The Plan to Beat Pittsburgh

Battle Plans The Plan to Beat Pittsburgh

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Open-Space Tackling Drill

The theme of the Steelers’ clash with Chicago was their shoddy tackling. Time and time again, the Pittsburgh backers and defensive backs struggled to contain what should have been minimal gains in the open field. The Bears didn’t challenge the Steelers downfield because they didn’t have to. Short dump-offs and underneath crossers got the job done.

Now, for a Ravens’ offense that lives off the check down, this seems to be the perfect scenario. However, there are two issues. The backs and receivers simply haven’t been making defenders miss tackles with any level of consistency. And as we saw last week against the Jaguars, opposing linebackers are all over the short underneath passes the Ravens run. The Jacksonville LBs sat on those routes in third-down passing situations.

That’s not to say there isn’t an opportunity to exploit the Steelers’ shaky open-field tackling. But offensive coordinator Mart Mornhinweg has to be better. Like a two-man pick-and-roll basketball scheme, he needs to give his playmakers a chance to work off picks and clear outs to break loose. In particular, he needs to get speed receivers Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman in the open field, working underneath on slants and crossers that get them matched up with the Pittsburgh defensive backs in trail coverage.

The Steelers were also gashed by tailback Tarik Cohen in space. Naturally, that sets up well for Buck Allen, but Allen really isn’t a shake-and-bake back like Cohen; he’s more of a slasher. Give him the ball in space through coordinated screens and underneath routes that enable him to follow blockers and he’ll have a better chance to gain yards in the open field.

Livin’ on the Edge

The Bears’ ground game against Pittsburgh wasn’t overly sophisticated. They mostly did their damage off cutback runs in which the Steelers front line was washed down chasing the playside, only to lose backside contain. Chicago set up that cutback action by running left and cutting back inside. The left-side perimeter run game was so successful it forced the Steelers to overcommit at times and they couldn’t maintain their gap integrity.

To this point, we’ve seen plenty of the outside zone stretch run (to the weakside) from the Ravens’ run-game arsenal. Baltimore had success creasing the Browns two weeks ago with off-tackle runs. However, the mix of backside cutbacks hasn’t been as prevalent – the backs have mostly stayed frontside to ride out their outside blocks.

Mixing in backside cutback opportunities certainly makes sense in light of the Steelers’ struggles to handle those types of runs. But the counters should be plentiful with the tight ends actively involved on perimeter wham and pull blocks. Overall, run-game coordinator Greg Roman has done a nice job using his tight ends as motion and pull blockers on lead iso runs.

Alex Collins should be the feature guy when the Ravens are in run mode from their base sets. Collins has a lightning burst to the edge. He’s their best bet to stress the Steelers’ perimeter run defense.

Flip the Script

Mornhinweg’s early down play-calling patterns were…curious…to the least. You would think the first-down production would be atrocious given how many three-and-outs the offense had in the early part of the game against Jacksonville. But on three of their first four drives, the offense had gains of four, five, and four yards. That’s optimal for first-down production.

So what happened on second down? The Ravens threw the ball and had incompletions. They went to the gun and tried to spread out the Jaguars and their passing attack sputtered. Even in a key third-and-two conversion opportunity, Mornhinweg opted to throw the ball instead of trying to run it.

Granted, this is a small sample size to harp on. And the defense was buried by scores each time the offense was forced off the field so that didn’t help with the game script. But Mornhinweg needs to reign in the open formations from the gun in those short-yardage conversion situations and give his depleted offensive line a chance to compete. The offense needs to be able to stay on the field to keep the Pittsburgh offense on the sidelines.

Sunday is all that matters


Cloud Coverage Mashups

Last Sunday, the Bears’ defensive focus was to eliminate the big play from the Pittsburgh offense. They deterred Ben Roethlisberger from airing it out deep using a mix of Cover 3 coverages (three deep, four under), with an assortment of “cloud” coverage mixed in.

