As the fans and players both get ready for the first game of the season and the return of their favorite sport, let’s take a look at what the Ravens can do on both sides of the ball in order to secure a victory against Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals on Opening Day.
1. Scoring A’s in Pass Pro
Last season, the Baltimore offensive line was plagued by the cross blitz attack. Linebackers were able to create havoc through the A gaps and take advantage of then second-year center Gino Gradkowski. One of the linebackers that had a coming out party was Cincinnati backup linebacker Vincent Rey, who had three sacks in Baltimore a year ago.
With newly minted center Jeremy Zuttah manning the middle, there needs to better air traffic control for quarterback Joe Flacco. It will be up to Zuttah to not only diagnose which blitzers are coming, but also make the proper protection adjustments. Under former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals were among the best A gap blitzing teams in the league. There’s no reason to think new coordinator Paul Guenther won’t continue the tradition.
2. Space Balls
It’s no secret what offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak wants to do. He wants to use motion and movement to create mismatch opportunities for some of his best offensive weapons. He did it in Houston many times with Owen Daniels (now with the Ravens) and Andre Johnson. He has also been doing it in Baltimore during the preseason using fullback Kyle Juszczyk as his “move” player.
With Juszczyk, Kubiak has the ideal move guy to turn a base two-back formation into a more open three-receiver attack. Juszczyk can line up in the slot and force a linebacker into coverage.
Then there is tight end Dennis Pitta. He can work his way from the line, to the slot, to being out wide.
Against linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, Pitta and Juszczyk can turn into match-up nightmares in space. The Ravens should target Maualuga especially, since he is a liability in coverage. Burfict, however, averaged a solid 8.9 score as a pass defender, but he should still be tested regularly, especially on isolation routes further down the field.
3. Attack the Right Side of the Line
Defensive ends Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers take over for Michael Johnson, who departed to Tampa Bay. Johnson wasn’t immediately known for his run defense, but according to PFF, he only scored three negative performances defending the run all year.
Gilberry and Geathers have big shoes to fill. The Ravens should make a concentrated effort to attack their side in the running game and also mix in some screens plays to keep the duo off balance. The goal should be to incorporate the stretch play enough times to get the linemen to over-pursue off-tackle so the backs can eventually start cutting the ball back inside.
1. Big Nickel
Last season, when the Ravens faced the Bengals in a do-or-die finale, Cincinnati was able to make an assortment of big plays through the air to land the death strike. Specifically, it was slinky wideout Marvin Jones who befuddled the Baltimore secondary with a few downfield circus catches. Jones is out for this contest, and that’s a big difference for the Bengals’ attack.
Look for new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to emphasize his tight ends and running backs with Jones out of the game. Specifically, second-year players Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard should see a lot of action in the passing game as motion players that move out wide.
That means the Ravens are going to have to counter with hybrid nickel packages that allow them to protect against the bigger packages the Bengals use in passing situations.
As they’ve shown throughout the preseason, expect the Baltimore defense to use a combination of three safety looks to keep a faster edge defender to spy Bernard. For example, the Ravens tinkered with using rookie safety Terrence Brooks as the spy against quarterback RG3, and he could reprise that same role against Bernard. They could also mix in some 3-3-5 formations with linebacker Arthur Brown playing the same role.
Either way, the team needs to have better speed on the edges to match up against the two talented second-year targets.
2. Screening Process
In former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s offense, the screen game was pervasive. The Bengals were creative with double-sided screens in which they faked the action one way, only to set up their pulling blockers and the intended pass catcher in the other direction. They also used their receivers quite often on bubble screens to spring them loose in the open field.
It’s still too early to tell if Jackson will adapt the same screen-heavy approach, but based on the game tape the Ravens left behind of their poor tackling and recognition of screens in the preseason, he should be chomping at the bit.
The Baltimore front seven needs to have better recognition, recovery, and pursuit to nullify the screen game. On receiver screens especially, the linemen should be ready to get their hands up to bat Andy Dalton’s passes on quick-hitting throws, and the corners should be aggressive in their pursuit coming downhill.
3. The Down and Distance Squeeze
Dalton is a streaky quarterback. He always has been. When he’s able to complete some passes early, he gets in rhythm and is much tougher to deal with.
Conversely, if he’s having a hard time staying on schedule with his first and second down throws, he is a completely different player. Dalton doesn’t fare well in obvious third down passing situations in which the defense can be more exotic with their looks. According to PFF, Dalton had a miserable -8.9 rating last season when blitzed, and a -7.9 rating under pressure.
In order to keep Dalton in more third-and-long scenarios, the Ravens have to play stout against the run on early downs, and minimize the yards-after-catch (YAC) the Bengal receivers get. If Dalton is forced to throw on third down, the pass rush should open up.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Marshal Yanda vs. Geno Atkins
There is nothing like a good ole’ fashioned in-the-trenches matchup to start the 2014 NFL season. Atkins returns from a devastating ACL injury. When healthy, he’s the best three-technique player in the league. He combines an uncanny first step with great timing on the snap to disrupt plays in the backfield. Yanda is also getting back to form from a shoulder injury last year. He will have to play physical and get Atkins moving laterally in the run game to have success against the All-Pro defender.