Let me first write that I’m humbled to be able to write Battle Plans this season, it’s a column I’ve read for a long time. To follow in Dev Panchwagh and last season Matt Wise’s footsteps is a privilege and I hope I do the legacy they’ve created justice.
Let’s get right to it…
Persevere with the running game
Any Ravens offensive game plan this year will start with running the football. I’m sorry to ruin the shiny, new passing game party but it will be crucial to the Ravens’ chances of success against the Raiders in Week 1 too.
The Raiders seem to have taken a revolving door approach to talent acquisition this season, seemingly needlessly replacing solid contributors from last season with similar players. That approach seems to be epitomized by the signing of Gerald McCoy to replace Mo Hurst on the Defensive Line.
Speaking of that Raiders Defensive Line, it will be much changed from last year in terms of alignments/responsibility, as well as personnel. Gus Bradley (more on him next) brings a 4-3 under front to Vegas. The Raiders will clearly employ a multiple front as the best coordinators in the NFL always do, but Bradley certainly seems to prefer this one the majority of the time. On the interior, that was always going to include the solid veteran Jonathan Hankins at 1-technique, and McCoy himself at 3 technique or perhaps Quinton Jefferson.
I thought it might also mean a role for Maxx Crosby at the LEO position which is the weak side Edge defender in Bradley’s scheme, as well as some rotation of Cle Ferrell and new acquisition Solomon Thomas at 4/5 technique (both of their more natural position), while Ngakoue would be moved around the formation and used creatively. It seems though that Thomas is slated for rotation on the interior while Crosby and Ferrell will make up the rotation at 4/5 technique, leaving Ngakoue to start at LEO. I’m not sure this maximizes skillsets as much as other makeups of the line could have done.
This line then has the potential to be better as a run-stopping force, putting less square pegs in less round holes, leveraging some defenders playing more of their natural position, particularly with former top five draft pick Clelin Ferrell.
But, I said “potential “ to be better.
The Ravens Offense has the best running attack in the league, we know this. And last year the Raiders defense was one of the worst five in the league in defending the run. Not exactly unstoppable force meets immovable object, more unstoppable force meets razor-thin slice of Swiss cheese.
The Ravens should find running lanes a-plenty and now they can run all day at Yannick Ngakoue, if they choose to run to the weak side, which they must surely do if Ngakoue is manning the fort. If they don’t find success on first down, the Raiders were very bad when facing a second down run, and bottom of the league on third and fourth down efficiency, as well as getting worse as the game wore on. Persevere with running the ball and set up play action, which will also be crucial.
Run play-action and target the Backs early
This Las Vegas defense will be very different to the one we saw under former DC Paul Guenther. Gus Bradley, of Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl-winning Cover 3, trees-for-Cornerbacks defense, brings his brand of football to Sin City this year after three years as the Chargers DC. This Raiders team could be quietly very good if Bradley can get their liability defense to even league average.
I suspect all Ravens fans are excited about our new Wide Receivers and want to see this improved group in action early. But to beat a Cover 3 defense you have to win the right to the middle of the field, where the Ravens used to thrive in the passing game and likely still will in 2021.
While Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 defense is not impossible to defeat, it does require patience and adherence to a game plan which I believe should start, with play-action and targeting the Running Backs early in the passing game.
The weaknesses of the Cover 3 defense are the flats and the seams. To be able to manipulate the underneath zone that sits in front of the 3 deep zone, you have to be patient and take what the defense gives you early, in the flats. We need to get Edwards or whoever becomes the primary pass-catching back – perhaps even Pat Ricard, out in the flat, and get Lamar targeting them early and often, in a pre-meditated fashion.
It should be remembered that as with the defensive front, calling Gus Bradley’s scheme a cover 3 defense and then moving on is a little simplistic. He will run multiple coverages with checks and adjustments. It’s likely though, that the variations might not yet be fully installed and we may be facing a version of Bradley’s defense that is a little less complex and therefore easier to attack. Particularly given the inexperience that Bradley is working with on the back end. I think it would be prudent that this short passing game be executed out of Greg Roman’s normally excellent deployment of motion and varied formations to further stress defensive personnel still getting comfortable with a new scheme.
