1. Plug the Gaps
The story of the last matchup between the Ravens offense and Steelers defense began and ended with the A and B-gap massacre that took place between the Baltimore offensive line and the Pittsburgh front seven.
The Steelers did a great job of showing A-gap blitz looks while also mixing in slant/twist rushes from their outside backers to attack the B gap between the tackle and the guard. The result was a full-on assault that disintegrated the pocket inside out.
How can the offense counter this scheme in the rubber match of this rivalry blood-bath?
Joe Flacco is going to need be sharp in his pre and post-snap diagnosis on Saturday night. It starts with getting to the line quickly, well before the play clock expires. He needs to take his time to force Pittsburgh to declare their blitz early and adjust with an audible or hot read right before he snaps the ball.
In terms of blitz counter plays, either offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak should have some middle screens and draw plays dialed up in certain obvious passing situations, or Flacco needs to have those plays available as built-in blitz beaters. Kubiak should also incorporate more max protect (six or seven-man protections) than he did the last time out.
The crossing patterns (which can also be great blitz beaters) didn’t work well to counter the inside blitzes last time because Flacco was often hit right as he released the ball. If those patterns are to be used to complement the screens and draws, his best bet would be to set up from the gun and buy some time by sliding left or right, away from the middle pressure.
Managing the A-gap and B-gap pressure is going to require a coordinated effort from Flacco, Kubiak, the receivers, and the line. If they can’t get it under control from the beginning, it will be a long night just like it was in November.
2. Attack the Cushions
The Steelers have shown the tendency to play incredibly soft coverage in which their corners will line up 10 or even 15 yards off the line. The coverage scheme speaks to LeBeau’s lack of confidence in his corners’ abilities to prevent the ball from going over their heads.
The Bengals figured out the coverage pattern last week and consistently hammered the cushion voids through slip screens, slants, and out patterns. Andy Dalton would get the ball out of his hands off a one step drop and put his receivers in position to attack the open spaces.
The trick to succeeding against this scheme is to stay patient. The Steelers invite offenses to work the underneath passing game but they won’t give up the long ball. After Drew Brees lit them up in the last loss they suffered, they have played things safe.
Flacco needs to recognize the coverage and keep attacking the sidelines. Until the Steelers start pressing, he’ll have an open invitation to bleed the secondary to death.
3. Free the Receivers
Speaking of press technique, it’ll be interesting to see if LeBeau indeed switches gears and plays a more aggressive style of coverage against the Ravens. After all, the Baltimore wideouts have struggled as of late to win at the line of scrimmage. The Cleveland cornerbacks had their way before the fourth-quarter explosion from the Baltimore offense took place.
Kubiak should continue to use motion, stacks, and natural pick plays to help his receivers gain separation.
On one of the bigger third-down completions in Week 17, Michael Campanaro was able to break free from his man because Owen Daniels ran a clear out route right in front of him. These are the types of pass pattern combinations – in which defenders have to fight through bodies to cover the receivers – that will prove to be successful against tighter man-to-man coverage.
1. Changeup and Sinker Pitches
In baseball, the best pitchers are able to disguise their pitches. A pitch can look like a fastball coming right down the middle of the plate, only to curve or drop off and sink at the moment of truth. In the case of Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, he perfected the cut fastball – a pitch that had both the velocity and movement to cause hitters’ knees to buckle.
Similarly, in football, pre-snap movement (especially all-out blitz looks) can look like fast balls coming right down the middle of the plate for a QB to take advantage of. But when the rushers fake the blitz and drop into coverage as the ball is snapped, those fast balls turn into changeups, forcing the passer to hold the ball or throw it into congested passing lanes.
The name of the game for the Ravens is cloaking their pre-snap movement. To keep Ben Roethlisberger from getting into a diagnostic rhythm, they have to give him multiple looks, especially in third-down passing situations.
Back in Week 10, Jets head coach Rex Ryan did a great job of keeping Roethlisberger guessing by switching up his front looks. When it looked like the Jets would only rush four, he’d sneak in a fifth rusher (sometimes a safety) off of a delayed blitz. When the front showed extra rushers from an overload look, those rushers would bluff and drop into coverage. In fact, Ryan was able to create a red zone INT off of a bluff blitz that turned into a three-man rush.
Ryan beat the Steelers and in doing so laid out of a blueprint the Ravens can follow. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees should employ a mix of blitz looks simply to bait Roethlisberger to throw into double or triple coverage. And when Pees decides to bring the fastball, the timing needs to be perfect.
2. Unleash the Wrecking Crew
To expand on the point of pre-snap movement, Pees needs to get his best pass rushers in favorable one-on-one matchups. With Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Pernell McPhee, he has three players that can apply pressure from a two-point (standup) or three-point stance. It’s time Pees moved them all over the line and let them loose from various positions so Roethlisberger and his line don’t get a bead on how to slant their protection to one side or the other.
Think back to the game against New Orleans in which Suggs lined up at ILB and rushed straight through the A gap to force a quick throw and subsequent interception by Brees. That’s the level of outside-the-box creativity that needs to be on display Saturday night. Even having Dumervil and Suggs rushing from the same side from an overload stance can distort the Pittsburgh blocking scheme and create openings for other rushers to take advantage.
Pro Football Focus published a great piece this week about how the trio of McPhee, Suggs, and Dumervil is a devastating advantage for the Ravens heading into the postseason. They astutely pointed out that offenses can typically devise blocking schemes to handle one dominant rusher (J.J. Watt) or two (Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) but taking care of three is nearly impossible.
Pees should do everything he can through the use of shifts, stunts, and pre-snap movement to get the three-headed monster involved early and often.
3. Double Down on Brown
It may seem obvious to double team Antonio Brown. But opposing teams don’t always follow through. Look at Cincinnati. On a game-sealing 63-yard TD score, Brown was inexplicably covered one-on-one down the sideline and he made them pay.
Keeping Brown pinned down by double coverage is almost an impossible task, as the Steelers do an excellent job of moving him all over the field. He operates out wide and from the slot, hides behind stacks, and goes in motion, making it a frustrating effort for the defense to shift to his side.
Still, the Ravens have to keep their safeties and linebackers in position to help the trailing corner (likely Lardarius Webb) cover Brown. Even if it means sacrificing coverage help elsewhere, Baltimore has to devote extra defenders to Brown.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Rashaan Melvin versus Martavis Bryant
With Webb likely to draw Brown, Melvin will be tasked with coverage duties (and probably a number of man-to-man opportunities) against Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Melvin doesn’t move from his right side coverage responsibility, so whether he faces Bryant more often will depend on where the rookie receiver lines up. This will be a fascinating matchup between two big, young athletes.
Melvin has been outstanding covering boundary patterns since he entered the lineup. He does a great job using the sideline as an extra defender, and when he has help over the top, he isn’t afraid to break on the ball. Bryant is arguably the Steelers most explosive downfield threat. He has the size to win on jump balls and the speed to gain separation on fly and go patterns. If Melvin loses at the line, Bryant will be off to the races.