Battle Plans: Ravens vs. Browns
1. Stay on Schedule
Depending on how you look at the situation, quarterback Matt Schaub is taking over as the starting QB for the Ravens at the right and wrong time.
Why is it the right time for him? The Browns have struggled to generate a pass rush all season long. Why is it the wrong time for him? The Ravens will likely operate with a second-string left side of the line for a second game in a row.
The Ravens will need to be prepared with some built-in blitz beaters when Cleveland shows blitz. The game plan should be geared to get the ball out of Schaub’s hand quickly and decisively.
Getting Schaub comfortable and in rhythm means calling more one step, three step, and five step drop plays, and giving him easy underneath completions through crossing patterns and rub routes.
Conversely, if Schaub is forced to hold the ball too long, that’s when he’ll press and throw the ball late – which is when he throws the interceptions that were all too commonplace during training camp.
2. Back Shoulder and Stop Routes
The ideal scenario for Schaub and the Ravens is executing the underneath passing game against the Browns’ secondary. However, Cleveland is going to smother the under routes and force Schaub to throw the ball outside the numbers. Even with Joe Haden out for this game with a concussion, the Browns won’t be afraid to bring their safeties down in the box to take away the run and leave their corners on an island.
Last week against the Rams, Givens was able to shake free from tight outside coverage on the back-shoulder fade. Given the vertical deep speed that Givens presents, back-shoulder fades and stop routes have the potential to continue being effective. And with Aiken, the comebacks and quick hitches should open up.
3. Getting Buck to the Perimeter
One of the most interesting subplots to Monday Night’s game will be how Marc Trestman calls plays for rookie tailback Buck Allen. If the game against the Rams is any indication, we can expect to see Allen more involved in space and on perimeter stretch runs.
While Allen showed solid power in-between the tackles whenever he cut back inside, the former USC Trojan is even more explosive turning the corner and getting up the sideline.
This is a game in which Allen should be used on designed outside runs – counters, crack-back tosses, and sweeps.
In addition to infusing more of the outside running game to spring Allen loose, Trestman needs to open up the screen game and showcase Allen’s ability as a receiver.
Although we expected Justin Forsett to benefit greatly as a passing weapon in Trestman’s offense, it’s been Allen who has made more explosive plays as a receiver. Against a Browns linebacker group that struggles in coverage, the rookie should be featured early and often.
1. Nickel Packages
The Browns, who have struggled to run the ball all season, didn’t over think their offensive approach against the Ravens in the first matchup. They came out slinging. But it wasn’t just that they threw the ball a ton – it’s how they did it.
Quarterback Josh McCown operated from a lot of three and four-wide formations. They spread the Ravens defense out when they were in their base set, and tried to get the ball to their speedy and shifty fleet of receivers in space.
This time around, defensive coordinator Dean Pees needs to think coverage first and have his nickel package ready to go on early downs.
Since his last encounter against the Browns, Pees has experimented with different sub-package combinations – from using a 2-4-5 nickel look (with four inside linebackers on the field), to mixing in some dime (with either four corners or three safeties on the field), to having corner Lardarius Webb play free safety in the nickel. Pees has made an effort to get more speed out on the field to counter the spread attack.
Against the Browns, look for Pees to use more of the 2-4-5 look to deal with the Browns’ underneath targets Duke Johnson Jr. and Gary Barnidge. That duo toasted the Baltimore backers for 194 yards through the air in the first game.
With the 2-4-5 formation, Pees will use linebacker Arthur Brown and Zachary Orr to flood the inside passing lanes, while keeping Albert McClellan as a three-point rusher and C.J. Mosley in more of a rover role to attack the line of scrimmage. Brown and Orr have fared better in coverage, using their speed to close on the ball quicker than Daryl Smith and Mosley could.
2. Bluff the Blitz
Being able to match wits with McCown in the pre-snap phase will also be a critical area of improvement for the Ravens. In the last game, McCown owned that matchup. He was able to consistently decipher the Ravens’ A-gap blitzes and slot corner blitzes. As the Ravens attempted to sell out on these pressures, McCown cut the ball loose and gave his receivers a chance to win their one-on-one matchups.
The problem with Pees’ strategy is that it was too aggressive and predictable. If safety Terrence Brooks lined up in the slot, he was definitely coming on a blitz. There was no changeup. McCown was able to get a bead on the blitz patterns, and as he got more comfortable, it became a game of pitch and catch.
Pees needs to mix in some zone blitzes and bluff pressures to throw McCown off in his post-snap execution. He also needs to change up where the blitz is coming from by using some bait-and-switch overloads in which the blitz comes from the opposite side of the pre-snap look.
3. Double Barnidge
Who would have thought about a month ago that I would suggest double covering Barnidge? But here we are. Barnidge killed the Ravens in their last encounter, but since that game he’s been killing the rest of the league as well. The 30-year-old tight end isn’t the greatest athlete, but he is a crafty route runner with the size to snag 50-50 jump balls.
In the last matchup, Barnidge was able to take advantage of isolation routes against the Ravens’ inside backers. He also benefited from the downfield coverage attention Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, and Travis Benjamin got from the Baltimore secondary.
But Hawkins and Gabriel will be out for this game. This time, there’s nowhere for Barnidge to run and hide. The linebackers and safeties should combine in-and-out coverage and high-low coverage to keep the pass-catching weapon bottled up. Jamming Barnidge every time he releases on a pattern is probably a good idea.https://youtu.be/56hUUSwqaN4
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Upshaw’s recent high level of play, especially as a pass rusher, makes this bout more interesting than meets the eye. Upshaw has been doing a better job of anticipating the snap and timing his get off against opposing left tackles. But against Thomas, it’ll obviously be a much tougher task. Thomas does a great job of making ends work around his long arms, and he rarely gets knocked off balance. Even against a power rusher like Upshaw, Thomas will be able to anchor and stand toe to toe against him.