While this game will be remembered for Ray Rice’s miraculous conversion on a 4th and 29, there was another 4th down earlier in the game that was just as important.
There’s 36 seconds left in the third quarter and the Baltimore Ravens trail the San Diego Chargers 10-3. The Ravens have the ball inside the Chargers’ red zone at the 18 yard line after a 10 play, 60 yard drive. The Ravens have been struggling on offense all day and finally have momentum on their side after a solid drive. After QB Joe Flacco failed to convert on 3rd down with a quarterback sneak, head coach John Harbaugh elects to go for it on 4th and inches.
The Ravens line up in a heavy package which is an offset I-formation with fullback Vonta Leach lined up between right guard Marshall Yanda and right tackle Kelechi Osemele (note: Leach was originally lined up offset left. It appeared that quarterback Joe Flacco called an audible, at which point Leach moved to the right, as pictured). Bryant McKinnie is brought in as an extra tackle on the left side and 3rd string tight end Billy Bajema (another of the team’s poor blocking TE’s) is off the line of scrimmage beside McKinnie. RB Bernard Pierce is seven yards deep in favor of Ray Rice due to his size advantage. WR Anquan Boldin is wide to the right.
The San Diego Chargers, fully expecting run, have nine men in the box with safety Eric Weddle over the top and cornerback Quentin Jammer man to man against Anquan Boldin. Linebacker Takeo Spikes is directly over center Matt Birk, and is looking to fill one of the B gaps (gap between guard and tackle) on the snap of the ball. Nose Tackle Cam Thomas is lined up as a zero technique (directly over the center), slightly shaded to the right side.
Before the play is snapped, it would appear that the Ravens have a clear numbers disadvantage to the right side as they only have four blockers for five defenders. Despite this, the Ravens snap the ball. The play looks a lot like power as the left guard pulls and the fullback kicks out the defensive end. Defensive lineman Corey Liuget is able to break through the line and tackle Bernard Pierce in the back field for a lost. The Ravens’ drive is over, leaving them with no points, and the Chargers take over on downs.
As seen in picture two, the play should be a success if everyone is able to reach their man. However, as the play unfolds, two huge problems are revealed.
The biggest is Michael Oher. Oher is lined up at left tackle and must get in front of Corey Liuget to prevent him from getting into the backfield. The only problem is that Liuget is lined up as a two technique (directly over the guard) and Oher is at tackle. This means that the 315 lb Oher must beat the 300 lb Liuget in a foot race while Liuget has a head start. My money’s on Corey and that makes me a rich man.
The other problem with this play is a mistake made by center Matt Birk and left guard Jah Read. As Birk engages with Cam Thomas on the snap of the ball, Thomas gets too low and Birk easily pushes him to the ground. This creates a pile up which causes the pulling guard, Reid, to trip and prevents him from reaching the linebacker. However, this mistake never hurts the Ravens as Liuget had already tackled Pierce in the backfield at this point, but it shows how doomed the play was from the start. Even if Oher was miraculously able to block Liuget, the Chargers still had two unblocked defenders waiting for Pierce and the play would have been over (See Picture #4).
What Could Have Been Done Differently
If you look before the play is snapped, the numbers are even on the left side and the Ravens can easily put a man on every defender. The only person that could stop a run to the left would be middle linebacker Takeo Spikes who is lined up over the center, and prepared to rush the side that Joe Flacco opens up to. An easy solution to this would be to quickly motion full back Vonta Leach four yards to the left to lead Pierce to an easy first down (again, Leach started on the left, so you have to wonder what in the world Flacco thought he saw). As seen in picture 5, the Ravens can easily get a hat on a hat in this scenario. Even if the linebackers shifted with the motion, the only thing that would change is center Matt Birk and right guard Marshall Yanda would switch blocking responsibilities to prevent Donald Butler from making a play.
Because of this play, you could argue that this game went on for longer than it should have. You can blame Cam Cameron for bad play calling or fault Joe Flacco for not checking to a different play, but regardless, the Ravens need to be able to convert in these kinds of situations if they wish to make it far in the playoffs.