Attacking the Middle of the Zone Defense
The Colts have been a mess on both sides of the ball, but injuries have sapped any ability they could have had to be a stingier unit against the pass. They lost their two best cornerbacks – Vontae Davis and Rashaan Melvin – for stretches this season. If you’re doing a double take wondering if I’m talking about the same Melvin who was roasted in the Ravens’ loss to New England in the 2014 playoffs, I’m indeed talking about the same player. He’s turned into a more consistent corner with the ability to press and play boundary man coverage. He’ll be out for the Ravens game. In the case of Davis, he’s not even on the team anymore.
To compensate for the injuries, head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Ted Monachino (former Baltimore coaches) have used more zone coverage and zone man combinations to keep plays in front of them.
The problem is, this defense isn’t really built for zone, especially with the pass rush being non-existent. When the Colts play zone, their corners play outside off coverage (anywhere from 8-to-12 yards off the line), and their backers struggle to get the proper depth (at times dropping too deep and giving up plenty of space on quick-hitting inside patterns, at other times not dropping deep enough and giving passes behind the first level).
The backers in particular have struggled to contain the pass all season, and teams that have challenged them through spread looks have been successful. Despite the rainy conditions on Saturday, the Ravens need to continue using the spread as they did against Cleveland to draw those zone looks, force the Colts into their depleted nickel package, and establish a quick-hitting passing game.
Stacks and Pre-Snap Motion to Establish Free Releases
While the Colts play plenty of zone, especially when they are facing spread looks, this is still a Pagano-style defense that will rely on the corners to get in the face of the wideouts and play press coverage at the line of scrimmage. When he uses these coverage approaches, the Colts defense is better disciplined, and the aggressive style suits their corners better.
Even without Melvin, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg needs to anticipate the press-man coverages from Pagano and Monachino, especially in the earlier stages of the game. With receiver Jeremy Maclin doubtful for this game, the likelihood that the Baltimore receivers will see a fair share of press at the line is even greater.
Mornhinweg has done a nice job recently to create opportunities for his receivers to get a free release at the line through more 3×1 looks and pre-snap motion. Late motion should be in play plenty in this game to give Joe Flacco the chance to read the defense (man vs. zone), with tailback Danny Woodhead or receiver Michael Campanaro as the “move” receiver.
In a game in which the boundary receivers could be tested by press-man technique, Campanaro and Woodhead will have the chance to do a lot of damage over the middle of the field through motion releases and sit-down routes either in front of or behind the linebackers.
Throw on First Down; Sustain Gut Punches to the Body
At one point this season, the Indianapolis defense was actually really good against the run, to the point where offenses didn’t bother running on their front. That impenetrable force has seen some cracks over the last two weeks, with the Bills and Broncos assaulting their once middle-of-the-pack ranked run defense. In both games, the interior front simply wore down from a barrage of inside gashes.
This still remains a tough front to crack on first down (prior to Week 14, the Colts ranked yielded the least YPC against the run on first down plays), but you can wear them down.
For the Ravens, their best bet is to loosen up the first-down opportunities to run the ball by throwing the ball on first down in the first half of the game. The Ravens have been throwing the ball more often on first down, in fact taking aggressive shots through hard run-action in these down-and-distance situations, so that approach shouldn’t change much.
They’ll have their opportunity to turn to the power run in the second half and eventually hammer the larger Indianapolis front seven into submission.
Defending Hilton’s Deep Post Route
The Indianapolis deep game just hasn’t been the same without better play from the offensive line, even with quarterback Jacoby Brissett displaying the arm to get the ball to T.Y. Hilton downfield when he has time. He just hasn’t had the time to set up those deep shots. And as well as Brissett has played at times, he’s not Andrew Luck. All of these factors have contributed to Hilton’s down season. While Hilton has three games over 150 yards, he’s also had five straight games under 51 yards.
Still, Hilton’s presence on vertical routes can’t be taken lightly, especially on deep post routes that attack safeties one-on-one and stress corners (in Cover 0 situations) to trail in space. The Colts run different intersecting route combinations to get Hilton loose on isolation patterns in center field.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees should give Hilton the same treatment he gave Josh Gordon last week – plenty of double coverage, and plenty of inside-out combination coverages. The corners and safeties need to pass off coverage responsibilities without a hitch to avoid coverage busts downfield.
First Down Run Defense
There aren’t many things the Colts do well on the offensive side of the ball. They’re ranked 31st overall in total offense and 30th in pass offense. Their rush offense is ranked 22nd overall, and they’re 28th in yards per carry (YPC). Seems like a total mismatch on paper against the Ravens’ run defense, right? Not so fast.
Overall, the Baltimore run defense has been better since Brandon Williams returned to the lineup. But last week against the Browns was a setback, as they gave up 130 yards and 6.8 YPC. You can look at the hidden yards from DeShone Kizer’s scrambles and the monster run from Isaiah Crowell as the main culprits, but some bad habits crept in, including losing edge contain against Duke Johnson on his 12-yard touchdown run.
Not getting caught in the inside wash will be critical against Indianapolis backs Marlon Mack and Frank Gore. Gore is the old warhorse, but Mack brings a different element with his speed to the outside. If the backers get caught chasing too hard inside and lose their edge responsibilities, he can gash them off-tackle. Meanwhile, Gore still runs hard and can gain extra yards after contact. He doesn’t have the same home-run hitting ability but if he gets a crease, he can still accelerate through the hole.
It’ll be especially critical that the Ravens hold both backs in check on first down to keep the Colts in third-and-long situations.
Overload Exchange and Bluff Looks
I’ve already mentioned the barrage of injuries Indianapolis has dealt with all season, and the offensive line continues to take its hits with right tackle Denzelle Good set to miss this Saturday’s game. The net effect of Good being out is that right guard Joe Haeg could shift over to man the tackle spot, and backup Le’Raven (odd coincidence, no?) Clark would take over for Haeg.
The game of musical chairs along the offensive front clearly presents a golden opportunity for the Baltimore pass rush to capitalize. Last Sunday against the Browns, the rush was effective despite using just three, four, and five-man pressures. Pees mostly dialed up his pressures from the inside, using stunts to free up ILB C.J. Mosley, who played his best game in weeks.
This week, look for more of the perimeter rush opportunities to open up to take advantage of the shifts to the Colts’ right side of the line. If the Ravens show more slot corner, wide blitz looks, and also show overloads where the backers are heavy to the strong side, it’ll force Brissett to shift his protection and that’ll create an imbalance in the protection on the weak side.
This is the perfect game for Pees to run overload bluffs to one side and bring the pressure from the opposite side to keep the young QB and decimated offensive line guessing.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
T.Y. Hilton versus Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr
Hilton’s name has already come up in this piece, and his name bears repeating because he is the focal point of the Indianapolis offense. Like Gordon the week before, Hilton presents problems because the Colts will move him around at times, and his route tree isn’t always geared to the sidelines. Still, for rookie corner Marlon Humphrey and veteran Brandon Carr, the challenge will be dealing with Hilton as an outside receiver who can get loose on hard stop-and-go routes. In the case of Carr, playing with a cushion and giving up five yards of space underneath so Hilton doesn’t get over the top of the route is the better move. Both corners need to play physical and use their length to disrupt Hilton’s catch radius on sideline pass attempts.