Battle Plans: Ravens versus Patriots
Going into this season and any other season for that matter, the Ravens have never really been much of a pre-snap movement offense. They use motion at times to give their receivers a chance on a free release, but it’s not a consistent approach.
However, last week pre-snap movement played a prominent role in springing a few plays in the passing game. Steve Smith was involved as the move player to Tony Lippett’s side, and he was able to widen Lippett on a slant play that pierced the middle of the Dolphins’ defense. Tight end Dennis Pitta was also in motion a few times and he was able to consistently get a clean release as a result.
There’s no doubt that Bill Belichick and his outstanding defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, saw how soft Miami played against the Ravens, and they’ll have something different in store for the Baltimore pass catchers.
If offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg uses more pre-snap motion to move Smith, Pitta, and his other chess pieces, especially to release from a stack formation, they’ll be able to deal with New England’s press technique.
Smith in particular would benefit as the move guy because he’ll most likely have Malcolm Butler on him. Belichick typically uses Butler to handle man coverage responsibilities without safety help, and it would make sense to use Devin McCourty to provide help to Mike Wallace’s side.
Move the Corners Away From the Sidelines
Extending the point about moving Smith, the reason you want to get him involved as the move guy on more inside routes is to draw Butler away from his comfort zone along the sidelines. Butler is better when he has the sideline as an extra defender to squeeze receivers wide and force different touch throws for quarterbacks to complete.
Overall, the Ravens should look to create more one-on-one matchup opportunities for their wideouts over the middle of the field, where they have space to force the New England corners to trail. The pass play against Tony Lippett is a perfect illustration.
In the slot, Logan Ryan has been playing well for the Patriots, but the slot presents the best attack point for Wallace and rookie Breshad Perriman to use their speed and potentially take the top off. Again, Belichick will be keen on taking away the deep ball, but even if the vertical routes are tougher to open up, Mornhinweg can’t lose sight of underneath crossing, slant, and post route options to deliver Wallace and Perriman the ball.
Dixon in Space
The Baltimore tight ends (particularly Pitta) showed up plenty in the Patriots’ film room this week. Even with their linebackers being shaky in coverage, you have to think that the Belichick/Patricia brain trust will find a way to zero in on this group and keep them in check.
The problem for Belichick and Patricia is that Mornhinweg can also use rookie Kenneth Dixon to challenge the New England linebackers in coverage, especially Dixon who has eight catches in the last two games, and, he presents even more potential as a move guy (similar to what Dion Lewis and James White bring to the table for the Patriots) in passing situations.
It’s not enough that Dixon is a leak out target on quick-hitting out routes and dump-offs in the flats – he needs to motion out wide, put the New England backers to the test, and be the centerpiece of the underneath passing attack on Monday.
Defending Play-action; Blitz When Under Center
When you think of the Patriots’ offensive profile, what comes to mind is the free-wheeling spread attacks that fueled their record-breaking 2007 team. Even last season in the playoffs against Kansas City, we saw New England spread the field, go empty, and expose the Chiefs’ in the open field. They certainly have that ability any week.
But the flip side of the coin is that New England is one of the best play-action passing teams in the league, and a lot of their play-fakes come when Tom Brady is under center, working from heavier packages. Brady will really sell the fake by turning his back and whipping around quickly to plant and throw.
When Brady turns his back, there is an opening for a defense to blitz from the inside – one of the rare openings they’ll get. Back in 2010, the Ravens exploited A-gap pressures against Brady in play-action situations, and the ILBs had success because they didn’t tip their rush moves in the pre-snap phase.
If LeGarrette Blount is on the field and Brady is under center, C.J. Mosley, Zach Orr, and Terrell Suggs (on an inside slant move), need to be in play as inside blitzers to (A) gain fast penetration into the backfield to slow down Blount on a run blitz and (B) attack Brady.
It’s a high risk, high reward move. When you blitz Brady, you have to pick your spots, and you can’t hesitate. Running some hard run blitzes in these situations may be the best chance the defense has to force the future Hall of Fame QB to release the ball before he wants to.
Be Prepared for the Spread
The Patriots aren’t going to shy away from trying to pound the ball with Blount regardless of how stout the Ravens are against the run. It’s been their formula all season.
But it’ll be interesting to see how often New England runs the ball out of spread and shotgun as opposed to out of their power formations (jumbo), even if that means keeping Blount in the game as an offset runner. After all, Miami had success in spots running the ball from spread looks, and Jay Ajayi and Blount have similar running styles. Also, using open looks enables the Patriots to stay on schedule with their running game in short yardage situations against a lighter defensive front.
Either way, whether it’s Blount or it’s James White and Dion Lewis, look for the Patriots to work some draws and delays from offset run formations.
It’s a tricky formation dance for defensive coordinator Dean Pees. He’ll have to use a lot of nickel packages, just as he did against Miami, to defend New England’s three receiver looks. But that means the front needs to be able to get off of blocks and stop the run without much help from the backers and defensive backs.
From a substitution standpoint, Pees should keep playing nickel to match up with the Patriots when they go spread. But he also needs to mix in some dime (with Anthony Levine taking Orr’s spot) when New England goes to a four-wide or empty look.
Cover 1, Cover 3, Let Weddle Run Free
Having any level of success against Brady means keeping him guessing on coverages and pressure looks at the pre-snap phase. You can’t stay in any one coverage the entire game, or he’ll get comfortable and shred the scheme.
The Ravens’ ability to disguise coverages (between two-deep, one deep, no deep) hinges on their safeties. In this game, the biggest chess piece is Eric Weddle, and Brady knows it.
Weddle has been a pre-snap move defender all year for Pees, but he was especially active last week against the Dolphins. He would come flying to the line of scrimmage a few seconds before the snap to show Tannehill a loaded box, only to backpedal and drop into deeper coverage layers post-snap.
In this game, Weddle’s ability to float and help in underneath coverage could be critical on two fronts. One, his pre-snap movement can keep the Ravens in a revolving coverage between Cover 1 and Cover 3, and he can also assist the inside defenders (backers and slot corner Jerraud Powers) to pick up White or Lewis out of the backfield and also double Julian Edelman.
The coverage strategy should be to take away Brady’s quick underneath options (who he can get the ball to in less than three seconds) and force him to look outside to Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan. That may mean sacrificing Weddle’s deep coverage support and putting the pressure on Webb, but that’s the higher percentage play.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Cornerback Malcolm Butler versus Wide Receiver Steve Smith, Sr.
These are two feisty, competitive players, and there will be some extracurricular activity when they square off. As mentioned in the offensive game plan, Butler should line up against Smith more often because he handles shadow coverage responsibilities. It’ll be interesting if Butler also travels with Smith to the slot, where the veteran receiver has been getting more snaps. Butler uses his hands to disrupt receivers downfield, and he won’t back down from any challenge, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can hold up away from the outside.