1. Stay on Top of the Down and Distance
When the Ravens faced Denver in Week 15, they were absolutely dominated on first down in the first half of the game. Out of eight drives, the Ravens plodded to an average of 2.6 yards. Of those first downs, six were runs and two passes went to fullback Vonta Leach in the flats—not exactly the most aggressive game plan. Suffice it to say, the Ravens’ miserable first down performance was a decisive factor for five three-and-outs.
First down will be the biggest battle ground yet again, and this time, the Ravens need to be a lot more aggressive with their play-action and quick-hitting passing game. Joe Flacco’s drops should be shortened to one, two or three steps, and the ball needs to be out on time. Completions need to be at a premium to set up more manageable second-down and third-down conversions.
If the Ravens pass against Denver on first down, there is also a higher likelihood that they can keep the pressure off of Flacco. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos generated just three sacks in 156 passing plays with four or fewer defensive backs on the field, but 42 sacks in 451 drop-backs in nickel and dime sets. The Ravens simply cannot be in too many obvious passing situations or they will be cooked by the Denver pass rush.
2. Inside-Out Attack
Lost in the fog of a hopeless offensive performance were the few bright moments for the wide receivers. The Ravens were successful on two long sideline completions to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Both plays set up scoring opportunities in the red zone.
The problem is, those plays were few and far between. The Baltimore receivers had little success getting separation against a Denver secondary that kept their safeties back to protect against the long ball. In addition, the cornerbacks sat on all of the other outside routes, forcing the action to the deep middle. The offense didn’t adjust until the second half, with Dennis Pitta, when the game was already out of hand.
In this matchup, the Ravens should target Pitta and the middle of the field from the beginning. If Flacco can get Pitta and Ed Dickson involved to attack the safeties down the seams, the coverage will loosen up along the sidelines. That’s when Smith, Jones and Boldin should be targeted on fades or fade-stops.
3. Widen the Launch Path
He may not have recorded a single sack, but Von Miller still wrecked Baltimore’s pass protection. Miller had his way against rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele, recording two quarterback hits.
On the other side, Elvis Dumervil also made his presence felt with a sack and two quarterback hits of his own. The two rushers remain the epicenter of a Denver pass rush that must be contained for Baltimore to prevail in the divisional round of the playoffs.
With the return of Dickson to the lineup, the Ravens should line up in an assortment of two tight end packages to impede the outside rushing paths to the quarterback. Furthermore, the tight ends should also be involved to chip either rusher before they release into their routes.
1. Proceed with Caution
It is extremely difficult to fool Peyton Manning. His ability to decipher pre-snap movement is second to none, and he has a tremendous feel for defensive tendencies.
That’s why the Ravens need to be careful with their movement and timing before the snap. They’ll need to change up their patterns for which defender blitzes and on what down.
In fact, in the previous game against Denver, the Ravens had a higher tendency to blitz up the middle with delayed action. Once Manning figured out the look, he did a better job of adjusting the protection in the second half.
This time around, the Ravens should look to hit Manning when he turns his back off of the play-action fake. Given how often Manning uses the play-fake, he is especially vulnerable to blind side pressure. The key will be figuring out when to bring the outside blitz in these situations, and making sure the rushers don’t declare their move too soon.
2. Prepare for the Quick Count
To counteract exotic defensive formations, Manning often turns to the quick count. In fact, it was ironic to see Andrew Luck dip into Manning’s bag of tricks to accelerate the snap count and keep the Ravens from jumping around in shape-shifting fronts.
Now, the Ravens face the master for controlling offensive tempo. Manning will get his offense lined up quickly and the defense simply needs to be ready to operate at his speed.
3. Defend the Slip Screen
The slip screen was active early and often when the Ravens faced the Colts. The Indianapolis receivers were effective after the catch, and the receiver screens proved to be an integral reason for why Luck kept the chains moving.
Manning has used different forms of the slip screen to beat inside pressure in the past, including against the Ravens. With receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker at his disposal, Manning has pass catchers that are arguably even more dangerous in the open field.
The rushers and defensive backs will need to do a better job of getting off of blocks and converging on the ball carrier to shut these plays down on Saturday.
One-on-One Matchup of the Week
Michael Oher vs. Von Miller
Miller will line up on both sides of the line, which means he will also test out left tackle Bryant McKinnie. However, Miller will primarily operate as the strong side rusher and he’ll see plenty of Oher. Oher is back on the right side, and he struggled to handle Robert Mathis’ speed rush a week ago. In Miller, he faces a two-way player who uses his speed to set up his bull rush and inside move. Oher will need to play with better balance and keep Miller from getting inside of his body.