Win the space to throw across the middle of the field
Running play-action and targeting the RBs in the flat is intended to manipulate the defenders in the underneath zone so it must be done in a disciplined and consistent manner – it may not provide huge chunks early but it’s necessary. While this could be considered a slightly-too-vanilla way to beat a Cover 3, many of these guys may be playing their first live snaps in the defensive shell Bradley runs; hopefully he hasn’t yet managed to install or they haven’t yet managed to master some of the necessary adjustments to a Cover 3 like Pattern Match Zone.
If they aren’t yet making sophisticated adjustments, play-action should get the Linebackers in the Middle/Hook zone biting on the play fake just enough, while throwing to the flats will get defenders in the Curl/Flat zone widening slightly more than they should be, opening up the fleshy under-belly to the Cover 3 defense – the seams.
The Raiders defense was actually very good against Tight Ends last season, top five in the league in terms of efficiency when defending Tight Ends, and were at their best when defending the middle of the field in pass coverage. But this is a different unit and the seams will be open if the Ravens run the ball well, run play-action and target the flats early. This leaves room for Mark Andrews to work.
Andrews will still be a focal point of this passing offense week-to-week and I expect him to be a big part of this game plan if the Ravens win the right to target the middle of the field. Alas, this would also have been an interesting first test for Bateman, who excels over the middle of the field and in finding the holes in zone coverage, others will need to step up in his absence.
If Lamar can hold the deep Safety with his eyes, after we’ve established the threat of the running game, throwing to flat, and working the seam – the deep post to Hollywood will be open.
Gone are the days when anyone suggests that the Chargers defense, led by Gus Bradley, in the 2018 playoff game, had figured out the Ravens’ “gimmicky” offense. But Jackson has continued to struggle when faced with a heavy underneath zone and hasn’t faced a Gus Bradley defense since that day. He will get another chance week one, to carve up a heavy underneath zone, and put to bed more false narratives, as he has done his entire career.
Limit Darren Waller
I always look at Darren Waller’s success with the Raiders with envy; if only the Ravens could have held onto that rollercoaster for a little longer. The truth was, Waller wasn’t ready to contribute in the NFL when he played in Baltimore; drug and alcohol addiction was ruining his life, let alone his career. When you hear him talk about the profound impact that addiction had on his sense of self, you are reminded that addiction, in attacking your mental as well as physical health over a sustained period of time, can be far more debilitating than an injury suffered on the field. It’s testament to him, his family, and friends that he is in recovery and re-making a football career that is cranking up a steep incline of production, this year, hoping to double down on outstanding seasons.
No other Tight End had a greater share of their team’s targeted air yards last season and Waller led the Raiders receivers with 145 targets. While the Ravens were very good at stopping Wide Receiver corps’ last year, they were among the bottom third of teams in the league at stopping Tight Ends.
The Ravens don’t have a Tremaine Edmunds type physical specimen in their Linebacker room to matchup with Waller, in any case the Ravens rarely trail a player in coverage with a specific defensive back tailored to cover that particular weapon. With our scheme employing so much man coverage, Waller could eat all day. Given his dominance over Derek Carr targets in this offense, I think it needs a specific game plan to limit his effectiveness that isn’t just “put Marlon Humphrey on him”. I deliberately chose the word “limit” for this section, given the Ravens track record against Tight Ends and Waller’s ability, a win here would be keeping him from taking over the game.
The plan should be:
- Get physical. When he’s in-line or tight aligned, get a linebacker’s hands on him, do not give him a free release up the seam and get him off the red-line as much as possible. Keep being physical through the route stem and live on the edge of a Holding call.
- Disguise. More on this next, but Waller runs a lot of Option routes i.e. the offensive player can choose which route to run from a pre-determined limited choice based on the coverage he’s seeing. Mix up your looks in coverage and leave a surprise for him.
- Double team often. This one is obvious, but any kind of bracket or cone double team coverage should be deployed effectively as well as Robber technique from your safety. This is when you keep one safety in a slightly more shallow deep zone in front of your deep safety, in this case, lying in wait, ready to help on in-breaking routes from Waller.
- Get length on the field. The Ravens have good length at the CB position and the more they get that length on the field the more difficult it will be for the Raiders to scheme Waller open. They run him out of the bunch regularly and the Ravens need to get length into their banjo coverage so defenders can pass off responsibility for him without worrying about matchup problems.
- Don’t panic. They move Waller around to get him, and others, advantageous matchups. The Ravens could do with avoiding a Peters-Waller matchup but they should be comfortable with Humphrey on Waller and not panic when he is moved to face different defenders.
