It’s no secret that the Steelers remaining defensive weapons are their star linebackers James Harrison and Lamar Woodley. Sometimes, even when you know the enemy’s weapons, you still can’t come up with a better strategy to defend against them than “duck and cover.”
The Ravens tried a multitude of blocking schemes with their eligible receivers, but Oniel Cousins was particularly unsuccessful in stopping Woodley. Nonetheless, for most of the game, the Ravens battered the Pittsburgh defense on the ground, piling up 175 yards rushing without a single carry over 16 yards (4.6 YPC). The Ravens did not have a single rushing play for a loss and only 1 for no gain.
As we all were reminded numerous times during the broadcast, there was a series of 6 plays that likely cost the Ravens the game. Those plays contained a little of what was good (and most of what was bad) for the Ravens all day. Let’s review the action beginning with 45 seconds left in Q3:
2-10-PIT 32 (Q3, 0:45) McGahee ran left for an apparent 32- yard TD. The play was called back for Kelley Washington’s holding penalty, which was marked off from the 17. Several fine blocks set up this run. Tony Moll, playing LT in an unbalanced line, pushed Harrison wide of the play. Oher had a tremendous seal on the left edge. Yanda sprinted to level 2 and cut Farrior to the ground perfectly. Farrior would get up, but then he was just part of a convoy of Steelers chasing McGahee to the goal line.
2-5-PIT 27 (Q3, 0:33) Rice followed Yanda who knocked Farrior back on his heels. Rice hit the Steelers’ linebacker and rolled forward over his body for a 6-yard gain and first down.
1-10-PIT 21 (Q4, 15:00) The Ravens set up in a jumbo formation with Chris Chester at LTE. Almost as surreal as Mason’s drop was the fact that it was a 1-man pass pattern. The Ravens kept all 4 other eligible receivers (Chester, Heap, McClain, Rice) in to block. With 9 blockers protecting Flacco, the furthest was McClain, approximately 1 yard from the LoS. As Flacco threw, Le’Ron pointed to Mason in the end zone. Protection was excellent, despite the fact that the Steelers rushed 6. It was one of the few times all day Flacco had ample time to throw.
2-10-PIT 21 (Q4, 14:54) What set of representative plays from Sunday would not include a variety of penalties? The Ravens were flagged for both illegal formation (Mason failed to line up on the LoS) and an ineligible man downfield on Yanda. A 3rd and 7 became 2nd and 15 with the Ravens at the edge of field goal range.
2-15-PIT 26 (Q4, 14:21) (Shotgun) The Ravens set up 5 wide and Flacco looked to pass. Heap stayed in to block and Rice angled back towards the pocket from his position as the outside receiver on the right side. He motioned to Flacco as he did so. The protection held and Flacco threw 5 yards wide of the end zone for Washington. Oniel Cousins then decided to celebrate the fact that he’d blocked Lamar Woodley effectively on a pass play for one of the few times all day. He shoved Woodley hard after the whistle and directly in front of the referee to maximize style points.
3-30-PIT 41 (Q4, 14:15) Again from the shotgun, the Ravens faced a 3-man pass rush. A first down would have been difficult, but 10-15 yards would have put the team back in field goal range. The rush took some time to develop as Heap and Rice blocked Eason, who made no real attempt to rush and 5 linemen remained to stop Hood and Woodley. Hood had the 3-man posse of Oher, Grubbs, and Birk on him, but Cousins was beaten to the outside by Woodley. Yanda threw a punishing block to put him on the ground, but Flacco rolled right. Moving the pocket allowed Hood to slide off laterally to pursue Flacco. Meanwhile, Cousins turned his back on Woodley and Yanda also pursued the play. At this point, neither Rice nor Heap had made an attempt to create an outlet, but Heap began to move. There were only 2 men to pick up at this point, so if the Ravens linemen had their heads on swivels, they’d have easily made it happen, but Yanda/Cousins did not stick with Woodley, none of the other linemen picked him up, and no one was in good position to block Hood. Ziggy first turned Flacco back, then took him down as Joe threw incomplete to avoid the sack. Harrison came in very late as well and was not picked up.
It was as self-destructive a sequence as I can recall since 2005 at Detroit.
The Ravens ran 67 plays from scrimmage:
Oher: Michael continued to run block well, but he had another poor game as a pass blocker. I scored him for 2 blocks in level 2 and 2 pancakes, but he got good push generally and had the seal block mentioned above on McGahee’s nullified TD. Outside of the scoring Oher was fortunate to have 1.5 sacks allowed nullified by penalties (Q3, 6:56) and (Q3, 4:14, with Grubbs). Scoring: 60 blocks, 4 missed, 1 penetration, ½ QH, 1 sack, 50.5 points (.75 per play).
Grubbs: Ben had the best game of his career. He continually stonewalled Keisel, Hampton, and Hood and delivered a more punishing set of run blocks than I can recall. I have him scored for 5 level 2 blocks, with the most impressive a pancaking of Timmons (Q3, 8:20). He pulled successfully on all 5 attempts and stayed with his assignments effectively when pass blocking. Normally, Grubbs has some difficulties at the point of attack in run blocking and allows penetration, but this game, Ben, Birk, and the 6-man line were good reasons why the Ravens did not have any running plays for a loss. Hampton’s illegal hands to the face nullified a sack that would have been split by him and Oher (Q3, 4:14). Scoring: 66 blocks,1 missed, 66 points (.99 per play).
