When I was first asked to write a piece to review the best offensive and defensive game plans in the last 20 years of Baltimore Ravens football, I immediately thought about the evolution of Battle Plans.
I’ve been writing about the matchups that take place between the white lines for nearly half the time the Ravens have been in business. Through those years, I’ve had the privilege of previewing some of the greatest on-paper tactical affairs in NFL history.
I say on-paper because with my articles, you never know how the matchups will shake out. Sometimes they turn into duds.
But more often than not, you get some classics. And that’s where this article takes us.
In determining the “best” game plans, I considered a few factors.
I weighed the pre-game difficulty level the team faced in their matchups. I also looked at how the Baltimore coaching staff was able to change their approaches through their game plans for that particular opponent.
Think New England Patriots in that regard. The Patriots don’t roll out the same offensive and defensive schemes every week. If they play zone one week, they’ll plan man the next. It just depends on what the other side presents and how they need to adjust their personnel.
With that thought in mind, you won’t see the 2000 Ravens defense on this list. They dealt with a lot of strength-against-strength matchups against teams that ran the ball incredibly well like the Broncos, Raiders, and Titans. And they never blinked. They stayed in their base two-deep zone, tried to stop the run with seven, and as history shows, they decimated their opponents.
In addition, these won’t all be Ravens wins either. Sometimes, the execution of a perfectly designed game plan on one side of the ball just isn’t enough. There are, after all, three facets to the game – offense, defense, & special teams. This analysis will examine each in a vacuum; therefore, there are a couple Ravens losses listed below. The end result on the scoreboard, while ultimately the most important thing, should in no way diminish from the fact that the Battle Plan for the specified side of the ball was the right one.
Without further ado, here are three of the best defensive game plans and three of the best offense game plans to date
We start with defense because, well, this is the Baltimore Ravens after all, right?
Game 1: Greatest Show on Turf Meets Turf Bullies
2003, Regular Season vs. the St. Louis Rams
This game goes way back in the Ravens’ time machine.
Coming into the game, the Rams were rated the No.1 offense in football. They averaged 374.5 yards per game. In this game, they netted just 121 yards. The performance that the Baltimore defense put together –especially based on facing a top-notch offense – could go pound-for-pound with any defensive outcome.
Looking back at the pre-game assessment, the trouble the Rams presented was their quick-strike passing game.
They weren’t quite The Greatest Show on Turf but they weren’t far off. Former Raven Marc Bulger had their offense humming under Mike Martz’ mad scientist guidance. They had Torry Holt. They had Isaac Bruce. And with the timing and rhythm of their spread offense, the question was, did the Baltimore D have enough speed to keep up?
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan countered by throwing an assortment of pre-snap looks at the young Bulger. He confused the quarterback, forcing him to hold the ball too long after the ball was snapped.
The result was 110 yards passing with two interceptions. The Rams had seven straight three-and-outs. They also fumbled the ball twice. And Marshall Faulk was held to 47 yards rushing.
“That team is deservedly the No. 1 offense in the league,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Our defense gave them nothing. Nothing. And that’s encouraging.”
Game 2: Dawn of Organized Chaos
2006, Regular Season, vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers
By this point in the season, the Ravens had already established their defensive prowess. Under second-year defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, they were stringing together some impressive sack parties and turnover feasts.
But the Steelers were still the defending champions. Even with a 4-6 record. They came into Baltimore looking to creep back into the playoff race. Instead, they walked into a hornet’s nest.
One of the staples of the Pittsburgh offense at the time (which had routinely proven able to foil Ryan defenses) was their bunch and trips formations. They would use these unbalanced stack alignments to get their receivers loose against heavy blitz formations.
Ryan countered the open looks by using a combination of overload blitz fakes to confuse Big Ben. When the defensive front showed the overload from one side, he’d come from the other. Ben wasn’t able to get a bead on where the pressure was coming from.
Ultimately, the defense disintegrated the Pittsburgh front to the tune of nine sacks and a shutout. The Steelers were simply in too many obvious passing situations to evade the Baltimore blitzkrieg.
