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Countering Pressure, Covering Gesicki Keys to Beating Miami

The Ravens run out of the tunnel in Miami against the Dolphins
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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There was a kids’ TV show in my native England, that I watched when I was growing up, that explains how things work. It’s simply called “How.” Sometimes, after Ravens games, I simply ask “How.” That definitely applies to last week’s win over the Vikings but the win is all that matters and the Ravens now face the lowly 2-7 Dolphins, who I’m officially warning are better than their record.

“How” do the Ravens go about winning this one?

Offensive Keys

Plan for the Exotic Blitzes

The Dolphins are in year three of a former-Belichick-Assistant-as-Head-Coach experience. Last season, it seemed like they might have gotten the best deal, next to the many misadventures teams have had on that front. Brian Flores, the former Linebackers’ coach in New England, replaced Adam Gase at the helm of the Miami Dolphins in 2019.

His first rude awakening as a Head Coach was given to him in his very first game by an eventual MVP-led Baltimore Ravens, 59-10 in Miami. That humbling was followed up with a mediocre 5-11 season that ended better than it started and brought promise.

That promise was realized last season on the back of a dominating defense, built very much in the Wink Martindale mold. Flux at the Quarterback position notwithstanding, the Dolphins had a good season and Flores was the fearless leader to take the Dolphins to the promised land.

Oh, how much things can change in a year. Some quarters place Flores squarely on the proverbial hotseat after a miserable start to the season. The defense no longer looks like the fearsome unit of a year ago, and the issues at QB have only been further highlighted by the departure of the Fitzmagic show from town.

Individual mistakes and miscues have been the culprit for felling this once-promising defense as the creative scheme hasn’t changed, nor has Flores, who seems as thoughtful and as competent as always. Having said that, the Ravens don’t need to run much of a scout team to prepare for the Dolphins defense this week; they may as well just let Lamar and the offense go up against the first team defense in practice and let Wink off the leash, because this Dolphins defense is very familiar.

Any gameplan for this Dolphins defense has to start with how you deal with their exotic blitz packages that look a lot like they’re straight out of Wink Martindale’s playbook. The Dolphins are 6th in blitz percentage, nestled in just behind the Ravens. They do it in a very similar way with lots of simulated pressures, walking guys up to the line of scrimmage only to drop them back out again into coverage and to disguise the point of attack for the blitz, often playing Cover 0, man coverage behind those blitzes.

Normally at this point, for any team without such a patchwork Offensive Line as the Ravens have, it would be worth mentioning that while the Dolphins have blitzed a lot this season, they are around league average in terms of getting pressure on Quarterbacks and bottom five in the league in sacking them. The blitz hasn’t been working like it did last season.

The Ravens though, are not a normal Offensive Line, with lots of changes – new players or players playing new positions, and it would be wise for the Dolphins to continue to blitz this week. The Ravens need to get help to Tyre Phillips on the right side where Emmanuel Ogbah is the Dolphins’ most dangerous one-on-one pass rusher. Next to him, Kevin Zeitler’s matchup with the increasingly impressive Christian Wilkins in pass protection will also be key.

I talked last week about combating the Vikings pressure packages with the OL getting their slide and combo protection right. And that’s important again this week, but the Dolphins zone blitz game is very different to other teams. Their defenders on the line of scrimmage are taught to engage the OL directly across from them before bailing out.

If you’ve correctly identified where the bluff is in the pressure package, you could just stay patient as an Offensive Lineman, as the guy across from you moves to engage you, and move to the threat that you know is coming from elsewhere, knowing that the defender across from you isn’t really coming for your QB on that play. But the Dolphins players engaged in this deception have personal checks they can make that allows them to change their assignment and go after the QB if they’re not engaged by a lineman.

To combat this, you have to mix in lots of different approaches, but one of those approaches needs to be, to meet fire with fire to get them away from making these checks that can be so dangerous. I’ve seen some teams meet that deception with their own deception on their Offensive Line with their protection.

