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Ravens Can’t Let Donald Wreck the Game

Aaron Donald and the Rams defense.
John McGillen/NFL photo
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Find 99 on Every Play

Coming out of the University of Pittsburgh, Aaron Donald was knocked for being undersized. At 6’1” and 285 pounds, he lacked the ability to play on the outside and was too small to meet traditional parameters for a defensive tackle. The Rams saw through questions about Donald’s size, focused on his many positive traits, and selected him with their first round pick. Their faith in Donald has been hugely rewarded.

Donald is the Rams’ best player. Donald may be the best defensive player in the NFL. Donald may be the best player in the NFL, period. A two-time defensive player of the year, Donald has redefined the idea of the prototypical NFL defensive tackle over the course of his six-year NFL career. He uses his well above average athleticism for the position and the fastest 40-yard dash time ever run by a defensive tackle at the NFL combine to dominate his opponents. On film, Donald is often behind his opponent’s line of scrimmage before they even know what happened.

In his games against the Ravens, Tom Brady infamously wrote “Find 20 on Every Play” on his wrist band. Ed Reed was so dangerous and important to the outcome of the game that a QB of Brady’s caliber found it important to remind himself to locate him before every snap. Aaron Donald has some of the same game-changing ability that Reed had. When the Ravens are on offense on Monday night, their first task on every play should be identifying where Donald is aligned.

Identifying Donald and adjusting their offense to beat him will allow the Ravens to do a few things:

— They can run away from him.

— They can double team him in passing situations.

— They can run straight at him in the ground game and ensure that either Nick Boyle or Patrick Ricard are hitting him on every play.

On Monday night against the Rams, the Ravens offense should “Find 99 on Every Play.” Donald is just that good.

Attack the Middle of the Field with Tight Ends

Among the vast differences between former Ravens franchise QB Joe Flacco and new Ravens franchise QB Lamar Jackson, one similarity stands out: Ravens QBs love throwing to their Tight Ends.

Whether it was because the Ravens lacked top talent at WR or because he simply preferred throwing to sure-handed players like Dennis Pitta, Flacco was known to heavily favor TEs.

Whether it’s due to playing in an offense that frequently deploys multiple TEs at once or because he’s developed a strong rapport with his talented group of young TEs, Lamar Jackson is building a reputation for strongly favoring his TEs over his WRs.

Through 11 weeks this season, Jackson leads the NFL is pass attempts to TEs with 126. Only Carson Wentz, throwing the ball to the talented TE duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, even comes close. On the flip side, the Ravens are dead last in the NFL in targets to their WRs. Through 10 games, Ravens WRs have only seen 120 total targets. For comparison, there are currently five NFL teams whose WRs have seen at least 240 targets so far this season. Jackson’s tendency to favor Mark Andrews, James Hurst and Nick Boyle should not end on Monday night.

While they certainly haven’t been bad this year, starting ILBs Cory Littleton and Troy Reeder are by no means the strength of the Rams defense. Alongside one of the NFL’s scariest front fours led by Aaron Donald and a secondary led by Eric Weddle and Jalen Ramsey, the ILBs are the soft spot in the Los Angeles defense. Littleton holds up very well in coverage, but he tends to get deep drops in zone coverage and leaves plenty of room for passes to be completed underneath. Talented TEs like Will Dissly, George Kittle and Tyler Eifert have all found success in the middle of the field against Los Angeles. With the talented trio of Andrews, Hurst and Boyle at his disposal, Jackson should stick with the status quo and attack the Rams ILBs with his TEs.

Pound the Rock

If it feels like we’ve been down this road a few times this season already, it’s because we most certainly have. Various interpretations of “run the ball,” “stick to the run,” and “pound the rock” have graced the pages of ‘Battle Plans’ multiple times so far this season. In all fairness, it can be difficult to get away from focusing on the running game when the Ravens lead the NFL in: rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, percentage of 1st down rushes, rushes of 20 or more yards, rushes of 40 or more yards, etc. The list goes on and on for this most literally historical Ravens rushing attack.

Expect the Ravens to stick with their modus operandi on Monday night. The Rams currently rank 5th in the NFL against the run, 15th against the pass and 10th overall. It may seem like a fool’s errand to try to run on the 5th ranked run defense in the NFL, but the Ravens did just fine running against the Texans 3rd ranked run defense in Week 11. The Ravens did so well, in fact, that the Texans dropped ten full spots and were the 13th ranked run defense in the NFL entering their Thursday night contest last night.

Besides the fact that Los Angeles hasn’t seen a rushing attack that even remotely resembles the one that the Ravens are using, running right at the Rams makes sense from a matchup perspective. The Rams employ one of the most adept pass-rushing front fours in the NFL. With 21.5 career sacks, DT Michael Brockers is a talented interior pass rusher who is often overlooked because he plays next to the NFL’s best interior pass rusher in Aaron Donald. On the edges, the Rams start big name pass rush specialists Clay Matthews and Dante Fowler. The front four is very good, but they are most comfortable when they’re tasked with rushing the passer. To slow the pass rush down and not play into their opponent’s hands, the Ravens should attack the Rams with plenty of their now signature power running game on Monday night.

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Commit Defensive Backs to Pass Coverage

In Week 11, the Ravens defense was able to fluster Texans QB Deshaun Watson more than any other defense in football this season. The then-MVP candidate looked out of sorts against a Baltimore defense that tallied five 1st half sacks and had him holding the ball for far too long. While the sacks were credited to Matt Judon, Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson and Patrick Onwuasor, the reality is that the Ravens defensive backs deserve at least a share of the credit.

