Attack the Edges
The Bengals defense hasn’t been nearly as imposing in 2016 as in years past, and perhaps the most shocking vulnerability has been their run defense. Cincinnati comes into this game ranked 28th overall. Last week, the Bills had their way, with six different players contributing to a 183-yard performance. Buffalo simply kept pounding the rock, wearing down a front that eventually ran out of steam. It took 34 carries (a committed approach) to break the Bengals’ will.
Last Sunday against the Cowboys, the Ravens rush offense continued its momentum from a solid showing against Cleveland but it only lasted for a half. Once the Ravens got into the second half, penalties and limited possessions derailed the ground attack. But you can see it coming together. The trap blocks (led by pulling action from left tackle Ronnie Stanley) have been a nice staple, and last week they sprung Terrance West on a trap to the left with Vlad Duccasse as the lead puller. Duccasse was able to get to the second level on that TD run.
For the trap to work against the Bengals, Geno Atkins has to be controlled. He’s got the ability to get quick penetration and stuff these plays in the backfield.
Running away from Atkins and targeting the perimeter as an alternate route is the better play. With the potential return of tight ends Crockett Gilmore and Nick Boyle, the Ravens will have the chance to run some overload formations and open up the outside rush lanes for West and Dixon (who has the acceleration to turn the corner). Both TEs can also pull and locate in space, so the counter is also a viable option.
Horizontal Speed Game
After being dormant for so long, the crossing pattern has suddenly turned into a go-to weapon in the Baltimore arsenal. Both Steve Smith and Mike Wallace have thrived on these patterns, as they’ve matched up against linebackers, and forced trailing defensive backs to chase them from sideline to sideline. Last week, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg alternated how he used Smith and Wallace, with Wallace getting some looks from the slot. It was a nice wrinkle that enabled the speedy wideout to get some mismatch opportunities against Dallas’ slot corner.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have struggled to cover the slot this season, and their linebackers are also exploitable in space. This game sets up well for Wallace, Smith, and Breshad Perriman to run isolation routes against the inside Cincinnati defenders. Mornhinweg should continue to give his receivers the chance to use their speed in the middle of the field where they have room to run an expanded route tree and force defenders to trail in the open.
Single Coverage Illusions
It hasn’t mattered what the Cincinnati personnel has looked like through the years – they’ve all had Joe Flacco’s number. Marvin Lewis has designed creative coverage schemes to fool Flacco between the pre-snap and post-snap processing phase.
Specifically, the Bengals are notorious for moving their safeties around before the snap to present the look of single coverage on the outside, only to backpedal as the ball is snapped and end up in some form of cloud coverage. All in all, Cincinnati changes coverages as much as any defense in the league.
Flacco should know the drill by now. The Bengals will try to bait him into chucking the ball down the sidelines against a single coverage illusion. While Flacco has been over-aggressive at times in his downfield coverage reads, he’s done a better job over the last couple of weeks of taking the underneath patterns and not forcing the issue. He’ll need to stay patient with his reads.
Force Dalton to Throw Outside
Normally, I wouldn’t make this suggestion, as Dalton has evolved into a plus sideline passer through his career. He has touch and timing to hit on big plays along the sidelines, and he doesn’t need much space to fit the ball in a tight window.
But times have changed. Dalton’s ultimate sideline target, Raven killer A.J. Green, is out for this game. As much as the Baltimore corners (minus Jimmy Smith) have struggled to hold up on the outside (Dez Bryant had his way against Shareece Wright last week), you can’t let Dalton get comfortable and rely on the intermediate passing game, especially with tight end Tyler Eifert being such a dangerous target.
Just as the Bills did right after Green went down, defensive coordinator Dean Pees should challenge Dalton to make throws against tighter outside coverage, and force WRs Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd to beat them over the top on lower-percentage downfield attempts, especially in third-and-long situations.
Play Aggressive Coverage
Being able to play tighter, more physical coverage means trusting your corners. Pees lost that trust when the Cowboys were able to hit on big plays downfield to Bryant and Brice Butler.
As we’ve seen in the past, Pees opted to play it safe and keep his corners a good 8-10 yards off the line to keep the Dallas receivers in front of them. That plan didn’t work either as Dak Prescott was able to get rid of the ball quickly to beat the blitz and play pitch and catch with his receivers in the second half. It was way too easy.
Dalton has a similar quick release, and as he’s done in the past, he’ll gobble up the free yards the Ravens give him when they play cushion coverage. That coverage cushions need to be closed on Sunday. The Ravens need to force Dalton to hold the ball and the DBs should play more press coverage to throw off the timing of the Cincinnati passing game.
Suggesting a shift in coverage philosophy gets back to freeing up enough resources to handle Eifert. To this point in the season, the Ravens have been excellent in coverage against tight ends. This used to be a big problem for the defense, but with Zach Orr and C.J. Mosley improving their coverage skills, and Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb offering the versatility to cover the tight end one-on-one (Webb played Jason Witten straight up in the red zone last week), they have been tough to crack all season.
However, Eifert is easily better than any of the other tight ends they’ve faced to this point. He’s built like a power forward but runs like a receiver. He’s also got the deceptive speed to gain separation at the top of his release and run past defenders in the open field. Eifert also has a wide catch radius, which is why Dalton loves to target the 6-6 pass catcher in the red zone.
The Bengals move the Pro Bowl tight end all around through shifts and pre-snap motion. They’ll try to get him isolated one-on-one on the outside, especially in the red area. The Ravens need to treat Eifert like a receiver in these instances and use a double team to keep him from grabbing a jump ball on a quick fade (a staple play the Bengals love to run).
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Left Guard Marshal Yanda versus Defensive Tackle Geno Atkins
You can’t mention Atkins enough as a focal point of the blocking strategy – he is a game-wrecker who can turn even the best-designed blocking schemes upside down. His get-off might be the most impressive part of his game. He always has the step on his opponent.
Yanda slid to the left side against Dallas and ended up being the team’s highest-performing lineman (according to PFF) while playing with one arm. Go figure. It’s pretty clear that it doesn’t matter where you put the Ravens’ best player, he’ll find a way to win.
Yanda has had his struggles against Atkins in the past, but normally didn’t face Atkins as often as he will at the LG spot. Atkins’ array of rip moves will challenge his ability to continue relying on his right shoulder to get the job done.