Make the Vertical Connection
There is no way Bill Belichick would ever dare Joe Flacco to throw the ball downfield and work the sidelines, right? But that’s precisely what he did on Monday. His strategy proved bold and timely. Belichick has always respected the Ravens’ deep game, but he saw that the offense had morphed into a zone-cutting, over-the-middle attack this season, so he dropped his linebackers into that area and invited throws outside the numbers.
The lone deep connection that worked on MNF went to rookie Breshad Perriman for 47 yards. Otherwise, Flacco wasn’t on the mark with the few deep balls he attempted, including the failed deep shot to Mike Wallace into double coverage.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Eagles – who play a ton of man coverage – will adopt the Patriots’ approach of showing pre-snap A-gap pressure, only to bluff and drop. Regardless of how Philadelphia approaches their pre-snap looks, they will still play an aggressive, feast-or-famine style of coverage, and they will present single coverage looks outside.
Just last week, the Redskins were able to hit on several deep shots. The opportunities will be there for Flacco and he should be able to capitalize. In addition, there needs to be more back-shoulder and stop routes called (like the deep back-shoulder completion to Steve Smith late Monday night) because those routes will be available.
Flag Routes and Post Routes
Getting back to the Redskins’ big plays in the passing game, one of the patterns that worked well for them was a flag or deep out pattern going from the slot.
Jamison Crowder got loose for a 33-yard gain that opened up further down the field because the outside receiver ran a shallow out pattern to the sideline, pulling the underneath DB away for a clear-out effect. DeSean Jackson scored on a deep post pattern in which the same setup was in place, and he was able to break free from CB Leodis McKelvin in the middle of the field.
Again, the Eagles don’t shy away from leaving their corners on an island without safety help. In the past three weeks, the Packers, Bengals, and Redskins have feasted on big plays as a result.
The Ravens have the ability to do the same level of damage using Smith, Wallace, and Perriman on inside releases and two-man route combinations. They just need to sling it.
As often as New England dropped seven and eight defenders into coverage, you would think the coaching staff would have adjusted by trying to move Flacco around, or the veteran QB would have been alert enough to move around within the pocket to give his receivers time to break off their routes. That’s really the best way to handle loaded coverages – which New England showed all night long.
Now, to the Patriots’ credit, they disguised their coverage drops well, often giving the look that they were rushing more than four (double barrel A-gap pressures or overloads from the edges involving their DBs), only to bluff out of the look, and bring defenders from different rush points. Flacco often thought the blitz was on when it really wasn’t, so he would turn to a quick check down.
Against the Eagles, he’ll need to show better patience in the post-snap phase. Flacco needs to let the rushers declare their move, and if there is ample time and space (to quote my friend Ken McKusick), he’ll be able to make plays off-schedule.
No Huddle, Quick Tempo
There is no other way to say it: The Patriots absolutely worked the Ravens’ defense when they went to their up-tempo, no-huddle offense. This isn’t the first time either. You would think by now the team would be prepared with their personnel packages, but instead they looked like deer caught in headlights, scrambling before the snap to get lined up, and ultimately falling apart due to exhaustion.
While the setting is drastically different this time around, look for the Eagles to run their own version of the no-huddle. Even on the road, with the crowd noise in full effect, head coach Doug Pederson hasn’t backed away from letting his rookie QB Carson Wentz orchestrate the no-huddle. Wentz has had some success in this style of offense — especially earlier in the season — and he understands how to manipulate the snap count to keep defenses off balance.
For the Ravens defense, there really is no excuse to get caught flat-footed again if the Eagles go on the fast break. They need a speed package in place to counter, and they’ll just have to stick with that group without substituting.
Defending Wentz Out of the Pocket
There is some merit to the comparisons between Wentz and Big Ben Roethlisberger. While the rookie from North Dakota State isn’t as athletic as Ben was when he entered the league, he can certainly improvise and gain yards with his feet when the opportunities are there. Against Green Bay, Wentz had four rushes for 33 yards and scored a TD.
Not only does the front seven need to be prepared for Wentz’s ability to break out of the pocket as a runner, the back end also needs to be aware that he’ll keep his eyes downfield to extend plays with his arm. Playing with coverage discipline and plastering will be crucial on Sunday.
In addition, look out for Pederson to keep Wentz throwing on the run with well-timed boots and waggles.
Shifts and Motion
The roots of this Philadelphia offense go back to Andy Reid’s version of the west coast offense (WCO). As a Reid disciple, Pederson has incorporated a lot of the same principals and features, and that includes using a lot of pre-snap motion and formation shifts to out-flank and out-maneuver the defense.
Brady used plenty of pre-snap motion to get the Baltimore defense to declare its coverage. If motion revealed man coverage, that’s when Brady would use a second shift (moving his back out wide) to get the mismatch he wanted.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Ravens counter motion and formation changes before the snap, especially if they continue to play both Zach Orr and C.J. Mosley in their heavy nickel looks. The Patriots had success isolating both backers in space using their tight ends and running backs.
The Ravens may catch a break with tailback Darren Sproles (the ultimate space player) looking iffy with a concussion, but tight end Zack Ertz has been a monster the last couple of weeks. When he shifts around, the move defender needs to be a DB, even if that means it’s a cornerback.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Left Guard Marshal Yanda versus Defensive Tackle Fletcher Cox
If we were to characterize this matchup in WWE terms, it would easily be “The Main Event.” Yanda continues to amaze despite playing with an injured left shoulder. In fact, he’s playing some of the best football of his career, especially as a run blocker. Cox is right up there with Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins as arguably the best interior defensive tackle in the game. Like a lot of the greats, he has a tremendous get-off, and he plays with great leverage. While Cox hasn’t been putting up the numbers this season, he’s still a force and can create negative plays in the backfield.