Recognizing Harrison Smith
You could make a strong argument that Harrison Smith is the best safety in the league right now. He can do it all – play in the box, blitz, take on tight ends in coverage, play the joker or lurk defender role, and man the deep waters of the field.
Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards does an excellent job of moving Smith around like a chess piece. And Smith rewards Edwards with his innate ability to disguise his pre-snap and post-snap movement. In back-to-back weeks against the Bears and Packers, Smith has been on a tear as a playmaker, totaling 2 INTs and 1.5 sacks as essentially a hybrid LB/S.
While Smith is confounding protection schemes and coverage reads, it’s not as if he’s a complete man of mystery. When Smith is on the move, he’s usually operating from the weak side of the formation. That’s where Joe Flacco’s eye path needs to go before the snap.
Pre-snap motion is at least one way to try to deter or force Smith to declare his move. Receiver Michael Campanaro should be the move guy coming across the formation or from out of the backfield, especially when Smith looks like he’s coming on the blitz. Flacco needs to motion to the weak side to challenge Smith all game.
Answering the Double-A Gap Pressures
Along with the slot and edge pressure Smith brings, and the edge pressure linebacker Anthony Barr and end Everson Griffen bring, the Vikings also use a combination of double-A gap pressures to get after the QB. This is a Mike Zimmer defense after all.
Although the Vikings have dialed down the frequency of these A-gap pressures, they are still part of the fastball pitches they throw at an offense when they want to ruin a play or make a key stop. The Vikings will also mix in some changeups and curve balls by having their backers bluff the blitz and drop into coverage right before the snap to flood the intermediate passing lanes.
With Breshad Perriman already declared out, and receivers Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin being questionable, the Ravens will potentially have to turn to slot receivers Campanaro and newl- signed Griff Whalen to run those inside crossers and sit-down routes behind the backers.
The Vikings ILBs could consistently bluff out of the A-gap blitzes and trade places with the edge rushers to take away the slot receivers on quick-hitters over the middle. If that’s the case, Campanaro and tailback Buck Allen should have more chances to get loose on flare routes and dumpoffs in the flats to hit the vacated spaces.
Running From Shotgun
Minnesota has been a stout defense everywhere, but they’ve been especially tough against the run. They’re giving up just 78.7 yards per game (YPG), which is good for third overall. They’re also giving up just 3.2 yards per carry (YPC). There isn’t anything fancy about this front from a scheme standpoint. They’re just fundamentally sound and don’t make many mistakes. And because Linval Joseph is such an anchor in the middle, they can stuff the run with just six and seven in the box in most situations.
It’ll be tough sledding for a Baltimore rushing attack that has been stellar all season. It’s hard to envision the Ravens being able to line up in their big formations on early downs and pound the ball against this front from Power I. They’ll need to show more spread looks from the gun and try to generate yards off-tackle, away from Joseph.
To this point, the Ravens have seen outstanding return on their shotgun sweeps and delay run calls. Tailback Alex Collins has ripped off some of his best runs from these designs. Against a Minnesota front that’s tough to crack, these plays have the best chance to succeed, especially in traditional passing situations.
Anticipate the Hurry-Up Attack
Under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmer, the Vikings have been an up-tempo, spread-the-field offense that operates in a lot of shotgun sets. The offensive approach is a departure from the ground-and-pound days of Adrian Peterson. In many ways, the scheme fits quarterback Sam Bradford’s skills as more of a run-and-shoot QB, and when Bradford was healthy for all of one week against the Saints, you saw its potential to be explosive.
Even without Bradford, Case Keenum has done a respectable job, and Shurmer hasn’t really eased off the throttle when it comes to running more wide-open, fast-paced drives. In fact, according to Football Outsiders, Minnesota is the sixth-fastest team in the league, running a play every 27.56 seconds.
What does all of this mean for defensive coordinator Dean Pees? Given how often Minnesota is in shotgun (with the back usually in an offset position), he should stick to his nickel package in early downs to deal with this up-tempo attack. The Vikings will run the ball from these formations, so the inside backers will be challenged to play the run but not be over-aggressive when Keenum looks to throw off play-action.
All in all, the defense can’t be caught off guard with the fast-paced approach.
Defending Jerick McKinnon and the Screen Game
There’s the potential for a storm to erupt in the open field if the Ravens don’t get better at defending screen passes. Minnesota is getting better and better at their screen game, even as they run it without star runner Dalvin Cook. Jerick McKinnon is just as much of a natural fit. He’s not only elusive but he also has home run potential every time he touches the ball. Behind a more athletic line that can get out into space, the Vikings have gained the ninth most yards in the league on screen plays.
Conversely, Baltimore has struggled in key spots to defend quick screens to back. Jacksonville hit them consistently to slow down their pass rush, as did the Steelers on some quick-hitting coordinated dump-offs to Le’Veon Bell.
The key to defending the screen is quick recognition and being able to get off blocks to get quick penetration. The defensive backs are also critical to keeping these plays in check. This is going to be a big game for the backers and safety Tony Jefferson to get upfield and keep the Minnesota screen game contained.
First Down Defense
In six games, the Ravens have faced two legitimate starting quarterbacks – Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger. The rest of the cast of characters are backups, should-be-backups (see Blake Bortles), and one promising QB in Mitchell Trubisky. The key to unsettling these QBs remains the same – you need to be able to win on first down. If any quarterback, let alone a struggling one, has more favorable second and third-down situations to work with, an offensive coordinator can hide his deficiencies.
Last week against the Bears, the defense was gashed too many times on first down, making life easier for Trubisky to keep the chains moving. When the Bears were forced into third-and-long situations, the Ravens were mostly successful.
Keenum is actually playing good football and seems to be comfortable in Shurmer’s offense. He can make plays out of the pocket (the Ravens have struggled to defend mobile QBs) and he attacks downfield. But he’s still limited, and he’s still someone the Ravens can overwhelm into making mistakes if he’s forced to play from behind in the down-and-distance battle.
Baltimore needs to regain their edge as a first-down defense to keep Keenum in more obvious passing situations. That means doing a better job against the run on first down as well, and not playing soft in coverage so Keenum can complete easy throws to get comfortable. Press the receivers and look to take away the outside running lanes for McKinnon to cut down on the first-down production.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Ryan Jensen versus Linval Joseph
I mentioned Joseph already, but you really can’t mention him enough. If the Ravens are going to have any level of success running the ball, they’ll have to figure out a way to block him. It won’t be a one-man job, either, but it’ll probably start with Jensen. With Jensen, the Ravens have a strong enforcer who can play head up against more imposing nose guards. He’s been a maniac drive-blocker who’s been able to move his man and then work his way to the second level. It’ll be Jensen’s toughest assignment yet against Joseph, who lives to ruin plays in the backfield, but he’ll need to be up to the physical challenge.