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How to Send Indy Home with a Loss

Lamar Jackson scrambles against the Colts
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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This Ravens team is flawed, it’s missing a multitude of key players, it’s getting opposition coaches seriously hot under the collar, but it’s also 3-1.

Can they do what Ravens fans always want – beat Indy?

Here’s how I think they can…

Defensive Keys

Banjo needs to be in tune

I realized last week that I didn’t mention Ed Donatell in the Broncos matchup – he’s the Broncos Defensive Coordinator, but I didn’t mention him because he doesn’t call the plays – Fangio does. The Ravens are in that same situation again this week with Marcus Brady taking over for Nick Sirianni as the Colts Offensive Coordinator this season after having served as the QB coach for three years in Indianapolis. But it’s Frank Reich that calls the plays and so it’s Reich that will be the focus this week.

Like many of the offensive minds the Ravens have faced so far, Reich is steeped in the West Coast offense. But also like many of the modern-day disciples of the offense that Bill Walsh spawned, he has added more strings the bow, his scheme having added some Air Raid flavors over time. Having backed up Jim Kelly in Buffalo, he actually spent many years of his playing career in the CFL before moving into coaching North of the border. Ravens fans may be interested to hear that he credits a certain Marc Trestman as a major influence on his coaching.

Despite that little connection, nobody is confusing this Colts offense with that of the 2015 Ravens. Reich’s offense is predicated on getting defenses in the wrong coverage call. He works many of the more popular concepts in the NFL today with regularity and knows how to deploy them to keep opponents off-balance. The Ravens will need to disguise their coverage with roll coverage and split-field coverages often, as well as mixing their coverage looks regularly.  

One such split-field coverage the Ravens run well is Cover 6, sometimes also referred to as Quarter-Quarter-Half. This split field coverage is also a good example of why a Frank Reich offense can be so hard to attack. This coverage is an excellent counterweight to 3×1 formations that many offenses – including the Colts – run, because it gets two deep defenders against the three threats on one side of the formation.

However, Reich has a number of clubs in his bag to counter every shot that the defense takes at stopping him. If a defense sells out to stop his 3×1 formations with a split field coverage like Cover 6, he will break out a play formed around the “Mills” passing concept, which runs a post and a dig route on the same side of the formation. The Colts are particularly proficient at running this, usually targeting Michael Pittman Jr., who has become very good at feeling for the soft spot in zone coverage on this play.

This is why varying and disguising their coverage, and staying away from any deep-rooted tendencies is imperative this week for the Ravens. Reich has beautifully designed plays and a Beautiful Mind-like ability to call them at the right time, catching you in the entirely wrong defensive play-call for what he has drawn up.

He also runs a lot of mesh concepts which I’ll touch on later, but I also wanted to focus on another passing concept Reich uses a lot of: Spot. Spot is often run out of a bunch formation (there are other ways to run it too) and is based on getting a vertical and horizontal stretching of the field out of two of the three receivers. The other receiver runs a short route that looks initially like a slant to the middle of the field, only to break that off and settle in the soft “spot” in a zone.

It is a beautifully simple but effective play.

Teams will often counter bunch formations with a tight coverage scheme, referred to as Banjo. This coverage has rules that govern what the defensive backs do in response to routes by the offensive players to avoid confusion and natural rubs by the defenders against each other as a confusing web of routes unfolds. Banjo coverage gets defensive backs out of each other’s way while enabling them to cover various different route combinations.

Banjo coverage can be run out of a man or zone overall coverage shell but the different versions of it can be equally susceptible to the Spot concept. If Banjo is run well though, especially out of man coverage vs Reich’s Spot concepts, with all of the component parts playing their assignment well, it can be difficult for the offense to get a clean win. The Ravens should have their quickest processors and most experienced coverage hands in their Banjo coverage – Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Chuck Clark for example. And mostly in man coverage.

In fact, overall, Wink should consider man coverage a good idea for this game. Even with a depleted secondary, I don’t know that Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal or Parris Campbell (a unit missing TY Hilton) is an advantageous matchup for the Colts against the personnel in the Ravens’ secondary. Too much zone, and you hand the initiative to Reich as a play-caller to scheme up the right combination of routes to beat you.

But, too much man, and he’ll run more mesh concepts to catch you out, which is why variation and disguise in coverage is crucial.

