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An Old Nemesis & A Young Horse

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It’s trotted out every year since the Baltimore Ravens appointed John Harbaugh in 2008: they are excellent after a bye week. Their record after a bye week in Harbaugh’s tenure is now 10-3, and they’ll look to use their secret weapon of extra preparation time to get the better of the Vikings this week.

Offensive Keys

Would I lie to you?

Mike Zimmer would. He’d lie to Quarterbacks and Offensive Coordinators all day. Zimmer is a master of disguise; his pressure packages and coverages aren’t revealed until the very last second. There is a lot to do combat this disguise, so any game plan has to start here.

The Ravens’ struggle in dealing with this deception has been a feature of their skirmishes with Zimmer-led units for years. Thankfully, gone are the days when Ravens fans had to endure a Zimmer-led defense getting it’s hands around the Ravens’ Joe Flacco-led offense to strangle the life out of it twice a year. For years Flacco struggled to break down the complexities of Zimmer’s defenses when he was with the Bengals, and mercifully his eventual Head Coaching gig was in the NFC.

Zimmer has remodeled his defense somewhat this season. He never gets enough credit for being an innovator and like Steve Spagnuolo with the Chiefs, you absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks and have that old dog actually incorporate those new tricks into how they defend modern NFL offenses.

More often than not, the most successful leaders, both in sports and in life, surround themselves with smart people who disagree with them. In the NFL, Head Coaches who are secure in their own abilities don’t hesitate to surround themselves with coaches who can advance their thinking and the ability of their players on the field.

Andre Patterson, who is the Defensive Line coach and co-DC, has been with Zimmer since the start of his tenure as Head Coach of the Vikings, but their relationship goes back to when they coached together for the Cowboys at the turn of the millennium. Zimmer also has Paul Guenther on board this year as an Assistant, after all their successful work together in Cincinnati, and Zimmer’s son Mike is the other co-DC.

They’ve added Karl Scott to the brain-trust this year too. Scott was Defensive Backs coach at Alabama since 2018 and I don’t need to remind you of the names he coached in Tuscaloosa, ahem-Diggs-ahem-Surtain.

All those minds met together this year to form a defense that is sixth in the league in DVOA according to Football Outsiders and particularly good against the pass. Pressure on the QB is a huge part of that, with Minnesota leading the league in pressure percentage (more on that in the next section). The Ravens though have struggled against teams with more mature coverage schemes and with the players on the back-end to execute at a high level.

One of the big improvements that the Ravens offense has made this year has been the greater freedom and autonomy given to their Wide Receivers to read coverage and execute choice or option routes depending on what they’re seeing. Some of the spacing issues still apparent, have actually been the result of this greater independence the receivers in this offense have been given to select the route that most suits the coverage they are facing.

Patience must be a virtue for both receivers and Lamar Jackson when reading coverages this weekend. The Ravens should set up with their best middle-of-the-field open (MOFO) passing concepts this week and be ready to run them, even when it seems that they shouldn’t when looking at the defense almost immediately preceding the snap. But they should also utilize option routes to allow their receiving threats to read the coverage themselves and adjust their route.

Zimmer is a master of using his safeties to disguise his eventual coverage and links it up well with his pressure packages. Harrison Smith is the key to this, often waiting until the snap to bail back from the line of scrimmage into a deep half of the field as Xavier Woods, the other Safety, rotates out of a Cover 1/3 look.

Zimmer also mixes and matches coverages at an unprecedented rate and like the Bengals last week, the Vikes are not an idiosyncratic defense that sticks blindly to its principles. They play man and zone match, and they cycle through all manner of coverages with no real tendency to cling to, or prepare to break down the majority of the time.

This almost exactly even spread of use of coverages and the late moves to roll in and out of certain coverages is the true brilliance of a Zimmer defense and the Ravens, especially Lamar, will need to be at their best in terms of pre and post-snap processing to break it down.

Slide to the left, slide to the right

The Ravens know what it’s like to lose a crucial cog in their pursuit of a Super Bowl. This season, more than most, has seen blow after blow on the injury front. The Vikings know what it’s like to lose their star players for the year too. They were without Danielle Hunter for the whole of last year and finished as one of the worst teams in the league in terms of getting pressure on the QB.

