1. Throw Away from Watt
One of the positive trends that has emerged since the bye week (when offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak put the entire offense under a microscope to view its strengths and weaknesses) has been the rollout and bootleg plays going left for Joe Flacco to take advantage of.
On boot action moving to his left, Flacco has hit on two big plays to tight ends Phillip Supernaw and Owen Daniels in the past two games. According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco has his highest passer rating (146.8) throwing 20 yards outside of the numbers to the left side of the field. Flacco is successful in these situations because he resets and squares his shoulders quickly off the play-fake.
Against Houston, Flacco’s ability to make plays rolling left should be a point of emphasis to evade the Swatt patrol. With J.J. Watt always being a threat to bat a pass down or create havoc in the backfield, the pocket needs to move away from his side. All it takes is one big play from the odds-on Defensive MVP to get the momentum going in the Texans’ favor.
All in all, Flacco needs to use his feet to avoid the rush and make plays.
2. Counter Strike
When the Ravens have to traverse through Watt’s lair, they’ll need to put him and the rest of his defensive mates to the test. Watt has seen every type of scheme to neutralize his play-making ability, whether it’s double teams, triple teams, or max protection. However, while the changeup in blocking schemes is a must, screens and counters should also be incorporated into the game plan to keep Watt and company from flying off the ball and dictating the early down action.
It’s especially important to call some counter runs – in which the left or right guard will pull in front of the lead back – to attack the different stunts and twists that the Texans will run. Houston does a great job of running these type of interference plays to free Watt.
However, when defensive players exchange positions, gaps open up, and that’s where the runners – Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce — can strike through the counter play.
3. Bouncing the Ball Off Tackle
Along with the counter play, Kubiak should consider more outside runs as a whole to gain greater traction. The running game has stalled inside the last two weeks against Miami and Jacksonville. However, the few times they have had any success, it’s been off of edge runs that are going right. The Ravens’ inability to produce on the ground in early down situations has led to too many third-and-long scenarios.
Forsett being banged up the last two weeks hasn’t helped the situation. It’s possible that he’s been taking on too much punishment working between the tackles – an area that he hasn’t probed as often earlier in his career.
When he’s at his best, he is a space player who can gain yards after contact. Deploying him outside – whether on handoffs, pitches, or even quick-hitting ghost screens – is a good way to keep the runner fresh, keep the offense on schedule, and test out the Texans’ ability to tackle in the open field.
1. Front Side and Back Side Attention
When the Baltimore defense lines up in front of the Houston offense, they’ll be staring at a doppelganger of their own offense. Head coach Bill O’Brien has made some adjustments, but the zone-stretch run scheme that Kubiak installed years ago is still mostly intact. And why not? Running back Arian Foster and the Houston offensive line working in concert is one of the most devastating combinations in the league.
Defending the scheme comes down to fundamentals. When the stretch action is moving front side, the line needs to stay square and not overrun their gap responsibilities. Once they get caught too far down the line, the cut back opportunities open up for Foster to exploit back side.
And on the back side, the contain defenders also have to stay level and committed to their edge responsibilities. If they don’t stay gap sound, Foster has the vision to maneuver outside for big gains.
2. Defending the Bootleg
Another major component to the stretch play is the boot action that the quarterback carries out following the handoff. We’ve seen Flacco execute different types of bootlegs, waggles, and other roll out play-action fakes in which he’ll slide away from the front-side movement.
Again, given the mirror-image effect of the two offenses, the Baltimore defense should anticipate that the Houston quarterback (whether it’s Case Keenum or Thad Lewis) will be active throwing the ball out of the pocket. In the case of Keenum, he is at his best throwing on the run.
It’ll be up to the back-end pass defenders to maintain their poise when these play-action plays take place. If they lose sight of their coverage responsibilities, the Texans will have the opening they need to manufacture chunk plays downfield.
We still don’t know whether it’ll be Keenum or Lewis that lines up under center for Houston on Sunday. However, based on the reports that are out there, Keenum appears to be the guy, and if he is, the point about defending the big play becomes amplified.
When Keenum had his chance to start for the Texans last season, he played aggressively and wasn’t afraid to let the ball loose downfield. He had a great connection with receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, especially on deep strikes that came off of play-action.
While Keenum is still an error-prone QB—he threw six INTs and had six fumbles last season—and he’ll take some unnecessary chances, but he won’t dink and dunk the ball like Ryan Tannehill. By taking chances to make plays, Keenum would be looking to hit home runs against a secondary that has been besieged by long air strikes all season.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Marshall Yanda versus J.J. Watt
Every once in a while, the top players at their respective positions square off in a picturesque matchup. While Watt has received more of the fanfare for the season he’s been having (deservedly so), Yanda has been equally impressive and dominant, especially in run-blocking situations. For Yanda to be successful in the few one-on-one instances he has against Watt, he will need to maintain his leverage and anticipate the DE’s arsenal of moves. In the ground game, the Pro Bowl guard needs to stay aggressive and physical to wear Watt down.