Shorten the Steps, Extend the Pocket
The Baltimore passing game is turning into a check-down outfit – but instead of checking down to backs, quarterback Joe Flacco is checking down to receivers and tight ends for minimal underneath gains. These two and three-yard pass completions aren’t in rhythm, and they don’t lead to any yards after the catch. And here’s the kicker – they aren’t exactly quick-hitters either.
The early-down passing game needs to become quicker, more decisive, and put receivers in position to catch the ball on the run. Instead of calling pass patterns short of the sticks on third down for the receivers to run for a first-down gain, these pure WCO pass plays should be called earlier in the down and distance to set up third-and-manageable situations.
Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman should also take a page out of the Raiders’ playbook and call more one, two, and three-step drops for Flacco, especially given the protection challenges. In contrast to Flacco, David Carr didn’t hold the ball long, and if something didn’t open up quickly, he moved out of the pocket and got rid of the ball.
The ball needs to be out of Flacco’s hands quickly. Quick hitches, slants, and out patterns should be called to complement the shorter drops. Flacco can’t hold the ball too long.
Attack the Safeties and Backers Downfield
One of the positives you can take from last week’s passing performance is the middle of the field (particularly the spaces behind the linebackers, in front of the safeties) was practically wide open most of the game. Steve Smith took advantage of some gaping voids on sit down routes. Those voids should continue to be there against the Washington linebackers and safeties, easily the weakest coverage links on their defense.
Against the Redskins, there needs to be an effort to attack this group from the slot. In fact, Smith should continue to be featured inside along with Mike Wallace. In three and four-wide sets, there will be a better opportunity to create one-one-one matchups against the safeties on seam routes and post routes that go vertical – these are the big-play, deep middle shots that should be available, away from Josh Norman.
Moreover, Washington should present a lighter pass-rush challenge than the Raiders, putting the open spread looks in play on early downs. This approach should enable Flacco to work against the Redskins’ base defense. Even if rookie Alex Lewis gets the nod at left tackle (he should given how miserable James Hurst performed last week), the five-man and six-man protections should hold up.
Buck and Dixon in Space
After being deactivated the first three games of the season, Buck Allen made the most out of his opportunities as a pass-catcher against Oakland. Trestman used late motion to get Allen matched up against linebackers, detaching him from the backfield out wide. Allen’s shiftiness was on display outside the numbers, as he made defenders miss and provided a YAC dimension that the offense sorely lacked from its backs.
It’ll be interesting to see if Allen continues the role of a split out option, especially if rookie Kenneth Dixon makes his debut as expected. Whether it’s Allen or Dixon, getting these backs out in space is another way to generate explosive plays against a Washington defense that has struggled to tackle consistently.
If you watched Monday Night Football last week, you must have heard Jon Gruden use the phrase “muddy coverage” a few times to describe how Minnesota was using pre-snap disguise to keep Eli Manning guessing. Cover 2 is made to look like Cover 0 or Cover 2 is made to look like Cover 1 – the illusions are endless. Safety Harrison Smith was the point person behind the pre-snap deception for Minnesota, flashing in the box as a blitzer to give Manning the appearance of single coverage, only to help a corner on bracket coverage after the snap.
Cousins tends to pre-determine where he’s going with the ball based on what he sees before the snap, and he’s especially quick on the draw when he thinks he has man coverage. Shifting coverages pre-snap to post-snap is an effective method to bait Kirk Cousins to throw into double coverage.
In addition to having safeties Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb mix up coverages on the fly, the corners should play tight man under to keep the deadly Washington receivers from getting free releases off the line. Cousins will gobble up coverage cushions if he’s given the chance.
Flood the Passing Lanes
Again, the Washington passing attack is based on getting the ball out quickly and taking advantage of soft under coverage. If you look back at Cousins’ hot streak at the end of the 2015 season, he consistently picked apart defenses by getting the ball to his playmakers (Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson) in space.
Since then, defenses have adjusted. They are dropping seven and eight defenders to flood passing windows, forcing Cousins to hold the ball longer and find his secondary reads. In the red zone in particular, defenses (like the Steelers and Cowboys) have had success using coverage-based schemes to take away the easy pitch-and-catch plays.
If the Ravens use more bluff blitz combinations, dropping extra defenders into coverage is the natural step. Finding a way to contain this pass offense in the red zone will be critical because Washington hasn’t been able to cash in – despite being able to move the ball well through the air all year.
Late Blitz Look
The pass rush was practically non-existent against Oakland outside of two crafty blitzes by Weddle. In both instances, the veteran came from the strong side of the formation and flushed Carr to his right. The second blitz also involved a coverage rotation in which Webb moved to Weddle’s vacated safety post and a corner moved over to Webb’s free safety spot.
These plays were all about timing. Weddle didn’t start to move until right before the snap and he hit his gap with precision. These late blitzes should work well against Cousins to disrupt his rhythm and force him to make an off schedule play out of the pocket.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Cornerback Josh Norman versus Wide Receiver Steve Smith
Is there any doubt? These two have a history as fierce teammates, and they’re both at the top of the trash-talking pecking order. Fireworks should fly at M&T Bank Stadium. It’s remarkable to see Smith’s burst and violent running style return to form as if he didn’t just tear his Achilles less than a year ago.
In a defense that has had its problems, Norman remains a stud. He anticipates and breaks on the ball as well as anybody at the corner position, and his long arms enable him to close on the ball. Flacco will need to be careful with how often he tests his side.
On the other hand, Smith will need to be on top of his route-running and timing to gain separation from Norman on Sunday.