Hunter came back strong this year and they also brought back Everson Griffen to the tune of getting pressure on the Quarterback at the second highest rate in the league while being just an average blitzing team, in terms of volume.

Other teams are starting to deal with injuries at the same rate as the Ravens but the Ravens are already battle-hardened with their next men up in place for most of the season. One area that is still a concern and still faces injury challenges, seemingly most weeks, is the Offensive Line. This Vikings team is not a good one to face on that front.

However, The Vikings got the news that they will once again lose Hunter for the season. This is a huge blow for Minnesota and a huge boon to the Ravens who will now have Tyre Phillips or Cedric Ogbuehi, presumably, with a relatively easier task come Sunday. And, it remains to be seen how much Griffen was thriving due to playing across from Hunter – taking all of the attention of opposing offenses.

It would be foolish though to underestimate the Vikings’ ability to pressure the QB without Hunter, especially against the patchwork OL the Ravens will put out on Sunday. Their personnel is strong inside with a rotation of Sheldon Richardson, Dalvin Tomlinson and a familiar face in Michael Pierce. On the edge, DJ Wonnum, in his second year out of South Carolina, has shown flashes in his limited playing time and we should count the aforementioned Griffen as still dangerous.

The other concern is the way the Vikings attack Offensive Lines. This could be limited without the athleticism of Hunter but, while they don’t blitz at a high rate, they do like to run stunts, including complex twists involving more than two guys, and simulated pressures, changing the angle of attack from what it looks like it might be immediately pre-snap.

To combat this, the Ravens need to get their combo protection working on Sunday. I’ll explain…

There are mainly two types of pass protection; B.O.B. or big on big, a man protection, and slide, a zone protection. Most teams regularly use a combination of the two on the same play. This is to avoid the weakness of zone protection, which can often cause matchups that aren’t advantageous to the offense i.e. RB on a DE, but to also combat any elaborate pressure packages from the Defensive Line, which can often beat man protection by overloading pressure to one side.

A combo protection would ask some of the OL to slide protect, which means blocking a gap to your left or right, while asking others to simply block the man across from them. Running combo protections requires high football intelligence from both your line and your QB to set the protection correctly i.e. which players will slide and which will play man-to-man.

It also requires the Ravens OL to communicate well and pass off rushers as stunts and games evolve through the play. It’s not something this Offensive Line have managed well this season.

Zimmer has packages to fool even the most advanced QBs and Offensive Linemen, so the Ravens need to execute their protection to a high level on Sunday. That means taking into account the deception that exists in a Zimmer defense – once a QB identifies the Mike pre-snap, and sets the protection, the Vikings will adjust who they bring pressure with to render this call incorrect.

The Vikings are also good at attacking the weak spot in combo protection: the seam (i.e. the gap between the last man on slide protection and first man on man protection). This means Ravens RBs and Pat Ricard, or whoever is on pass protection duty in the backfield, needs to be aware of how the Vikings will attack that seam and make a competent block to protect Lamar.

That back will likely have a dual read, needing to watch two defenders and pick up the one who brings pressure. If they both come, Lamar needs to account for the extra rusher and provide the X factor in this offense and escape the pressure himself with his legs, or hit his hot read in behind the on-rushing defender.

Fire Ricard out of a cannon

This Vikings team has changed up its defensive front slightly from the years that we’ve seen Zimmer run more regular 4-3 over fronts with some 4-3 under mixed in. He has begun to experiment with more 3-4 looks and get all of his impressive interior defensive linemen on the field at the same time.

But as with most modern day NFL defenses, this front and its different makeups is built to face down the prevalent zone blocking scheme, though the changes made haven’t really worked yet for Zimmer and his defense. They are giving up the fifth most yards per attempt and it seems that even though the component parts of their interior run defense are frightening, with Dalvin Tomlinson AND Michael Pierce, the unit is not yet the sum of its parts and they give up a lot of yards inside.

In fact losing Hunter is as much a blow to the edges of their run defense as it is to the pass rush, as he was the one part of the unit they could rely on regularly. Testing the edges of this run defense early would be advisable given the loss of Hunter and in spite of the weakness of the interior of their run defense.

