1) Four-wide spread: Baltimore should take a page out of the Indianapolis game plan from a week ago. Last Sunday, the Colts started the game against the Ravens in a single back, four-wide look, in which tight end Dallas Clark flexed to the slot. With four targets spread evenly, the safeties had to honor the inside receivers. Thus, there were one-on-matchups available for Peyton Manning to exploit on the outside.
When Pittsburgh is in its base defense, the Ravens should pressure the safeties as much as possible. Spreading the formation will force the safeties out of the box, and create mismatches, depending on how the Steelers chose to cover.
Moreover, there would be chances for the slot receivers to run straight at the safeties. In a game in which Troy Polamalu will be on the sideline, the middle of the field must be tested.
2) Hurry without huddling: The Pittsburgh defense often dictates tempo with their pre-snap movement. With defenders moving all over the place, the quarterback takes his time to set the protection, and that extra time only helps the defense to adjust to the call and to line up in the right spots.
It’s time for the Ravens to vary the snap count, and quicken the pace to catch the defense when it’s moving. Moreover, by hurrying the attack and running a no-huddle, the defense would not be able to substitute, and would have to play more conservatively.
3) Pre-snap recognition: Part of the offensive struggles over the past six games have been a result of protection breakdowns, led by quarterback Joe Flacco’s inability to make the proper pre-snap read. Since the Denver game, Flacco has struggled to pick up the delayed blitz in obvious passing situations. As a result, there have been free blitzers who have either gotten to Flacco or forced him to get rid of the ball quickly.
There will be a number of times when Flacco will be forced to convert on third-and-long. And when he does, the Steelers will test Flacco’s ability to read the defensive look, from sideline-to-sideline. If the second-year quarterback is not careful, and the defense times its blitz well, the protection will fall apart.
Not only does Flacco need to stay patient at the line when making his pre-snap read, but he also needs be solid in his post-snap recognition before releasing the ball. If his hot receiver is covered, he should move to the second read in his progression.
Overall, Flacco and the offensive line will need to be a coordinated machine when it comes to picking up the blitz.
1) Coverage first: In their last two contests, the Pittsburgh offensive line has struggled to protect the quarterback. Some of the problems have been due to poor play against the blitz, but more than anything, they just haven’t been able to win their one-on-one blocks.
Specifically, both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs rushed just four or five defenders in passing situations, and they were very successful. Not only did those front lines break down blocks, but the back seven was also able to force some coverage sacks.
The Ravens will need to stick to the same script, and force quarterback Dennis Dixon to throw against seven defenders. However, they have to be able to get pressure with their front line. The current construction of the pass-rush package has to altered, as it hasn’t been successful.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison must rotate his line, using Jarret Johnson and Trevor Pryce on the inside, while linebackers Jameel McClain and Paul Kruger rush off the edges. The faster front will be a nuisance for a slower Pittsburgh line to deal with, especially on third down.
2) Outside blitz: Although the game plan should be to rely less on a heavy blitz assault, the defense will still need to bring more than five defenders in certain situations to get heat on Dixon.
When Baltimore blitzes, they should blitz from the outside. The goal should be to force Dixon to step up in the pocket to avoid the edge rush. If he tries to escape off-tackle – as young, mobile quarterbacks tend to do – the blitzing defenders must keep pace and find a way to corral him in the open field.
3) Contain the edges: In Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers have a back who doesn’t need a blocker in front of him, and can run the ball from a shotgun set. He is also a capable outside runner, and the Steelers will design lead draws and counters to take advantage of his speed.
To keep the perimeter running game in check, the corners and outside linebackers have to maintain their edge responsibilities and tackle well.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch: Ike Taylor versus Derrick Mason: Taylor remains one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. He is a big, physical player who can cover receivers downfield. Mason is coming off a huge game against Indianapolis, and he continues to be the go-to target in the passing game. Look for Taylor to shadow Mason one-on-one on most vertical routes.