Can get hit from all angles

One thing that you don’t see often from the Colts, at least not as often as in other modern offensive schemes, is pre-snap motion or elaborate smoke and mirrors. The Colts mostly utilize multiple formations to keep defenses on their heels. What can make those multiple formations especially difficult to defend, is how multiple they are in the run game with the concepts they run.

You can see Duo, Power, Counter, Pin and Pull, Inside and Outside Zone. These multiple formations and multiple different blocking combinations can be a nightmare for Defensive Linemen. They get their Offensive Linemen in position to take advantageous angles created for them by the scheme and the multitude of false keys it creates for Linebackers and Defensive Linemen. Defensive Linemen specifically, find the scheme difficult because they don’t know where the next block is coming from.

I talked about it with Ken McKuisick on a recent Filmstudy podcast: an underrated part of Defensive Line play is mental processing. DL need to quickly understand the block they are facing so that they can action different plans to deconstruct different types of blocks. The Colts run scheme works hard to in turn make Defensive Linemen work hard to identify how to defend them. Even a moment’s hesitation at the outset from Defensive Linemen can be difficult to overcome the rest of the play.

The Ravens do have some natural advantages against this, being a two-gap – and therefore more circumspect – run defense. The Colts are particularly good at getting one-gap penetrators spinning in the wind, but there are still difficulties to overcome.

In this most recent game against the Broncos, some of the Ravens’ more reliable run defenders in the front seven, including Justin Ellis and Brandon Williams, looked a little off their usual selves in terms of occupying double teams and making plays on the ball carrier. This will likely be another game where the Ravens lean heavily on Calais Campbell and miss Derek Wolfe. There is no substitute for experience in dealing with a variety of different blocks and angles.

To counteract this, Justin Madubuike could be a piece to be deployed differently. I mentioned that often 1-gap defenses can be more susceptible to this type of complex multiple running offense, as the play design can use the penetrative style against them with tactics such as misdirection and trap blocks. The Ravens could scheme up some opportunities for Madubuike to freelance in his run defense and use his upfield burst to get in the backfield while also playing with their safer, normal 2-gap system. There will be times the Colts expose him, maybe by hitting a reverse to their H-back, but there are also times he can stuff Jonathan Taylor in the backfield.

Speaking of Taylor, he is fast becoming one of the best backs in the league, and the Ravens will have to be at their run-stuffing best to stop him on Monday night. That’s hard enough in a normal running scheme, but with one as complex as this, doing some things differently in their run defense, like the way they deploy Madubuike, will be important to crank up the element of surprise for a run offense missing it’s most important piece in Quenton Nelson.

Put Wink back on a leash – a long one, but still on a leash

The last two weeks I’ve advocated letting Wink get back to his blitz-happy self, he’s done that, to differing degrees against Detroit and Denver. For this game, I’d like him to lift the foot up off the pedal slightly, not to the same extent he did against the Chiefs, but at least somewhat. And he should keep working his personnel packages that have more Outside Linebackers on the field.

The Colts run a lot of screens. Be it bubble screens or traditional Running Back screens, the Ravens must be wary of this often-dangerous weapon forged against their defense. The answer to defending this though, comes in the simulated pressures that Wink deploys against most teams, where he significantly changes the focal point of the pressure he brings from what the pre-snap alignments might suggest, but doesn’t actually bring more than four guys. Bring too many extra rushers, too frequently and the Colts will run the staple of their offense all night long into the teeth of those blitz packages and gain significant success.

You can also solve the riddle by getting more athleticism on the field with personnel.

The personnel answer to the question was something that the Ravens deployed to good effect when facing this Colts offense last season. Snaps for down linemen in that game were limited, and Outside Linebackers played a lot. Expect to see that tactic used heavily in this game too, relative to previous weeks, with Campbell deployed as the only down linemen at times, as well as Justin Houston, Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser on the field together.

The final component of a Reich offense that I haven’t mentioned, is the RPO game. Made famous by the Eagles Super Bowl run with Nick Foles, Reich’s offense with the Colts also runs a considerable number of RPOs. You can’t consistently scheme to defeat RPOs; good fundamentals from your defense are more important. The main consideration with the RPOs is checking DeShon Elliott’s availability on the injury report for this game.

Great play from the Safety position, especially when aligned in single high coverage can be what takes away an RPO game, particularly when the QB is as immobile as Carson Wentz currently is. If your Safety can hold his depth and effectively read the Quarterback at the mesh point, especially a Safety with the kind of click and close ability and physicality of Elliott, then you can take away the receiver and force a handoff or a QB keeper, or close on the intended receiver and cause an incompletion.

