Are we seeing that team of destiny vibe with this Ravens squad, or are the wheels close to coming off, after the Ravens have let most teams run them close this season? If there was a week to see the Ravens’ injuries and current deficiencies catch up with them, this would be it. They’ve faced either in-form, bad teams, or out-of-sync, good teams. This Chargers team is talented, and they are coming in hot.
How do the Ravens go about beating them? Here’s this week’s Battle Plan…
Communication in the secondary
Though the Ravens have faced some potent offenses this season, the Chargers boast one that would scare even the most vaunted defensive minds in the league. Even playing at full strength, with the services of the players currently on Injured Reserve, would be a challenge this week, but it feels especially crucial that DeShon Elliott returns this week, despite me having said that several weeks in a row now.
Ever since Tom Telesco marked himself out as one of the smartest Quarterback evaluators in the 2020 draft, by selecting Justin Herbert, the Oregon Quarterback who was seemingly the consensus third best QB in that class, the Chargers have been ready and waiting to send their offense into the stratosphere. Helmed by one of the most promising young Quarterbacks in the league, some of that considerable potential is beginning to be realized this season.
Potential is all Herbert was. There were more impressive resumes from college Quarterbacks that year, and there were those who would have put him below many of the current crop of QBs we saw enter the league in the 2021 draft. There were a select few evaluators that saw past some of the mechanical issues, which it turned out, were easily fixable; and the want to see him cut it loose/be more of a gunslinger, which it turned out, was a product of the system he was playing in. The Chargers were part of that few and they are being richly rewarded, as the Chiefs were with Patrick Mahomes and his potential flaws, and the Ravens were with Lamar Jackson.
The freeing of Herbert has come this year, as first year Head Coach Brandon Staley and his hand-picked Offensive Coordinator, Joe Lombardi from the Saints, have realized what they have in Herbert quickly, something Anthony Lynn failed to do, and have planned accordingly, building their offense around the burgeoning star.
The system they have installed is not without its flaws or growing pains, depending on how you look at it, but at its core it replicates a decade-long successful approach that Sean Payton and the Saints took in New Orleans to get the best out of Drew Brees. Think earlier era Brees, not the guy we saw at the end of his career.
With this shell from New Orleans and their bent to build this thing around Herbert’s particular talents, it has led to a sophisticated passing offense with concepts built to beat any defensive setup and to maximize what Herbert brings to the table.
They have a number of variations on the “Dagger” passing concept, which is a combination that includes a vertical clear-out route, coupled with drag and dig routes from other pass-catching threats. This kind of high-low read, created with the drag and dig, is exactly the kind of concept that this offense thrives with, the drag route being a specialism.
They have a multitude of zone-beating concepts. One which works well, especially against Cover 4, is the Scissors concept. This sees two receivers to one side of the formation run overlapping post and corner routes.
The Chargers have become proficient at running this one in particular as the corner route often comes with an inside stem which makes it look as though that receiver is initially running a slant before breaking to the outside for the corner. Keenan Allen, one of the most technically gifted Wide Receivers the league has seen, has become particularly good at setting up the DB masterfully on this, both in-route but also in how he runs his routes throughout the game. He’s always playing chess against most DBs’ checkers in terms of using his football intelligence to get open.
So, we come to what the Ravens need to do this week to neutralize this element of what the Chargers do on offense: communication in the secondary. This unit has now played together for a few games and they will have to play well as a unit to have success against this offense.
Using the Scissors concept as an example, the Ravens can utilize a pre-snap Zorro call in coverage if they are in Cover 4 or a split field coverage that might call for Cover 4 to one side of the formation, to ensure that assignments are switched and the Safety takes the post to the middle of the field, while the Cornerback takes the corner route.
This kind of adjustment in coverage, with Chuck Clark getting them in the right calls, is something the Ravens have been proficient with in the past and they will need to be at their best on Sunday.
Wink’s choice – what kind of blitz will work?