Game 3: The Day Brady “Sucked”
2012, AFC Championship, vs. the New England Patriots
Coming into this game, I wasn’t sure how the Ravens would match up. The 2011 Patriots weren’t as prolific as the record-setting 2007 Patriots, but with the combo of tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and Wes Welker manning the slot, New England could dictate matchups from the inside-out. Gronk and Hernandez also had the ability to line up anywhere to create mismatch opportunities either for themselves or their teammates.
Despite the personnel challenges, Chuck Pagano kept the right packages on the field to counter the Patriots. Lardarius Webb played the slot and kept Wes Welker in check. Gronk and Hernandez each had a productive night, combining for 12 catches and 153 yards, but both players were physically mauled whenever they caught the ball. Gronk was memorably knocked out of the game by Bernard Pollard.
Through a variance of changing looks that Pagano executed, Brady had one of his most inefficient days, throwing two picks, and famously saying that he “sucked.”
Game One: Super Bowl XXXV
2001, Super Bowl, vs. the New York Giants
A lot of people won’t give former offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh credit for confusing anyone but himself. His schemes were stone-age, and sophistication is the last word you’d use to describe the 2000 offense. But on this day, his game plan had enough curveballs and change-ups to keep opposing DC John Fox guessing.
Cavanaugh took a more aggressive approach with the passing game. The Ravens threw the ball on first down and attacked the bigger, slower New York corners through vertical routes. Considering that the Giants congested the box to stop Jamal Lewis, the one-on-one chances were there. If anything, drops and trip-ups prevented the receivers from scoring more points. As Shannon Sharpe quipped, “we could have easily, worst case scenario, [won] 50-0.”
Another deft adjustment by Cavanaugh was to use his backs as pass-catchers. He used Lewis and Priest Holmes on the field at the same time. Both players played a pivotal role in the underneath passing game to keep the ferocious New York pass rush honest.
Game Two: Mile High Miracle
2013, Divisional Round, vs. the Denver Broncos
Offensively, this was the finest day the franchise ever saw. 479 yards of total offense. 18 pass completions for 331 yards. And in the background, the ground attack churned out 155 yards. Talk about balance.
In taking apart the No.2 ranked Denver defense, Jim Caldwell mixed in a heavy dose of the play-action passing game. He ran the ball enough on early downs to keep the Broncos honest.
In fact, Denver used a lot of single-high safety looks. That created favorable man-to-man chances for the receivers. As we all know, the tale of the tape came down to Torrey Smith blow-torching future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey. Bailey had been able to lock down every receiver he faced that season without safety help. On that day, Caldwell wasn’t afraid of Bailey. They attacked him directly, exposing a Denver secondary that had no plan B.
The other key to this game was Caldwell’s trust in his offensive tackles. Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher were left to fend for themselves against Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. They responded to the challenge and kept the pass-rushing carnage to a minimum.
Game Three: Kubiak’s Last Stand
2015, Divisional Round, vs. the New England Patriots
This game turned into a shootout that will go down as one of the best playoff games of all-time. Little did we know at the time that it would also feature the best game plan any offensive coordinator had devised. Kubiak essentially hit a walk-off home run in his final game as OC with the Ravens.
He started the game by bringing receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith inside (to the slot) to give them space to attack corners Darrell Revis and Brandon Browner. As I described in my Battle Plans preview of the game at the time, “Revis and Browner are at their best when they can force receivers to make plays along the boundaries, but if receivers have space to run away from them, they can be beaten.”
Kubiak also used a combination of three and four-wide looks to get receivers Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, and Michael Campanaro in mismatch opportunities against the Patriots’ nickel and dime defensive backs. The young trio pitched in with 10 catches for 97 yards and a TD score.
The play-action boot also played a major role in the success of the offense. Kubiak kept an even run-pass ratio going on early downs to keep the Patriot defenders off-balance. Flacco was used on back-side rollouts and had success throwing on the run.
So there you have it: my choices for the best Ravens game plans of all-time. Again, these games weren’t all Ravens victories, but that shouldn’t diminish from the genius the Baltimore coordinators displayed in each instance. Vote and let me know which game plan of each type was your favorite.