This kind of gamble that the Safety can employ when defending the RPO is a calculated one, when facing a Quarterback without generational athletic ability like Lamar Jackson. Taking away your last line of defense in center-field in this way, only really leaves you susceptible to an explosive runner at the Quarterback position. Wentz is a better athlete than some, but he’s banged up and doesn’t pose the kind of threat to be concerned with when deploying this technique for combating RPOs.

Whether Brandon Stephens could play this technique is yet to be seen but if Elliott is on the field, there shouldn’t be alarms ringing about the Colts’ ability to move the ball with the RPO.

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Offensive Keys

Patience in the passing game

This Colts defense has been on a journey since the Peyton Manning-Colts days. Back then, we were used to seeing Colts defenses give up mountains of yardage, with that flaw generally being the reason Manning never won more championships. When those defenses were at their best, they were a bend-don’t-break Cover 2 defense that forced offenses to be patient to win games and kept everything in front of them. They went away from that with former Ravens DC Chuck Pagano, moving to more of an attacking, far less passive 3-4 defense. When Chris Ballard entered the fray as GM, he made it quite clear that he wanted to return to a 4-3 defense that would allow teams to dink and dunk on them, but wouldn’t bet the house and lose.

In Matt Eberflus he got a coordinator steeped in the Tampa 2 defense, which he ran as a DC at Missouri and became even more schooled in when working for the Cowboys under Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, two of the principal architects of the scheme. But Eberflus also spent four years with Rob Ryan, running the polar opposite of the scheme he chose to operate because of it’s simplicity. I tell you all this, to show that Eberflus is a chameleon; he is able to adapt and take principles from different schemes and apply it to his own.

It was this propensity to adaptability from Eberflus, and his superior teaching ability, that has enabled the Colts to evolve from a more traditional Cover 2 defense into their most frequent defensive shell being one that Ballard and Reich have admired from afar: Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley’s Seahawks Cover 3 defense.

I mention all of this to show how undefinable the Colts’ defense is. It is not an idiosyncratic scheme that you see from other prominent Defensive Coordinators in the league. It is however a scheme that runs a good amount of Cover 3 and bend-don’t-break Cover 2, that requires patience in the passing game to break down.

This likely requires a repeat of the early game plan against the Raiders in Week 1, where the Ravens successfully targeted the flats to begin to manipulate the hook/curl defenders in the underneath zone and open up the seams. That game plan went off the rails a little as the game went on, but Lamar was patient, taking what the defense gave him, something he needs to continue to do this week.

There is a difference this week though, in that this Colts secondary has some guys with high football intelligence. Both Rock Ya-Sin and Xavier Rhodes process at a high level and Khari Willis, if active, gets off his spot quickly and into the flats to make plays. This is a different challenge to Week 1 and will require Lamar to be disciplined in the passing game, maintaining eye discipline and minimizing, where possible, any tells he has.

Do this, get the ball out quickly, and get receivers turning upfield – making Le’Veon Bell active again this week and using him as a receiver out of the backfield would be a good idea – and take advantage of facing a Colts defense that is in the bottom ten in the league in stopping yards after the catch. The Ravens aren’t a great YAC team with their traditional receiving threats, but they should find some room to run this week using both speed and physicality to elude Colts defenders.

One passing concept I’d like to see the Ravens use consistently this week would be the Stick concept, but again, as already mentioned, used with patience to set up play-calls later in the game. The Stick concept, like the Spot concept that the Colts run frequently, is predicated on a vertical and horizontal stretching of the field alongside a short curl route, run by the inside receiver of a 3×1 formation.

The short route needs a vertical drive for five yards before breaking off the route. The Cover 3 should work well against this short route early in the game but the Ravens can still run it and target the horizontal route in the flats to start to manipulate the coverage. This should allow them to later run a variation of the Stick concept in the Stick Nod, where the inside receiver fakes the route he would run in a normal Stick concept, before turning upfield and running up the seam – a great route to target if the defenders around the seam have been suitably manipulated to leave a throwing window for this.

Block Buckner

An underrated boon to Ozzie Newsome’s ability to deliver a competitive roster for the Ravens was the inconsistency of the Ravens season-to-season in the Billick years. During this time Ozzie was, every now and then, furnished with a draft pick closer to the start of the first round and he made some hay with those picks. One such pick was Haloti Ngata, still the most talented interior Defensive Lineman the Ravens have picked up in the draft.

