravens finally have a complete collection of pass catchers to spread out the Pittsburgh front the way that the Patriots, Saints and Packers can.
Conversely, while forcing the Steelers to defend the pass is a must on early downs, the Ravens should keep extra blockers in on third-and-long situations. Given the additions of able blockers such as fullback Vonta Leach and Ricky Williams, two backs and a tight end should be in on these plays to chip and provide help to the line.
2. Line games
Taking another page out of the game plan of the Saints and Packers would mean moving the pocket in passing situations. The Saints in particular do a great job of sliding their line and creating chances for quarterback Drew Brees to move off the spot. This strategy could prove to be a good way to offset the pressure that the front five might feel blocking without help.
Moving and sliding quarterback Joe Flacco in a similar way, particularly on rollouts or play-side passes, is a good way to protect the line and keep the Pittsburgh front from keying in on a static target.
3. Bombard Troy Polamalu
A big component of spreading a defense out using three, four or five receiver sets is to create potential one-on-one matchups against safeties and linebackers.
It’s no secret that for as dynamic as Polamalu is, he can be exposed in the passing game. Polamalu is not nearly as fluid moving laterally as he used to be and he tends to freelance, leaving the coverage exposed if he makes a miscalculation.
When the Steelers’ great plays close to the line, he is a wrecking ball, as the Ravens can attest to. The key to controlling Polamalu is to force him to stay deep in coverage. The only way to accomplish this task is to play in less constricted offensive formations and to use motion to keep Polamalu honest.
The Ravens finally have the speed to force Polamalu to shade outside. In fact, last year in the Super Bowl, the Packers did a great job of pressing Polamalu downfield by running right at him using a combination of flag and corner routes. Polamalu was routinely caught too far inside and had a tough time closing the gap in coverage.
The key will be to get Polamalu off the line and out in space, where he can be made to look ordinary.
1. Anticipate the no-huddle attack
The Steelers have been practicing this offensive setup during the preseason, and they have shown flashes of it in the past. The combination of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his array of speed demons equates to a potentially dangerous no-huddle passing assault.
The Steelers may turn to this offensive set at the beginning of the game to catch the Ravens off-guard. Against a newly minted secondary, Roethlisberger will look to test the communication and continuity of the defensive backs.
The Ravens should be prepared with their nickel look early, and they’ll need to be on top of their substitutions. Moreover, the veteran defensive leaders – Ray Lewis and Ed Reed – have to keep the entire unit organized when the Steelers move quickly.
2. The Lightning Package
Getting back to Pittsburgh’s no-huddle offense, the name that was penned for it was “the lightning package.”
To play off of that tag line, the Ravens should unveil their own “lightning package” to defend the Pittsburgh bomb squad. Specifically, the nickel and dime sub-packages should be in full effect, incorporating a mix of linebackers Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle, and linemen Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones.
Jones, Kruger, Kindle and McPhee didn’t play much with the first teamers. But the quartet is athletic and active, and they should be rotated along with a few starters to energize the four-man rush.
3. Keep the safeties in deep support
The key to this game may hinge on how well the Baltimore defensive backs are able to defend the Pittsburgh receivers. Despite transforming into a bigger, speedier group, the Baltimore secondary is green.
Consequently, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will have to be careful not to play too much man coverage, especially against a group of receivers that can run by most secondaries. In a game like this, the better move would be to use a mix of zone coverage, keeping the safeties back to help the corners downfield.
The Steelers are so reliant on hitting the big play that playing a disciplined zone scheme might prove to be solid antidote.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Mike Wallace vs. Lardarius Webb: Wallace made the point that the Baltimore defensive backs need to “be ready” for the speed of the Steelers. Although Webb has taken a lot of heat for giving up a backbreaking third-and-19 conversion in last season’s playoff loss, he remains the most proven corner to contain Wallace. Webb has trouble moving laterally, but he can run downfield and he has the recovery speed to close on the ball.