The Key Strategic Move that Influenced the Outcome
Offensively, coordinator Marty Mornhinweg kept the Browns off balance using hard run action on early downs from base and heavy sets. The Browns backers were influenced by the play-fakes, leading to some openings over the middle that tight end Ben Watson was able to exploit. Play-action would come off stretch action, giving Joe Flacco the chance to throw to his right, to the strong side of the field. By design, the Ravens were in a lot of twins looks (two receivers to the same side) with the tight ends and backs aligned to the strong side. The Browns had to respect the strong side heavy run looks, and as a result, the tight ends were consistently able to get loose against the Cleveland backers.
Moreover, we saw Flacco throw off boot and coordinated roll outs. The run-action sell of the stretch run kept the Browns front flowing to the weak side all game, giving Flacco plenty of room to maneuver and target his tight ends on the run. Moving Flacco around was a tactical win for Mornhinweg against the always-aggressive Gregg Williams.
What Else Went Right
Shotgun runs on third-down continued to be a theme. The timing of the pull blocks and tailback Buck Allen’s patience have really been the key elements for these plays to work so well. This is two weeks in a row we’ve seen the run game look good off-tackle, and that’s a credit to the perimeter blocking schemes and execution.
Defensively, when DeShone Kizer was in the game, coordinator Dean Pees kept safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson moving in and out of different coverages. Weddle would be in the box during the pre-snap phase, only to backpedal to his deeper landmark once the ball was snapped. Although pre-snap movement was part of the game plan, it should have been more of a fixture, as Kizer had a difficult time distinguishing between coverages.
What Went Wrong
This was a bend but don’t break effort from the defense. The Browns were primarily in the gun all game, running an up-tempo spread attack. Not surprising considering the Bengals had success doing the same the week prior in the one effective drive they put together. Consequently, Pees countered by using a static rush (he dialed out of the early pre-snap movement he showed) and mostly rushed four defenders. At times, he also had C.J. Mosley and Tony Jefferson spy the rookie QB.
Now, although the focus was to keep Kizer contained in the pocket and limit the chunk plays downfield, the defense was too passive at times with their rush. Even with a four-man rush, Pees barely mixed in stunt action (which was so effective last week), and when he did, the Ravens were able to apply pressure.
In third-and-long situations, Pees opted to play coverage on the back end instead of going after Kizer and backup Kevin Hogan. Both quarterbacks took advantage when they had time. When the Ravens were in dime, we saw a more aggressive approach with defensive backs Anthony Levine and Lardarius Webb threatening to blitz, but the blitz and even bluff action was virtually non-existent otherwise.
As safety Eric Weddle pointed out after the game, the interceptions masked some coverage busts on the back end. Lack of a consistent four-man rush didn’t help the cause. The defense won’t be able to get away with the same defensive approach against better teams like the Steelers and Raiders in a couple of weeks.