The Chargers passing offense is so potent that it deserves another section on how the Ravens might be prepared for this matchup. The wheels threatened to come off in the defensive performance on Monday night and the Ravens seemed particularly unable to get off the field on third down. The Ravens have also struggled this season at times with taller wide receivers like Michael Pittman and Tim Patrick, while also not always accounting well for the Running Back coming out of the backfield – I’m thinking of D’Andre Swift’s performance.
The Ravens cannot:
- Get off the field on third down
- Cope with pass-catching Running Backs
- Deal with larger Wide Receivers
The Chargers have:
- The 4th most effective Offense on 3rd and 4th down according to DVOA (Football Outsiders)
- Austin Ekeler – one of the best pass-catching backs in the league
- A bunch of trees at Wide Receiver
Now, I’ve hoodwinked you slightly. If you felt the Ravens haven’t been great at getting off the field on third down, like me, you’d be wrong. The data, especially in terms of effectiveness, shows that the Ravens are actually at their worst on 1st and 2nd down, and one of the best defenses in the league on 3rd and 4th down. Something will have to give on that front because the Chargers are actually putting themselves in 3rd down holes that Justin Herbert has to clamber out of.
Herbert is quietly putting together one of the best seasons ever in terms of passing on 3rd down, as his +39.5 passing EPA on 3rd/4th down leads the league by a considerable margin. His heroics really shouldn’t be necessary, but a combination of questionable play-calling and lack of execution from his receivers has caused this need for Superman-like feats from Herbert. But when they’ve needed it, he’s duly obliged. He processes ultra-quickly and is outrageously accurate, with a big arm. There isn’t much not to like.
On 3rd down, Wink should go back into his box of tricks this week and only pick out two different types of blitz, no halfway-house calls. It should be all or nothing. This means either, Cover 0/all-out blitz, or his Dog blitz/simulated pressures that only bring four but look like they might bring more. Herbert still likely hasn’t seen the kind of pressure packages that Wink dials up, but he’s a quick study and the Ravens will need to keep him guessing all game. He’s also extremely good against pressure so removing the halfway house blitzes which bring five or six guys at him would be a good idea. He’s shown a propensity to easily identify where pressure is coming from and throw in behind it.
Pressure will be crucial as it should also mean that the Ravens don’t need to cover the Chargers’, shall we say, larger Wide Receivers for as long. The Ravens’ Cornerbacks need to utilize the boundary effectively in this game and keep the Chargers from completing passes outside the numbers as they have been prone to do. Particular attention needs to be paid to the honey hole which Herbert has shown a real propensity for fitting balls into.
Getting pressure without the blitz and stopping Ekeler
In terms of preventing pressure, the Chargers line has been good so far, but with the news that Oday Aboushi will miss this game, the Chargers will now field an entirely backup right side with Storm Norton already deputizing for Bryan Bulaga at RT.
If the Ravens attack the right side with their usual gusto, they should find some success. Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler have been excellent pickups on the interior but the undoubted star has been Rashawn Slater, who has taken over Left Tackle duties and looked every bit the top ten pick he should have been. However there has been one weakness in his game so far, for my money, and that is dealing with stunts. Weakness is a strong word, as he’s not a disaster in this area, but it might be a way to try and attack him early, with the Ravens showing they have the ability to use stunts effectively this year. It would also behoove the Ravens to get him up against a wily veteran like Justin Houston to see if he can deal with this kind of edge-rusher with a sophisticated rush plan.
The other reason why pressure is important, is to force the Chargers to use more players in protection, particularly the Running Backs, and therefore keep Ekeler in the pocket and not streaking into the flat to catch a pass underneath successful downfield coverage and turning it into a big play.
Those all-out blitzes mentioned earlier will also help, but so will ensuring that Odafe Oweh or Tyus Bowser are the ones dropping on those dog blitzes more often than not, so that the Ravens can match Ekeler’s athleticism.
The Ravens have not yet defended backs coming out of the backfield well and they will need to against the Chargers. A staple of the Saints offense with Alvin Kamara, the Chargers have utilized Ekeler on a variety of routes to good success already this season and it could be a feature of their game plan to feast on a defense who hasn’t shown an ability to stop that yet this season. If you overplay Ekeler into the flat, he will turn it up and beat you upfield on a wheel route. The Ravens need to be fundamentally sound in coverage against Ekeler and prepared for anything, as he can beat you a multitude of different ways.
