You have to give credit to offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg for making an adjustment at halftime against the Browns and going up-tempo. The offense scored 22 points after the half. This is the second time against Cleveland that the hurry-up approach worked well to create favorable isolation matchups over the middle of the field.
The Steelers had much of their passing success against the Cowboys operating from a similar quick-tempo, spread look. In fact, Pittsburgh showed more empty looks with tailback Le’Veon Bell splitting out wide. Dallas countered by dropping additional defenders into coverage, at times deploying a three-man rush. They sacrificed their rush to clog up the passing lanes.
As was the case against Cleveland, the middle of the field is the place to target against Dallas. But instead of having the receivers clear all the way through on designed rub route crossing combos, there should be a mix of sit down routes, and the seams should be in Flacco’s crosshairs as well.
There was space for Bell to maneuver underneath as well, as the Dallas LBs will take deeper drops against spread sets. Kenneth Dixon also needs to be targeted on designed routes.
Handling the Line Games
The Ravens are coming into this matchup with question marks on their offensive line. At the time this article is being written, Marshal Yanda looks to be on track to play in the heavyweight bout. But with rookie Alex Lewis out, and John Urschel hurting last week, this is a line that has struggled to maintain continuity.
They face a Dallas pass rush that has been pedestrian all year. After a four-game suspension earlier in the year, the return of DeMarcus Lawrence finally paid dividends against the Steelers. He flashed a few times by notching a sack and gaining fast penetration into the backfield. But that was about all the action the Dallas rush had.
Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli rarely blitzes, even to amplify a pass rush that has struggled for two seasons now. But he will test offensive lines with stunts, loops, and twists. The Baltimore interior linemen need to be well coordinated in passing off the exchanging defensive linemen.
Overall, this is an active front, so preventing quick penetration is a must, especially as the offense shows more spread looks. If they can keep the line games in check, the Ravens should be able to consistently handle the Dallas rush without devoting extra blockers or employing a lot of “big” formations.
Shotgun Running Game
We called it last week: Mornhinweg needed to mix in more coordinated shotgun run plays (not just a few draws here and there), and the results were impressive. The Ravens had success pulling left tackle Ronnie Stanley on traps all night long against Cleveland to set up Dixon behind the right side. Overall, the shotgun run plays were varied, well-designed, and provided balance to the spread offense.
Against Dallas’ lighter defensive front, draws, delays, and traps should work well to keep them honest. From the preseason onward, Dixon has had more natural run instincts from the gun, and they need to keep featuring him in these sets.
Sumo Tag Team
Let’s dispense with the formalities. The Ravens’ emerging defensive front versus the dominant Dallas offensive line is going to be trench warfare.
The Baltimore front has the ultimate challenge in front of them, and they need to unleash their prime beef to have a chance. Specifically, this game calls for more 5-2 looks featuring Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams inside in the same early down packages.
Dean Pees has used Pierce and Williams together with Lawrence Guy on first down quite often. It’s been an effective move to take away the inside rush lanes over center, forcing running backs to cut the ball quickly to the edge. Pierce and Williams have also ruined run plays with quick penetration into the backfield.
The difference against the Dallas line is that they clear out more than three yards before rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott takes on contact. They move defensive fronts off the ball with ease, and Elliott is incredible at making linemen miss in the hole. Defenses must feel like they are trying to operate in an ice skating rink to slow down this rush attack.
The biggest key for Williams, Pierce, and the rest of the line to hold their own is to get off of blocks and stay square. When it makes sense, they also need to take some calculated risks to penetrate into the backfield – although there is always the potential that Elliott breaks out and gashes them for a long gain. Still, playing tentative will render the Baltimore front as another road casualty.
Don’t Tip Your Hand
Solving the Elliott riddle is perplexing enough, but containing Dak Prescott has also turned into a mystery for a lot of defenses. The rookie signal caller is poised beyond his years. As the Steelers learned the hard way, pre-snap movement and exotic blitz looks don’t faze him. Whenever Pittsburgh showed their blitz too early in the snap count, Prescott calmly adjusted his protections and dialed up the right hot routes. Conversely, when the Steelers had success, they had late movement right before the snap. Timing was everything.
Pees has done a nice job of timing his blitzes, especially when he brings defensive backs on pressures. Safeties Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb have both been featured blitzers, but they’ve also shifted spots right before the snap to fake out the opposing QB.
Not only is timing critical when blitzers are on the move (they shouldn’t declare until the play clock is down to five seconds), but selling out on the blitz is also the wrong move in this game. The Steelers were exposed badly in obvious third-down passing situations downfield when they left their corners on islands.
The better approach is to minimize any pre-snap movement that can tip Prescott off, stay more static until the snap, and mix in more four and five-man pressures while keeping the rookie guessing the direction from which the rush is going to come.
Cancel the Pre-Snap Noise
Not only will pre-snap discipline be a critical factor when the Baltimore defense disguises their pressures, it will also be a factor to avoid falling for Dallas’ decoy plays when they play the run. The Cowboys mix in jet sweep fakes, pump fakes, and any other fakes you can imagine to get defenders to move out of position, creating even easier pathways for Elliott than he would already experience behind the best line in football.
It’ll be critical for ILBs C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr to stay disciplined and not “chase the cheese” to maintain their inside gap responsibilities. Their ability to play with dependable eye discipline and trust the edge defenders to do their job will nullify the effects of biting misdirection action.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Center Travis Frederick versus Nose Tackle Brandon Williams
Frederick might be the best center in the game. He’s got the size to tangle with larger tackles head on, while meshing the quick feet and impressive balance to handle more disruptive gap shooters. Meanwhile, after a slow start, Williams has reclaimed his place as a force against the run. He’s simply impossible to root out. Over the years, he’s improved his technique, making it even more difficult to get him moving sideways. It’ll be a tremendous matchup all game long and one that is absolutely critical for two teams looking to impose their will on the ground.