This means actively engaging the defender you know isn’t coming on the blitz before having the Offensive Lineman also bail backwards after the engagement with the defender and go looking for work elsewhere on the line, usually to the opposite side. This kind of working as a unit will be tough for such a depleted Offensive Line, but the Ravens need to multiple in their protection schemes to keep the Dolphins pressure players guessing.

Target Inside WR/TE on Blitz-beaters

Protection is important, but the Dolphins also often bring more than you can block, so it’s perhaps more relevant to talk about how the Ravens might get the ball out of Lamar Jackson’s hands quicker.

Lamar isn’t so effective against the blitz that you’d consider changing your normal MO drastically for this game, so I expect to see a heavy dose of those blitz packages this week. The Dolphins need to be careful playing man coverage behind it too often and be careful of overloading one side too much as they are prone to do, because Lamar would destroy them taking off.

You have to defend the deep ball against the Ravens now and they showed last week in the win against the Vikings that they’re not afraid to get their receivers downfield against man coverage and allow Lamar the space to take off either scripted on a QB draw, or unscripted on a scramble at an opportune moment.

To cut a long story not that short: Lamar’s running ability is huge to get Miami out of what they’re comfortable with in their pressure packages. But the Ravens can’t just beat the blitz with Lamar’s legs; they need to prove they can throw against it.

That means getting the ball out of Lamar’s hands quickly and dialing up some quick-hitting pass concepts that allow him to do this. It also means Lamar taking those underneath routes when they open up quickly but also identifying the blitz packages correctly to know where to go with the football.

You have to be careful running blitz-beating concepts that target two slants from the outside receivers, like the Lion passing concept, against the Dolphins, because there can often be multiple defenders dropping from the line of scrimmage after showing blitz into throwing lanes.

But Mesh, which can get two inside receivers crossing underneath, would be a concept the Ravens could use, especially given it would occupy the Dolphins’ better Corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones against the outside receivers. This would work especially well against an overload blitz if Lamar can escape out of the back door and roll to one side to buy more time for the crossers to get to the opposite side of the field.

The Dragon concept would be another quick hitting passing concept that could be deployed this week. This time predicated on getting a Running Back out into the flat, which Lamar could target, usually paired with a Cover 2 beating concept on the other side of the field. Lamar had some errant short throws last weekend that he needs to tidy up this week as those quick hitters will be crucial.

The other thing Lamar needs to do effectively in this game is identify the advantageous matchups with Dolphins defenders. The Ravens did a great job getting Mark Andrews matched up on some Linebackers in the Vikings game and doing that again in this game would be a wise move.

This Dolphins defense has been objectively bad in lots of different ways this season so it’s important to identify where they’re slightly better and where they’re among the worst in the league. While Howard and Jones aren’t having their best seasons, they’re still talented Corners who will more than hold their own up against Rashod Bateman and Marquise Brown on the outside.

Where the Dolphins are vulnerable is in their depth in coverage guys outside Howard and Jones: they are 31st in DVOA against Wide Receivers who aren’t the top two guys and bottom five in DVOA against Tight Ends. Lamar needs to look to his best matchups outside of Brown and Bateman when facing the blitz. He needs to give Andrews the chance to go and get it when locked up in man coverage, and look for James Proche beating underneath coverage quickly. The secondary receiving threats for the Ravens should be a big part of this gameplan.

Run Inside Zone/Duo

One way in which Miami is well set up to stop the Ravens is in the traditional power running game that the Ravens run. There are teams that play their most effective run defense against the zone blocking scheme and the Ravens are therefore well setup to take down those defenses by playing their normal game. Occasionally though they come across teams that aren’t so dependent on the offense running a certain way.

First things first though: the Dolphins haven’t been very good defending the run this season, so all of these considerations could be moot come Thursday night if the individual component parts of their run defense don’t show up. Ogbah and Wilkins have been productive pass rushers from their respective positions but they can be run at. Andrew Van Ginkel is probably their most consistent run defender but he can’t do it all.