Finally, in the sort-of, clean-up section of what-to-do-against-the-Chargers-offense, there should be at least a passing reference to the running game, although this isn’t the most prolific running game the Ravens will see. The Chargers are multiple in their running offense, as most NFL offenses are, but they seem to have most success when they can get their linemen to the second level. Linsley has always been very good there and they have been effective when climbing to block Linebackers.
Two things the Ravens must do to stop this:
- Brandon Williams cannot be the only one occupying double teams on a regular basis. The Ravens have to get a higher level of run defense from run-stuffing specialist Justin Ellis but also from the promising pass-rusher-not-yet-Raven-like-run-defender, Justin Madubuike.
- The other is clearly, better play from the Linebackers. I’ll just leave that one there.
I had to start with defense again this week, due to the potency of the Chargers offense, but I’m most fascinated by the matchup with Staley’s defense. It is still taking form but will be similar to his mentor, Vic Fangio’s unit, when the masterpiece is finished.
Staley won the job as Head Coach on the back of his excellent work as the Los Angeles Rams Defensive Coordinator last year. There, he put together a formidable defense formed from his years schooling under Fangio, whom he sought out as a coach he wanted to learn from. He used his superior talent in LA to build a defense surpassing even Fangio’s, but with the same principles.
As I wrote in the Battle Plans for the Broncos game, these defenses utilize a two-high shell which can turn into all manner of different coverages post snap to guard against the pass. For the running game, it uses the depth of the Safeties to create the illusion of a light box to run your running game into, only for the Safety to attack, combined with gap-sound play on the defensive front to neutralize your running game.
My good friend and Battle Plans podcast partner Dev Panchwagh pointed out this tweet to me this week in preparation for this piece
This comes as no surprise to readers of my Battle Plans piece for the Broncos game, as this is exactly what I described there from Fangio and what Staley does too, as a Fangio disciple. The numbers bear out the philosophy of this system. Even against the Browns, who saw the Broncos run a lot of the 5-2 defense to combat the Browns’ heavy personnel packages with multiple Tight Ends, rarely saw an eight-man box. And the Browns often still ran into number advantages while most defenses like to even the score.
But the Browns ran the ball with authority.
The reason for this, is the Chargers simply aren’t very good at running Staley’s system of run defense yet. Safety play is important in this system and while Derwin James is one of the best in the league, he’s also best deployed as a versatile piece outside of the system, not forced to play within it. And Staley has a penchant for fitting systems to players. Nasir Adderley, while solid, does not provide the kind of run support we routinely see from Broncos safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons.
But there isn’t a huge drop-off to Adderley’s play; the real problem is the Defensive Line is not yet playing gap-sound and have certainly not yet learned the Fangio stack-track-fall back technique. Jerry Tillery, Linval Joseph, Forrest Merrill, don’t strike fear into the hearts of run-blocking Offensive Linemen. As long as you isolate or stay away from Joey Bosa, you can have success running the ball.
This defense is mainly built to combat the proliferation of the zone blocking scheme across the league, so when it isn’t being executed to the highest level, bringing exactly that scheme to bear against it can be easier. While I wouldn’t advocate an abandonment of the gap scheme the Ravens run entirely for this game, a heavier dose of zone runs could be an effective weapon.
We saw Staley’s mentor, Fangio, sell out to stop the run, in an ill-advised attempt to create his own history in being the Head Coach to stop the 100-yard rushing streak, I’m not sure we will see Staley make the same mistake.
If he does, he needs to be made to pay.
If he does, the Ravens should use their passing game to set up the zone running game and take advantage of the Chargers’ inferior run defense. They should come out firing on all cylinders in the passing game and use Lamar, his advanced processing and mechanics, as well as his now formidable receiving corps, to pick apart what would be a limited Chargers’ defensive backfield, forcing them to shift more resources to defend the passing game earlier.
Don’t forget, play action isn’t as effective against this defense because of all the disguised coverage they play from the consistent, pre-snap, two-high look.
