Battle Plans: Ravens versus Titans
1. First Down Drive Starters
If you look back at the infamous drive that Joe Flacco was knocked out of (we all know the details so no need to rehash), the Ravens were in attack mode. They were running a no-huddle offense, and Flacco had three straight first down pass attempts before his abridged scramble took place. Throughout the game, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg did a nice job of letting Flacco cut loose on early downs to make easier completions, gain momentum, and keep the offense ahead in the down-and-distance.
It’s going to be important that Baltimore is able to stay in third-and-manageable against a Tennessee defense that ranks eight in the league in third-down defense, allowing just a 35 percent conversion rate. They’ve done a nice job of getting off the field despite not sacking the QB that frequently.
Flacco needs to continue working at a quicker pace. Varying the snap count and mixing in the quick count worked well against Miami, and that pace should continue against a Titans’ rush that can be challenged. More than anything though, he needs to continue attacking on first down, and there will be opportunities to work against off coverage outside the numbers.
2. Power Spread Sets
Last week against Miami, it was interesting to see how the Ravens operated from their spread, shotgun sets. Instead of going with wider sets, we saw more closed sets, meaning that the receivers and tight ends were situated closer to the line to make it more difficult for the edge rushers to get wide. The tighter formations also created opportunities to run the ball for tailback Alex Collins through perimeter sweeps and inside delays.
Ultimately, we should see a wide variety of big formations to spring the running game loose – unbalanced, full house, two and three-tight end personnel groupings.
But the shotgun spread presents an opportunity to work against the Tennessee nickel defense which has been scattered at times when they’ve had to rotate their corners. Despite having Dick LeBeau as their defensive coordinator, the Titans tend to play a more passive style when they defend a spread look. Flacco should have time to throw the ball and keeping the tight ends on the field will create stouter protection schemes.
3. Pump Fakes, Bootlegs, and Rollouts
It’s crystal clear that Flacco does better when he plays in more of a “movement” scheme, whether that means moving the pocket, running boot action, or running some coordinated rollouts. Moving the pocket seemed to energize Flacco last week and provided a better launch point. Let’s face it, Flacco just hasn’t been performing as well in the pocket. Giving him the chance to throw on the run is just another way to keep him engaged in the game.
The Ravens did a nice job of mixing in the boot action from their bigger two and three-tight end packages on early downs. Moreover, the Titans backers and defensive backs are susceptible to being influenced by play-fakes and pump-fakes. Mornhinweg has been doing a better job of setting up hard run-action fakes on first down from power sets, and that needs to be the formula against Tennessee on Sunday.
1. Mush Rush
Quarterback Marcus Mariota hasn’t been the same since he injured his hamstring nearly four weeks ago. He was rendered a pocket passer due to his mobility being sapped and the results were much different. As a passer, Mariota struggled with his location at times, and at other times, seemed to struggle to step up in the pocket.
Now that he’s healthy, it’s a totally different ballgame – and defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ needs to have his crew ready. First of all, he needs to keep Mariota contained in the pocket in obvious passing situations. The key for the front line that rushes the talented signal-caller is to rush to his level without rushing past him. They also need to continue getting their hands up to blur Mariota’s visibility and force him to hold the ball longer.
This is also the type of game in which using more dime looks with Anthony Levine as the spy would be a viable option in third-down situations. Levine has been making the most of his opportunities and offers plenty of flexibility as not only a spy on Mariota but also as an underneath rover who can check DeMarco Murray and Delanie Walker (if he plays) on underneath routes.
Aside from using Levine, when the Ravens are in their traditional nickel package, look for more inverted coverages in which Tony Jefferson drops down in the slot or in the box area with Lardarius Webb playing the deep safety role. Pees deserves credit for mixing up the coverage personnel against the Dolphins to give Jefferson more of a chance to play downhill, and he’ll be a key cog in getting after Mariota.
2. Solving the Exotic Smashmouth Riddle
What exactly is “exotic smashmouth?” It’s the Titans’ delicate balance between pounding the rock between the tackles and creating openings in the run game through their zone and misdirection scheme. Tennessee will use plenty of pre-snap motion to get the front defenders to chase horizontally. Meanwhile, the key to the entire orchestra is the composer, Mariota. He’ll run the read-option and put stress on the edge defenders to maintain their C-gap responsibilities. Oh, and there’s also the opportunity for Mariota to run run-pass options (RPOs) in which he’ll either fake the handoff and throw the ball or hand the ball off depending on the action of the linebackers.
Exotic smashmouth is all about getting the defense out of position and giving Mariota the chance to make quick decisions. Given Mariota’s ability to get outside and run, the edge defenders will be punished if they crash hard to play the inside handoff.
Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, and even Terrell Suggs have had their issues staying disciplined when they’ve set the edge. In the case of Smith, he’s taken wide angles in his upfield pursuit, opening up rush lanes for the cutback. The collective group of OLBs need to trust the interior to handle the inside runs and they need to protect the edges to account for Mariota and the zone cutback runs.
3. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Despite their struggles early in the season, the best appears to be ahead for the safety tandem of Jefferson and Eric Weddle. Both players were highly active against the Dolphins in the pre-snap phase of the game. They played their best game of the season.
However, these two have also been burned at times this season when they’ve had their eyes in the backfield and lost their coverage assignments on broken plays.
Mariota will certainly challenge the back-end integrity when he escapes the pocket. Even the most disciplined rush scheme is bound to lose contain against the playmaker at certain points. When he breaks contain, Jefferson, Weddle, and the rest of the defensive backs can’t lose their deep coverage integrity on the scramble drill. They need to be in plaster mode.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Terrell Suggs versus Taylor Lewan
This might turn into an all-out brawl on Sunday. If you haven’t had the chance to watch Lewan this season, pay close attention. He’s one of the best young LTs in the league. Lewan plays with a mean streak. In the Titans’ exotic smashmouth scheme, he’s the guy keying trap and pulling action to spring Murray and Derrick Henry loose on the ground. The Tennessee mauler is also equally adept as a pass blocker. Suggs has been simply dominant all-season long. His power game has been especially lethal. He’s using the stab move to rock OTs off balance. This is a heavyweight bout that could go 12 rounds.