Having said that, the Dolphins would be wise to run their Tite front against the Ravens and it might cause them some problems. The Tite front keeps three defensive linemen between the tackles evenly spaced, with a Nose Tackle and two 4i technique Defensive Ends. This front is predicated on blocking up interior gaps, to force a team to run horizontally more than vertically.

The interior linemen, which will be a rotation of former Raven Zach Sieler, Wilkins, Adam Butler, John Jenkins and Raekwon Davis, will aim to block up the space inside and “spill” runners to the outside of the formation where their Linebackers will run them down. If the Dolphins can successfully do this against the Ravens running backs, you can get their less than dynamic stable of backs moving horizontally where they don’t have the explosion to beat guys to the outside.

I’d like to see a heavy dose of two pullers in this game to change the numbers game and make those interior run defenders redundant as the linemen across from them bail out to change the point of attack – Devonta Freeman has shown great patience and ability to set up his blocks and would be a good back to use heavily in this game.

The Ravens could also stand to profit from running more Inside Zone or Duo running plays than they normally do to get some double teams inside on those big guys in the Tite front, as well as finding ways to get Lamar to the edges with a good measure of Veer Read.

One final note: when they get in tight areas i.e. the red zone, the Dolphins run defense stiffens – the Ravens will likely need to throw the ball when they get close to the Dolphins end zone.

Defensive Keys

Don’t Throw the Kitchen Sink

“Look, it doesn’t take a genius to know that every organization thrives when it has two leaders. Go ahead, name a country that doesn’t have two presidents. A boat that sets sail without two captains. Where would Catholicism be without the popes?” – Oscar Martinez, The US Office

The Dolphins Offensive Coordinator position is… interesting. Eric Studesville and George Godsey are the co-Offensive Coordinators and they take a collaborative approach to running the offense.

25th in DVOA on Offense says, I’m not sure it’s working.

The real weakness of this offense is the Offensive Line, which is a mess. They’re in flux with multiple players trying new positions and it shows. They are top ten in times pressured per dropback to the tune of Dolphins Quarterbacks being pressured on nearly a quarter of their dropbacks.

Rookie Liam Eichenberg has now moved outside to Offensive Tackle from Guard with Austin Jackson moving back inside. Robert Hunt and Greg Mancz, who the Dolphins traded for from the Ravens in pre-season, have been adequate in pass protection. And Jesse Davis who had been getting better at Offensive Tackle is not having a good season.

That leads us to the Ravens strategy to get pressure on this line, which should definitely include a good shellacking from the usual pressure packages that Wink loves to run. Tua Tagovailoa, if he plays, is still a young QB and will still be flummoxed by the blitzes that allow the Ravens to feast on young Quarterbacks.

However, in this game I would expect to see quite a lot of simulated pressures and stunts and games as well as blitzes, and would bet that the Ravens won’t beat their season average of 30% in terms of blitz rate. This time it won’t be because the Quarterback is good when facing pressure a la Patrick Mahomes, but because they won’t need to always send more than four to get home against this Dolphins Offensive Line.

On stunts and games, we know there have been times when Martindale has placed a moratorium on stunts this season, actively not wanting them to be run. We also know that he has deployed them effectively at times to get Odafe Oweh matched up on interior blockers. I suspect they will be used this week to test the communication on the re-made Dolphins Offensive Line.

Cover Waddle and Gesicki

Any discussion of getting pressure on the Dolphins Quarterback, whoever he ends up being in this game, can’t be isolated from the tendencies in the Dolphins passing game. Count me as one of the people who was intrigued pre-season with how Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle might turbo-charge a passing game that already had some intriguing weapons to deploy in Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker and Preston Williams.

Well, fast-forward 10 weeks and, Williams still doesn’t look like the guy he was before his injury. Parker is on IR. Fuller is still on IR for this game. And the Dolphins passing attack now only revolves around Gesicki and Waddle. Both are dangerous and Waddle could be a star in the making, but they can’t do it alone.