Perhaps Madubuike will take that mantle, but I thought the Ravens might top Ngata in 2016 when, for the first time in a long time, they held a top 10 pick. In that class, I wasn’t hoping for our Left Tackle of the future in Laremy Tunsil or Ronnie Stanley, or for Ezekiel Elliott or Jalen Ramsey. I was hoping for what I thought was the next dominant interior Defensive Lineman to enter the league, and like Ngata, he was coming out of Oregon.

The Ravens passed on DeForest Buckner though, and he turned into pretty much everything I thought he would be. When the Colts traded for him, I thought it was an inspired move. A relatively early first-round pick was a lot to give up, but Buckner has become, for me, second only to Aaron Donald as far as pass-rushing interior linemen go.

But, the Colts have the fewest pressures in the league, and their current pressure rate is bottom five. One look at the game film and you can see why. They run a 4-3 Over front and while I think Kwity Paye will be a good player in this league, he hasn’t had an Odafe Oweh-like start to his career. Other pass rushers like Kemeko Turay haven’t yet fulfilled their potential, and they blitz at a less than 20% rate, putting them in the bottom third of the league. So, there is one primary pass rushing threat and one secondary threat to worry out.

The Ravens should commit pretty serious resources to blocking Buckner. He is a game-wrecker from the inside and in form, as their most productive pass-rusher so far. Kevin Zeitler should win his fair share of battles with Buckner, but giving him help wouldn’t be a bad idea, and Buckner certainly should rarely be left 1-on-1 with anyone. He can also be moved in the run game if you get double teams onto him, so I’d expect to see him face two guys most of the day. In the run game, I’d also like to see his penetrative style used against him at times, using trap blocks and the screen game. He feels, probably rightly, that he needs to do it all for this defensive front, and this can sometimes lead to him trying to do too much and getting caught by matador-like offenses.

While this is a team that shouldn’t hurt you with pressure, there is a danger of focusing too much resource on Buckner and missing that they have another threat to get home in Al-Quadin Muhammad, a fifth-year player who is now playing a greater number of snaps than he has before in his career, and appears to be making the most of the increased playing time. If Alejandro Villanueva doesn’t make it for Monday night, then giving Andre Smith help with Muhammad regularly will be crucial. As well as being a threat as a pass-rusher, he’s also a demon back-side defender that you need to account for on any zone runs in particular.

Get Lamar on the edge

As I’ve already mentioned, this is a 4-3 Over defense, and offenses are normally accustomed to attacking the weak-side B gap in this front. The Colts do a pretty good job of plugging that gap, but the Ravens also attacked it well last season with their power read option, often with two pullers and most effectively with Bradley Bozeman pulling to the right from Left Guard.

This should be an option again in this game. Overloading both the strong and weak side of the line, coming at the Colts with metaphorical combinations of left and right hands like a boxer peppering a weak opponent should be something the Ravens look to do.

While Buckner and Grover Stewart in the middle of the defense has meant the Colts have managed to stay in the top ten for run defense efficiency up the middle, I say “weak opponent” because the Colts overall run defense has left a lot to be desired. The Ravens will have some success running inside against the Colts, but it’s the edges in the run game that are the reason for the Colts inability to stop the run, as they rank 31st and 28th on the left and right sides, respectively.

The Ravens need to get the counter read option going this week and attack off-tackle. It would be a good idea to throw in some inside runs to keep the Colts off balance, but I would do this through a heavy dose of the veer read. If you can get the Colts respecting the hand-off to the RB on this, and frankly also if they don’t, the Ravens can make serious hay on the edges with their most dangerous runner: Lamar. If they do that consistently, they can put that hay they’ve made in Gerry Sandusky’s barn, and take a 4-1 record into a tough Week 6 battle with the Chargers.

Matchup to Watch

Justin Madubuike vs Chris Reed

Quenton Nelson will miss only the second game of his career this week after missing the Colts first victory of the season against the Dolphins last week. Chris Reed deputized, and while his level of play is nowhere near the level of Nelson, one of the best players in the entire league regardless of position, Reed is not a desperation option for the Colts. He’s a solid veteran lineman who started 14 games for the Panthers in 2020. Madubuike won’t have it all his own way if he ends up matched up on Reed a lot. He has had a good start to 2021 in what many expected to be a breakout year, he looks a terror as a pass-rusher but still with some work to do as a disciplined run defender. This matchup will be a key one to watch to see how the Ravens use their front to negate both phases of play against this Colts offense.

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