Have a three-pronged plan for James
When the Ravens sat on the board in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at number 16, I was praying for the card to be turned in, and for it to read Derwin James. Of course, it worked out pretty well, with the Ravens trading back to acquire picks that they could use to trade up later to select a guy, I don’t know if he’ll amount to anything, named Lamar Jackson.
When James has been healthy, it has looked like a mistake not trying to get James and Lamar but perhaps the Ravens medical team knew something that the Chargers didn’t. His injuries have deprived the league of one of the most exciting defensive talents, but he appears to be healthy again.
He regularly plays within the framework of this defense and thrives in doing that, but his most impactful plays are when he’s allowed to freelance or when he’s covering a different assignment to the traditional pre-snap, split-field safety role. The Ravens need to identify what he’s doing on offense and do their level-best to neutralize him. I suspect that he will be charged with one of three things outside the normal Safety role in this defense, probably doing something different on any given play.
- Covering Mark Andrews. James has proven that he has outstanding man coverage skills on some of the best weapons in the game. He’s limited Travis Kelce on occasion and the Chargers might feel they need to do the same this week, given Andrews’ big performances this season. Unfortunately, there’s only really one way to beat James when he’s covering Tight Ends in man coverage: get a skilled Tight End out in a route combination that gets him in space and drop a perfect touch pass over the shoulder, with the Tight End effectively using their body to make the catch. Andrews and Lamar have the ability to connect on this type of pass, and I wouldn’t be scared of trying it on James, but there’s also the option of going somewhere else with the ball in these instances.
- Rushing off the edge. They’ve used James off the edge quite a few times this season, and there are some important rules for offenses to follow when they do. Don’t leave him unblocked is the obvious number one, unless he’s coming from the backside against a non-zone run, then you can leave him unblocked, but the Running Back cannot hesitate or he will get blown up from behind. Rule number two: don’t underestimate him as a pass rusher. You cannot use a Running Back alone, and I’m not sure the Ravens have Tight Ends proficient enough in pass protection. I think Patrick Mekari has good enough leverage and foot speed to deal with him one-on-one, but his bend, dip and speed off the edge might give Alejandro Villanueva some problems. I’d get him some help and treat James as a genuine pass-rushing threat when lined up over him.
- Lamar-stopper. The start of the league “figuring out Lamar Jackson” narratives came after the playoff game against the Chargers in Jackson’s rookie year. It was bogus then and it’s still bogus now. And while James wasn’t the only reason Lamar wasn’t as effective against the Chargers as he’d been all that season, he was a big part of the game plan. However, the Chargers then, sold out to stop Lamar and it wasn’t just James who did it. They had to get speed onto the field in numbers; James was the centerpiece, but he couldn’t do it alone. I don’t think Staley will use James this way, but if he does, it will play into the Ravens’ hands. This would not be an effective way to defend this Ravens offense; taking your most effective coverage defender out of the framework of your defense is not a good idea. It would simply see Lamar take advantage of the hole he would leave in the secondary, similar to how we’ve seen him take advantage of defenses all throughout this season. This is when those defenses have picked their poison as Lamar beating them with his arm, and seen him duly put the vial to their lips and force them to drink it.
Matchup to Watch
Odafe Oweh vs Rashawn Slater
There are any number of intriguing individual matchups to watch across this game. Two of the best players in the league at their respective positions going against each other – Marlon Humphrey will likely cover Keenan Allen most of the night. If you’re at all a fan of Wide Receiver or Defensive Back play, it will be a barn-burner. Or you could keep an eye on two wily veterans like Corey Linsley and Brandon Williams taking each other on.
Even the Ravens special teams units against their Chargers’ counterparts, who have not been good in this phase of play through five weeks. But my favorite matchup in this game has to be two rookie phenoms going head to head. I’m sure the Ravens will mix up the guy Rashawn Slater has to face, and I mentioned earlier that I’d like to see Houston lined up over him, but he’ll undoubtedly face Odafe Oweh too. Slater has lived up to expectations and looks every bit the Left Tackle of the future for the Chargers, protecting Herbert’s blind-side for years to come.
He does have very good foot speed and he will be tested facing Oweh’s speed off the edge.