Getting pressure on the Quarterback needs to be combined with a strategy for eliminating the two safety blankets for the Dolphins QB. Getting physical with Waddle at the line and through the first five yards of his route, as well as at the catch-point is paramount to success against him early in his career. He’s of slight build – I don’t believe that will hinder him going forward and more experience will help him to expand his release package and become more of a headache for defensive backs. But right now, physicality is a good way to get him off his game somewhat.

Gesicki is a big threat on the Drive concept that the Dolphins like to run a lot. This concept combines two receivers in a hi-lo read, one running a shallow drag route from the outside, with the other – usually Gesicki for the Dolphins – running a deep dig route. Gesicki is great on this concept and others like it. I think the Ravens need to get Chuck Clark in robber technique for a good amount of this game to stop the Dolphins from too often putting Brandon Stephens in conflict with this type of passing concept.

Stephens has looked better and better has the season has worn on, and with him now replacing the injured DeShon Elliott, I think he can be trusted with a good section of coverage assignments at the Safety position, but you’re crazy if you think the Dolphins won’t scheme up ways to attack him with their best weapons. It would behoove the Ravens to scheme up ways to protect him at times, to keep his confidence high and not allow teams to throw everything they can at him.

One thing to remember in defending the Dolphins’ passing game is that they are not particularly good at driving the ball down the field – they are bottom five in both intended air yards per attempt and completed air yards per completion. While Waddle could be a deep threat, he hasn’t been used as such thus far, his ADOT (Average Depth of Target) is only 6.7 (139th in NFL) and the Dolphins are mostly relying on him using his speed after the catch.

The only problem with this approach is that for Waddle and the other Dolphins receivers, this isn’t working. They rank equal dead last in terms of yards after the catch per completion, and so while the Ravens tackling has been an issue this season, it won’t be tested as hard on Thursday night as it was on Sunday when it had improved from the Bengals debacle. They should also feel good about running man coverage against this unit and should be comfortable with getting physical at the line of scrimmage.

Stop a Deficient Running Game

I’ll spend the least time here. This isn’t a good running team. TJuhey are 30th in rush DVOA and their yards per attempt has been staggeringly low for multiple games this season. It’s not hard to see why when you watch the game film, this Offensive Line is not opening up holes for their backs to run through unencumbered.

They like to run power, but their Guards aren’t used to pulling, Austin Jackson in particular. You can key off these pullers very easily and get in the backfield to exact negative plays on this offense, getting them behind schedule.

When they run zone, they really struggle to reach block, the usual penetration from Justin Madubuike and Calais Campbell will be tough on the Dolphins this week. Upfield burst can kill a power run quickly, especially if your pullers are cumbersome and slow to get across the line, but if they can also read those reach blocks they can get across them easily and wreak havoc on the Dolphins running game.

There are only two real exceptions to the terrible run game narrative that the Ravens need to be wary of. Liam Eichenberg is better than adequate in the run game, they don’t actually run off tackle on the left side very much, but when they do, they’re effective with it. In obvious running situations I’d get a hard edge-setter up against him – Pernell McPhee is well rested and could take on the assignment.

The other is the cutback, which Myles Gaskin can be effective on, so good backside pursuit and discipline is important in this game. The Dolphins will more often than not be bottled up frontside at the point of attack but because of this you can lose patience from the backside against an inferior rushing offense like this, because there are plays to be had in the backfield. Gaskin is a talented back who can make you pay for this.

Matchup to Watch

Christian Wilkins vs Kevin Zeitler

It’s hard to see how the Dolphins will be able to consistently move the ball. This Ravens defense is not what it once was, and is severely depleted, but it’s tough to pick a matchup on that side of the ball that’s crucial to getting out of Miami with the win because of this. On Offense, Flores could have his defense well prepared to face the Ravens running game, and if he does deploy the Tite front, they may have some success defending the run.

In this case, the Ravens will need to move the ball on offense through the air. Picking up the Dolphins pressure packages and running the right passing concepts behind them will be crucial, as already mentioned. But Lamar needs room to step into his throws and Christian Wilkins is getting better and better at pushing the pocket and getting pressure inside. Kevin Zeitler needs to get him blocked this week in pass protection and keep Lamar’s pocket clean from any interior push.

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