- Stay disciplined. Linebackers must stay disciplined when accounting for RBs out of the backfield, Queen can’t run straight to his guy, he has the speed to still get to the RB if he waits, stays in his zone, stays patient; in case Waller is running behind him into his zone.
Give Derek Carr eye candy but don’t take any of his
Since returning to the league, Jon Gruden has blended old school with new-age spread concepts to add a different wrinkle to his West Coast offense. In the passing game, he now has a top 10 offense in terms of efficiency.
He utilizes heavy and creative pre-snap motion with often multiple players moving. The eye candy will be used several times over on one play, i.e. WR in motion, second TE fake to block, play fake to RB, come back to Waller on some kind of in-breaking route.
Derek Carr is a cerebral quarterback and he will audible at the line of scrimmage. The choice route was frequently used by the Raiders and Waller and other middle of the field receivers like Renfrow had license to read the coverage and adjust their route. It was a very successful concept for the Raiders and it needs to be accounted for.
If you bite on the eye candy, or if you start to account for underneath passes to Waller and Renfrow, the Raiders have a weapon that can really hurt you in Henry Ruggs. He’s developing and he has world class speed, he will be better this year, and our safeties must stay disciplined, especially in Cover 1, or they will take advantage deep.
But the Ravens should make the Raiders dance to the beat of their drum, not the other way around. The Ravens are the masters of disguise themselves and should move in their mysterious ways to keep the Raiders and Carr off-balance. For instance, with the Raiders propensity to target the middle of the field, the Ravens could show a split-safety look with man coverage that could encourage Carr to think the middle of the field is ripe for the picking before switching to something less accommodating to Carr and this Raiders offense.
This kind of disguise should help with another fundamental strength of the Raiders’ offense – the brilliant Ted Nguyen says that the Raiders offense is at its most difficult to stop when Carr is aggressive – the Ravens ability to disguise their defense has the potential to cause hesitation in the best quarterbacks in the league, so it could trouble Carr in this one.
Test the OL early and often
If you want some good-ole-Wink-Martindale-blitz fun, go back and watch the Bengals games from last year. The Ravens had their way with the Bengals Offensive Line, it was painful to watch if you’re an Offensive Line aficionado. Joe Burrow got absolutely pummeled, as he did all year long. It’s a wonderful exhibition of the chaos Wink Martindale’s scheme can inflict on an Offensive Line that hasn’t played many snaps together.
The Raiders had a middle-of-the-road Offensive Line, by most metrics last year, including efficiency ranks, they measured up about average in comparison to the rest of the league. It was an area that they really needed to look to upgrade for the new season. The Raiders brass decided to clean out the cupboard before it was re-stocked though and traded away apparent starters Rodney Hudson, Trent Brown and Gabe Jackson. All three had not reached the same heights that they saw together as a unit a few years ago, but were solid starters.
Tom Cable, the Raiders OL Coach, will have his work cut out to gel a brand new line that includes holdovers Richie Incognito and Kolton Miller alongside trade acquisition Nick Martin at Center and surprising, at least to me, first round draft pick Alex Leatherwood. This line has some talent but it also has some developing to do and it takes time to assemble an Offensive Line that resembles a unit.
Don’t worry Raiders fans though, it’s an easy start to the season as you face… oh, wait, no, it’s really not. Wink Martindale and the experience returning in his scheme this year, will surely be too much for a new Raiders Offensive Line to handle, even with a veteran QB behind them doing the organizing. Wink can probably save some of his more exotic pressure packages for future games, I would expect even some of the more vanilla zone blitzes to get the job done this week against a Raiders O-line that will still be feeling their way into a brand new combination of starters.
I say, let the good times roll and let’s see some of those new weapons, as well as our more experienced horses, feast on a Raiders Offensive Line that is ripe for a 2020-Bengals-like-beating.
Matchup to Watch
Kevin Zeitler vs Gerald McCoy
The aging veterans are both on new teams and will likely go head-to-head in this one if McCoy plays in the 3 technique spot as anticipated. McCoy is still a good penetrator and will test the Ravens first off-season addition. Zeitler’s success is crucial to the Ravens passing offense this year and McCoy will provide an interesting first test in the Ravens quest for more interior pocket integrity, to allow Jackson to drive the ball downfield more.