In the “cloud” setup, the safeties roll to the deepest thirds of the field along with one of the corners (typically the right corner). The left corner will jam and pass off the opposing receiver to the strong safety. This type of “cloud” is geared to take away the 9-route – in Pittsburgh’s offense, that means Martavis Bryant. The Bears stifled Bryant all day, as the dynamic WR finished with just 30 yards receiving.

In the past, Dean Pees has used his own variations of zone coverage to keep Roethlisberger from airing it out deep. If he employs the same “cloud” coverage that the Bears used, the safeties can’t make mistakes in their assignments as they did against Jacksonville. In addition, tackling will need to be at a premium. But if they can maintain their back-end discipline, this is a coverage scheme that can keep Pittsburgh bottled up.

Dime Defense

 The toughest part about facing the Steelers is figuring out the right personnel package to line up in from the opening snap. Given that Pittsburgh lines up in so many four-receiver sets, defenses are basically forced to keep a nickel defense on the field at all times, which is tough because the Steelers instantly gain the edge to face a lighter front and run the ball with Le’Veon Bell. However, teams also need to have an answer for Bell’s ability to detach from the formation and line up as a wide receiver. If you play a 4-2 front with two inside linebackers on the field, Bell will have the mismatch in one-on-one situations outside or he’ll eat up soft zone coverage underneath.

That’s why the dime defense (featuring Anthony Levine as an ILB) would be the Ravens’ best personnel bet in this matchup. Yes, the Ravens would sacrifice some of their brute strength against the run. But the reality is Kamalei Correa and Patrick Onwuasor haven’t exactly been enforcers, and both players are liabilities in coverage because they’ve dropped too deep and missed tackles.

The Ravens will need Levine’s versatility to match up against Bell and talented rookie slot man JuJu Smith-Schuster. With six DBs on the field, C.J. Mosley would also be freed up to rush and spy Big Ben.

Delayed Blitz Action From Static Looks

There’s always a classic cat-and-mouse game between Pees and Roethlisberger in obvious passing situations. Pees has confused Big Ben at times, using his amoeba looks in which the front defenders are all standing up aside from one down lineman. From this look, defenders will bluff out of the blitz or come, but it’s been tough for the future Hall-of-Famer to discern who’s coming and who’s bluffing.

These defensive fronts have better potential for breaking through against spread looks like the four-wide packages the Steelers run. Overload blitzes are especially effective, and the Bears were able to get home a few times to pressure Big Ben.

However, to this point in the season, Pees hasn’t been showing as many of those exotic standup formations. He flashed some of those looks against the Bengals but has dialed out of it when facing the Browns and Jaguars’ spread looks. The result has been a static defense that doesn’t move around before the snap.

The Bears had success using a static pre-snap approach in which the defenders didn’t move until after the ball was snapped. Once the ball was snapped, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio did a nice job of using delayed blitz action to attack Pittsburgh’s open sets.

Pees can continue to run static looks, but he should incorporate delayed blitz action after the snap. When you consider that Bell is so involved as a receiver out of the backfield, there will be some chances to attack the Pittsburgh front five after they’ve declared their blocking assignments.

One-on-One Matchup to Watch

Antonio Brown versus Jimmy Smith

There are other corners in the NFL who get the notoriety that Smith doesn’t get. But when he’s healthy, he’s a shutdown corner, plain and simple. Against Brown, Smith has had some of his best performances, holding the best receiver in the game to 61 yards and 85 yards in their last two encounters. Brown is used all over the field, so it’ll be tough for Smith to track him on every play. But when they’re matched up outside the numbers, Smith will need to pin Brown to the sideline and use his length to disrupt the wideout’s timing.

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Dev Panchwagh

About Dev Panchwagh

Dev Panchwagh is a versatile analyst who breaks down the Xs and Os of the game and has been a columnist/analyst for since the summer of 2004. In his regular season column Battle Plans, Dev highlights the Ravens’ keys to success against each upcoming opponent.

Dev started modestly as a sports journalist, but his contributions to sports talk radio were noticed, leading to duties as a regular columnist for the network before joining RSR.  It would be very difficult to find his rare combination of youthfulness, knowledge and insight in all facets of football anywhere else.  Fortunately, Dev brings it here each and every week. 

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