1. Defeating Man Coverage on Third Down
One of the biggest areas of concern head coach John Harbaugh addressed prior to the bye week was the Ravens’ third-down efficiency – or lack thereof. The team is currently completing just 39.8 percent of their third-down attempts. The last few games have been particularly troublesome, with a dreadful 12-of-39 combined showing against the Bengals, Steelers, and Titans.
Meanwhile, the Saints have had their own issues on third down, giving up the highest completion percentage on plays of third-and-six or longer. Last Sunday against the Bengals, the New Orleans DBs were consistently diced up by the Bengals on sideline routes down the field. In particular, cornerback Corey White was in their crosshairs.
For the Ravens to get their mojo back in third-down situations, they’ll need to be able break free against the Saints’ single coverage. With defensive coordinator Rob Ryan behind the wheel, New Orleans will bring extra rushers in clear passing situations and leave his corners out wide to fend for themselves. Back-shoulder fades, stop routes, and comebacks should in play early and often for the outside receivers to take advantage.
2. Safety Patrol
The Saints are willing to let their corners compete outside of the numbers because they like to keep their safeties active as floaters between the box and intermediate areas. Specifically, safety Kenny Vaccaro is notorious for charging forward as blitzer or run defender in early down situations.
The problem for the Saints is that they lost yet another free safety to a season-ending injury (Rafael Bush), making the single-high safety looks a dicey proposition. It’ll be interesting to see if Ryan opts to play more Cover 2 or Cover 3 to keep his safeties out a deep coverage bind.
Joe Flacco will need to keep his eyes peeled for Vaccaro, especially before he snaps the ball. The hard-hitting safety is used often on delayed blitz action. Once Vaccaro starts to move, Flacco will need to delay his snap and target the void he leaves behind before the free safety rolls over.
3. Bounce the Ball Outside
For as good of an inside runner as Justin Forsett has turned into, it really hasn’t been the strength of his game coming into this season. Forsett has been a more dangerous outside runner in his previous stints with the Seahawks and Texans. As an open-field runner, he has the ability to accelerate and decelerate effortlessly to make defenders miss.
On a key fourth-and-one conversion situation against Tennessee, Forsett flashed his ability to erase angles by dashing past linebacker Kamerion Wimbley on a flip from Flacco. In order to get better traction against inside blitzes, the offense needs to feature Forsett more often on outside runs and get the offensive line moving on sweeps and tosses. Getting the breakout runner out in space will also help improve the Ravens’ putrid short-yardage rushing attack which has stalled consistently against stacked fronts.
1. Preparing for the Stretch Run
A big reason for the Saints’ offensive success stems from their resurgent ground attack. Tailback Mark Ingram has been outstanding as the lone bell cow, rushing for over 100 yards in three out of his last four games.
Ingram is especially effective on power and stretch runs. And as Ingram gets going on the stretch play, it sets up the Saints’ play-action passing game. New Orleans gives a steady diet of stretch runs on early downs to open up the run-action, downfield shots.
The Baltimore front will need to scrape off blocks working down the line and keep Ingram from turning the corner. If they can limit Ingram’s effectiveness on first and second down, the Saints will have a harder time sticking with the run consistently on early downs, taking the bite out of their play-action passing game.
2. Bobbing and Weaving
Not only is play-action a major component to the Saints’ air attack, opposing defenses can also expect to see a heavy dose of pump fakes and misdirection action from quarterback Drew Brees. Brees’ forte is to get defenses out of position so he can strike big down the field.
That being said, defenses have done a better job staying true against Brees’ array of fakes and the big plays haven’t been there as often for the Saints. Last week, the Bengals kept their safeties back and their defenders had great eye discipline to avoid the fake outs. As a result, the Saints consistently had to march down the field and they struggled to consistently move the ball.
In defending Brees’ pump-fake action, the Baltimore safeties need to stand their ground and avoid moving too hard laterally to defend the outside routes. The DBs can’t get caught up in Brees’ shoulder and head bobs. If they slide too far out of position, the future Hall of Fame QB will be able to attack the seams – his favorite target area on the field.
3. Brawl on Bourbon Street
The mission for a defeated and depleted Baltimore secondary is to hold Jimmy Graham in check – about as impossible a mission as one could be stuck with. But it’s not as much of a slam-dunk lost cause as it may seem on the surface.
Teams that have had success against Graham have hit him early and often, not letting him get a free release off the line of scrimmage. It seems simple enough but a lot of defenses don’t follow through with the constant contact on Graham. In addition, the Saints do a great job of hiding Graham by moving him all over the field and using him in stack alignments behind other receivers.
The Ravens need to press the pass catcher and force him to work through contact all night long, even if that means dedicating a linebacker to play over top of him at the line. If the defense knocks Graham around enough times, he’s shown a tendency to wear down as the game progresses.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Will Hill versus Jimmy Graham
Continuing on with the Graham discussion, the team would do well to shadow the hybrid receiver/tight end with a player that has the size and athleticism to match up. Hill has better man-to-man coverage skills than most safeties, as he is built more like a cornerback with the ability to play physical at the line. The team will still need to double team Graham in most situations, but Hill should be given the first crack to dual with the dynamic Weapon X.