Birk: I should probably note that it is easier to get a very high score at center than at guard or tackle. Assuming the center makes the line calls he always has an assignment and simply moves directly to it. The guards must work outside on protection schemes and have the decision making and speed required of pulling. As you can extrapolate, more still is required of tackles in pass blocking judgment, but less in terms of mobility and blocks in level 2. If you look on sites that assign sacks, you’ll see that very few go to centers. The center has an assignment, so even when the defense runs a blitz to direct additional pressure through the A gap, the blame is typically placed on a guard or running back. All this is a way to note that despite producing the same score, I think Grubbs had a better game than Birk. I recorded just 1 level 2 block for Birk. Scoring: 66 blocks, 1 missed, 66 points, (.99 per play).
Yanda: Marshal produced a near-perfect 1st half before stumbling in the 2nd with 2 costly penalties. As a run blocker, he connected on 7 of 9 pulls and continues to get effective push. In addition to the diving cut block of Farrior on McGahee’s nullified TD, Yanda’s other highlight was pancaking Hampton (Q3, 3:45) that nearly resulted in an injury to Cousins. On the previous play, he had drawn the illegal hands to the face penalty on Hampton which nullified Eason’s sack (Q3, 4:14). If you like offensive line play, you have to be impressed with the concentration and tenacity Yanda showed to hold off Hampton as his helmet went off. The ineligible man downfield penalty is a very silly one for a lineman, but one the Ravens flirted with more than once Sunday. Scoring: 61 blocks, 6 missed, 1 ineligible man downfield (-3), 1 offensive holding (-6), 52 points (.78 per play).
Cousins: There isn’t any 1 play that would have turned the game around for Oniel had he been out. It’s not surprising that this was the worst game I’ve ever recorded for an offensive lineman, but the margin shocked me. The previous worst was .57 (Oher on 10/18 vs. the Vikings and Jared Allen). Cousins had 50 blocks, but missed 5, allowed 2.5 QHs, 2 sacks, and committed a personal foul (-9) and a false start (-3). That’s 18.5 points on 60 plays (.31 per play). I am surprised he returned after Tony Moll entered and made no serious mistakes in 7 plays. Woodley beat him at least twice with lightning-quick spin moves to the inside (Q3, 9:36) and (Q4, 2:39) before Lamar closed out the afternoon for the Ravens offensively by beating Oniel to the outside (Q4, 2:34).
Is there a salvageable talent here? Oniel has the size, athleticism, and fire to be a good run blocker. Some of his problems as a pass blocker are probably correctable, but I can’t help but wonder if he’d be more effective as a guard.
Chester: The Ravens played 18 more jumbo sets against the Steelers. His biggest highlight (Q3, 11:2) was a pancaking of Woodley on Flacco’s 14-yard completion to Rice. When the Ravens use 6 offensive linemen, they most frequently line up with the standard 5 and Chester as a TE to one side. However, 9 of the 18 jumbo sets Sunday had Chris set up on the outside next to a guard with the tackle from that side moving to the opposite side. When in this alignment, the Ravens passed 3 times for 52 yards and ran 6 times for 15 yards. Scoring: 15 blocks, 3 missed, 15 points (.83 per play).
Moll: Moll played 7 snaps at RT while Cousins was out and made 6 blocks (.86 per play). We are somewhat spoiled with Oher, but Moll looked distinctly slow out of his stance Sunday. The best example I can give is (Q3, 0:33). I would not be surprised to see Moll start against Oakland should Gaither be unavailable.
· By offensive line set, here is how the Ravens lined up (including only those plays which did not result in a penalty/no play):
- Standard: 41 plays, 138 yards (3.4 YPPA)
- Unbalanced Left (5UL): 7 plays, 67 yards (9.6 YPPA)
- Unbalanced Right (5UR): 1 play, 7 yards
- Jumbo Left—3 linemen left of center (6L): 15 plays, 95 yards (6.3 YPPA)
- Jumbo Right—3 linemen right of center (6R): 3 plays, 16 yards (5.3 YPPA)
The Ravens offense was run-heavy, but it was anything but vanilla. The Steelers had difficulty with non-standard formations and I think there is a good chance some of the playoff teams may as well.
· Often cited this season has been the amount of “help” one or the other tackle is receiving each week. This game is particularly interesting since Oher was opposite (sometimes) Cousins and the Steelers have a fine edge rusher to each side. The Ravens ran only 29 pass plays including the 4 sacks. Excluding the QB, the Ravens had 145 eligible receivers on those 29 plays. Of those:
- 45 stayed in to block (includes Chester on 8 pass plays he was in, whether or not he actually reported eligible)
- 4 chipped (I’d estimate a more normal set to chip ratio is perhaps 2 to 1)
- 96 went into the pattern without chipping (3.3 per pass play, a very low figure)
The Ravens ran 9 plays with just 3 receivers in the pattern, 3 with 2, and 1 with 1 (Mason’s drop). Often, when the Ravens ran the signature Flacco to Mason 10-yard out route, they just kept the backs and TE in to block.
· So we’ve established the Ravens kept in a mess of additional blockers, where did they block? These totals all include Chester, but there were a number of plays where Cousins or Oher was moved to the opposite side:
- 20 blocked on the left side
- 3 blocked in the middle
- 22 blocked on the right side
Oher and Cousins both had lots of help.
· Todd Heap went out on just 13 of 29 pass plays. He was targeted 3 times, twice for TDs and a third time that should have been ruled PI in the end zone.
· If you are looking for a reason for optimism should the Ravens make the playoffs, the offensive line is it. If Gaither is able to return, the Ravens have the best line of any playoff team. And yes, that includes the Patriots.