Since acquiring Marcus Peters and getting Jimmy Smith back from an injury that kept him out for the early part of the season, the Ravens have started living up to early-season headlines that labeled Baltimore’s secondary as one of the NFL’s best. Marlon Humphrey has emerged as a superstar and is playing at an All-Pro level. Peters leads all AFC CBs in Pro Bowl voting and Brandon Carr and Smith are the best backup CB duo in football. At safety, Chuck Clark has come into his own since taking over for Tony Jefferson and Earl Thomas is playing at a high level after getting off to a slow start. The Ravens have the players in their secondary to matchup with the talented trio of Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods.

The Rams passing attack relies heavily on play action passing and timing. When Jared Goff takes the snap, he is very frequently looking to get the ball out quickly on a short timing route like a screen, slant or curl. When his first option isn’t open and he’s forced to go through his progressions after a short drop, he tends to struggle. If the Ravens’ talented group of defensive backs can keep Rams WRs covered for the first few seconds after the snap, they’ll disrupt the timing, force Goff to hold onto the ball and allow the pass rush to get home. Against Los Angeles, the Ravens should drop extra players into pass coverage to disrupt the Rams’ quick passing game and create opportunities for Goff to make mistakes.

Confuse Goff

Rams Head Coach Sean McVay is one of the brightest young offensive minds in football. After six years in the Washington Redskins organization, the then 30-year-old McVay was hired by the Rams and became the youngest head coach in NFL history. Besides an appearance is Super Bowl LIII, McVay’s biggest accomplishment to date may be the fact that he already has an NFL “coaching tree” at just 33. Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor and Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur were both assistant coaches on McVay’s staff.

Part of McVay’s genius is his ability to design an offense and help Goff develop. While McVay worked wonders leading the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance, there was talk that McVay was also doing an excellent job masking Goff’s shortcomings. After the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Rams, it was revealed that part of the defensive game plan included making adjustments after the play clock ran past 15 seconds. At 15 seconds on the clock, the speaker in the QBs helmet shuts off automatically and a coach’s ability to communicate with their QB ends. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots switched defensive looks after the speaker was off to force Goff to read the New England defense without the aid of McVay in his ear. Using that strategy, the Patriots held the Rams’ once explosive offense to just three points in the biggest game of the season.

Wink Martindale should remember the Patriots’ strategy to defeat Goff when calling plays against the Rams. Confusing Goff is possible, and critical to limiting the Rams offense. Martindale can rely on Chuck Clark to call late audibles like the Patriots in the Super Bowl or stick with the more traditional methods. Disguising coverages and bringing blitzes from all over the line of scrimmage will keep Goff on his toes. Goff is tied for 4th worst in the NFL with 10 interceptions and has the lowest completion percentage of any starting QB.

If Martindale and the Ravens can keep him uncomfortable, Goff could be in for a long night on Monday.

Play the Run-Stuffers

Despite all the motion, window dressing and razzle dazzle that McVay incorporates into the Rams offense, he loves to run the ball between the tackles. Watch the Rams for a short period of time and it quickly becomes very clear that the inside run game is a staple of their offense. On their first drive on offense in their Week 6 game against the 49ers, the Rams ran the ball on seven straight plays on their way to a TD.

Last week against the Bears’ 8th ranked defense, the Rams ran the ball as much as in any other game this season. Todd Gurley had more carries, 25, than in any game this season and the Rams looked as if they had rededicated themselves to their interior running game. Gurley ran the ball 25 times for 97 yards and a touchdown. As a team, the Rams ran the ball 34 times and had only 18 pass attempts on the day.

Against some teams, sliding versatile pass rushers inside can create mismatches against interior offensive linemen. Due to the Rams’ tendency to lean on a quick passing game and inside running attack, the Ravens should try to have their best run stuffers on the field. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce are obviously their top options. If Williams needs a breather or Pierce is ultimately unavailable due to injury, recently acquired DTs Domata Peko and Justin Ellis make for great rotational options. At a combined listed weight on 675 pounds, they are well equipped to help stop the run.

Limiting the Rams inside run game will go a long way towards the Ravens getting a big win on Monday Night football.

One-on-One Matchup to Watch

RT Bobby Evans versus OLB Matt Judon

Since being drafted by the then St. Louis Rams in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL draft, Rob Havenstein has started 68 of a possible 74 regular season games. In 2018, Havenstein started all 16 regular season games at Right Tackle for the eventual NFC champions. After a disappointing and uncharacteristic start to the 2019 season, Havenstein missed the Rams’ Week 11 game against the Bears after suffering a knee injury against the Steelers one week earlier. With Havenstein expected to miss Monday night’s contest, the Rams are expected to start rookie 3rd-round pick Bobby Evans for the second week in a row. Last week against Khalil Mack and the Bears, the former Oklahoma Sooner performed well in his NFL debut.

In Week 11, Matt Judon was an absolute game-wrecker against Texans rookie RT Tytus Howard. The Ravens pass rusher finished the day with two sacks, seven solo tackles, three tackles for loss, four QB hits and a forced fumble. It was arguably the best game of his career to this point.

If Judon can dominate a rookie tackle for the second week in a row, the Ravens will have a serious leg up on the Rams.

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