If the Ravens can establish something to the outside (which has been tough sledding in previous games) then they can perhaps try and employ the inverted veer in this game and get some of the real mismatch in this game going – Lamar Jackson up the middle against this interior run defense.

The Ravens also need to get their usual power runs going and should find that many of their usual interior runs work well. They do need to account for Eric Kendricks though, who is a patient and excellent run defender, and will need to run some TE insert, if Nick Boyle is back and firing on all cylinders, or get Pat Ricard fired out of a cannon to the second level. Pullers would work too, bringing an element of surprise to a second level defender at his best when he can sit back, read blocks and go make a play.

Defensive Keys

Take the Bang out of the Offense

Before this latest incarnation of the Ravens’ offense, Ravens fans were most blessed to watch the Gary Kubiak offense of 2014, a top 10 scoring unit that teams really struggled to stop on the ground. Much of the credit for this oasis of production amidst some lean offensive years can go down to Kubiak installing his wildly successful wide zone running scheme that is the polar opposite end of the run blocking spectrum to what we see from this Ravens’ team today.

The wide zone offense, when installed and called as masterfully as Kubiak did, can be deadly. Kubiak installed this offense with the Vikings and has now retired. His son, Klint Kubiak, is now the Coordinator and has carried on the family tradition. This Vikings offense also has two running backs that can operate it at a high level. The importance of Cook is to come in the next section, but the scheme alone can really hurt teams.

Wide zone, at its core, has a three-pronged read for the Running Back. The back can either choose to bang – run into an open rushing lane in the B or C gap, bounce – to the outside and outrun the defense to the sideline, or bend – back to the weakside of the run, also referred to as a cutback lane.

The wide zone run has to be defended well as a unit, with multiple component parts working well to take away the opportunity for the back. Taking away the bang read on this type of play, has always been a staple of this team’s run defense. Derek Wolfe being back for this game is huge and gets another two-gapping Defensive Linemen alongside Brandon Williams to be able to take away the bang read for the running back.

Holding up at the point of attack in the way that Williams and Wolfe can both do, will keep Cook from banging into open running lanes on the path of least resistance for him. But that’s only part 1; you need to take away the bounce too. This comes from setting the edge and I expect Odafe Oweh, Justin Houston, and Pernell McPhee to be setting hard and disciplined edges in this game.

That only leaves the bend, but that’s Cook’s specialty. Backside play from both Defensive Tackles and Edge defenders will be crucial in this game. Justin Madubuike, specifically, needs to be more patient than he has been when defending on the back-side. Too much penetration this week and Cook will cut back into your gap and take advantage of the upfield pursuit.

Wide Zone isn’t the only running play the Vikings run. The Ravens need to be careful of the way Minnesota plays off this staple of their offense with Counters and Tight Zone runs. The Ravens Defensive Line need to read their blocks – another advantage to having the veteran savvy of Wolfe back for this game – and play with discipline. The Vikings know teams sell out to stop the wide zone so mixing in some tight zone when the aiming point is the A gap, between the Guard and the Center, can catch Defensive Linemen cheating to cover the slightly wider aiming point of wide zone, off guard.

Missed tackles

I know most of the time in this piece I talk X’s and O’s and try to look at some more deeper strategic elements to each matchup that the Ravens face. This week though, I have to go to a more obvious challenge for the Ravens defense when facing this Vikings offense, and more specifically Dalvin Cook.

Cook is one of the best backs in the league and he has multiple ways to beat you. We’ve already talked about backside discipline against wide zone runs and finding the cutback lane being a particularly effective part of his game. But he’s outstanding as a runner in space and when he gets to the second level he can make even the better tackling teams miss.

It won’t have escaped anybody’s notice that the Ravens aren’t the best tackling team in the league…far from it.

I’ve played football, but I’ve also played Rugby – a sport that requires sure tackling and excellent technique when bringing a player to the ground. One of the reasons I mention tackling this week is that I’m somewhat of a tackling connoisseur. I find myself savoring a particularly good tackle and the various elements of it, while being frustrated at especially bad tackles, and as Ravens-watchers we haven’t been in short supply of those.

For me, the Ravens have been leaving their feet too much to make big hits, not wrapping up and driving through contact. When you make a tackle the strongest force you have is ground reactionary force: having your body connected to the earth and using it to drive through your opponent. When you leave your feet, you run more of a risk of an arm tackle.

You have to think the Ravens defense, prideful as it is, will come out swinging on the tackling front this week, but hopefully not too aggressively, just with far better technique than they’ve shown so far. They will need to. Cook can beat you with physicality and elusiveness, with some of the best contact balance in the league, unless you wrap up and use your feet, he will break tackles and run free all day long.

No post-Halloween fear of Jefferson and Thielen

The Ravens have faced some excellent Wide Receivers so far, and come off a frightening experience pre-Halloween against Ja’Marr Chase. Chase is a physical freak but I’ve also written about how good he is as a technician – he showed that against the Ravens and more. It’s remarkable how quickly he’s adapted his game to the pros.

Another receiver who has adapted himself to the NFL in the same way, is his former LSU teammate Justin Jefferson. Jefferson does it differently as a master route runner both in how he gets off a jam in press coverage but also through the stem and break-point of the route, Jefferson just knows how to get open. And he joined a team with another receiver adept at the nuances of playing the position in Adam Thielen.

What they both do, is use a lot of smoke and mirrors to get open – they fool Defensive Backs with lots of hesitation and false steps. They are both supreme press coverage defeaters and will keep you guessing when trying to cover them. The Vikings also work them well in combination and both the game plan and Jefferson/Thielen’s skill allow them to play the long game, setting up routes they know will be used later in the day.

The Ravens Defensive Backs will need to remain patient and not over-commit to one early move by these two. Anthony Averett has been impressive since Marcus Peters’ injury, and becoming the starter, but there have been times when savvy receivers have managed to get open time and again on him. This week the Vikings will try him as so many teams have done previously, and he will have a tough task given how good this receiving corps is – don’t sleep on K.J. Osborn.

The other way to combat them, is to stop them at source, i.e. Kirk Cousins. I’m sure many have, by now, seen the Next Gen Stats passing map from their game against the Cowboys. Cousins struggled to complete anything downfield all night long. He’s a veteran QB with an excellent mind for the game and outstanding weapons. He’s had a good season so far, and if you give him a good week of preparation for a team that doesn’t throw any surprises at him, he can be a handful.

The Cowboys defense is much improved under Dan Quinn and are much more tactically savvy. A defense built on pressure packages and man coverage, they gave Cousins the last thing he expected from them: a four-man rush with zone coverage.

The Ravens shouldn’t replicate the Cowboys’ approach entirely, as there will be pressure packages Cousins hasn’t seen before from the Ravens given that he’s barely faced them, especially under Wink Martindale, in his career. We routinely see even veteran QBs struggle the first time they face a Martindale coordinated defense.

But he is a veteran, and more than that, he’s good against pressure. He can ID it, and he has receivers that are masters of beating man coverage behind that pressure. The Ravens need to mix in plenty of zone coverage on Sunday afternoon, and bring plenty of simulated pressures to keep Cousins at bay and keep the ball out of the hands of their playmakers downfield.

Matchup to watch

Pat Ricard vs Eric Kendricks

I love LB play against the run, it’s one of my favorite things to watch done well. Eric Kendricks is a master of it. He’s patient, has a high Football IQ, he gets off blocks, even from significantly bigger blockers, and he hits hard and sure. He can be got at in man coverage if isolated but against the run he plays hard and fast.

If there’s one thing I love more than LB play against the run though, it’s Fullback play. Ravens fans have been spoiled over the years with some outstanding Fullbacks in Baltimore, with Pat Ricard in the last year of his contract, I wanted to find a way to get him into this segment this season.

While Kendricks is very good against the run, this week he draws a tough matchup against the best blocking Fullback in the league. The Ravens should look to get Ricard to the second level and up against Kendricks where possible. This Vikings run defense, as already mentioned, has been surprisingly soft up the middle, if you can get in Kendricks’ way, the Ravens Running Back stable will be off to the races.

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