I officially warned in last week’s Battle Plans that the Dolphins were better than their record suggested. On a short week and a trip to Miami, the Ravens found that out the hard way. Brian Flores is an impressive defensive mind and his players on defense executed his scheme and game plan to almost perfection for almost four quarters. The NFL is a matchup-based, week-to-week league and it is seemingly proven week after week.
So how do the Ravens go about this week’s matchup against the Chicago Bears?
Facing another Fangio disciple
The Bears defense was a top ten unit last season under former Raven Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano. Sean Desai has taken over play-calling duties for 2021, and while there have been flashes of greatness – 2nd in number of sacks and adjusted sack rate – the sum of its parts has not been greater than it was under Pagano.
Like Brandon Staley at the Chargers, and seemingly every bright young mind on NFL defensive coaching staffs, Desai, who served under Pagano too, is a Vic Fangio disciple. Having faced Fangio himself and Staley already this season, the Ravens should be starting to get somewhat familiar with the scheme.
Previous Battle Plans, particularly the Broncos version, wax lyrical about this scheme, but it’s worth a recap before putting a Bears slant on the game plan to beat it.
If you’re wanting to go back and watch the scheme in action, don’t revisit the Broncos game from earlier in the year. Fangio himself largely abandoned his principles to commit more and more resources to the run, and to becoming the team to break the 100-yard rushing streak – I still think this was a misadventure largely based on ego.
If run properly, the scheme makes masterful use of the safeties, particularly their pre-snap depth, to give the illusion of a light box before deploying a Safety with a quick trigger and good instincts to add an extra body to the cause of stopping the run. This dares teams to run the football into light boxes and gives the defense the chance to stay competitive against the pass by rolling in and out of MOFO (middle of the field open) and MOFC (middle of the field closed) looks.
This Bears defense has started to replicate many of those principles in their run defense but it doesn’t quite work yet, and the Ravens should be able to take advantage of this in their running game this week. The players at Desai’s disposal are not quite yet running the scheme at a high enough level to be effective, particularly at the Safety position.
They’ve been using three Safeties and sometimes four, with DeAndre Houston-Carson and Eddie Jackson sometimes deployed in man coverage or with underneath zone responsibilities, while Tashaun Gipson is mostly deployed as the Safety with responsibility for staying down closer to the box to come in and help against the run. He is a little undersized though and doesn’t yet have the trigger that a Fangio-style defense requires from the player in this role. The Ravens should be able to take advantage of this with their running game all day long.
The plan to take advantage of this should be multiple. First things first: pre-snap motion. Pre-snap eye candy seems to slow the Bears’ safeties considerably. Moving both Pat Ricard and the Ravens’ cadre of Tight Ends in motion, possibly multiple times on the same play should keep Gipson, or whoever else plays that role, honest. Expect to see heavy use of pre-snap motion this week.
Part two: heavy formations. As the Ravens passing game has evolved, they’ve started to run out more three-, four- and even five-receiver sets. This spreading out of the opposing defense can at times, help you to run the ball, especially as your passing game becomes more effective as it gets more defenders further away from the box. That isn’t necessary this week, as this type of scheme is set up to defend the run against these looks from an offense.
Finally, the Ravens need to get multiple men on the move, not just pre-snap, but post snap. Pulling multiple linemen on one play, changing the numbers game and getting traffic in the run game should prove hard to handle for this Bears defense that is good up the middle but not so good when a team gets to the edges. More on that now…
Combination punches to open up the haymaker
When I sit down to write these pieces I often find myself looking for the weak spot in a team’s run defense. That’s because the Ravens are a run-first team and if they can find a spot to attack, then the Ravens can exploit that all the way to a victory. Of course, they’ve shown that the passing game is far more effective this year than in previous seasons, and can certainly beat teams with that approach, but running the ball is still the staple meal for this offense. And if they can establish it early, they can continue to ride it for four quarters.
This approach, looking for the weakness in an opposing run defense, can often lead me down an unwelcome distraction, bemoaning the loss of J.K. Dobbins. There have been opponents, this week’s included, who have struggled quite clearly both statistically and when you watch the game film, on the edges.
Not only did Dobbins’ explosion allow the Ravens to more effectively target the edges of a run defense, but the threat of him also breaking contain softened up the middle for other runners. I’ve mentioned it before, but the inverted veer is all the more menacing knowing that Dobbins might get the ball at the mesh point and beat you outside.
This Bears defense has a particular problem with outside runs, especially to the right where they are dead last in DVOA at defending the left edge of their defense. This is due, in part, to the absence of Khalil Mack for multiple games now and he has now been ruled out for the rest of the season. Without him, the Bears roll out Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson as the edge defending outside linebackers in their predominantly 3-4 defensive front. Neither has been a stellar part of the Bears run defense.
Without Dobbins though, thinking about how the Ravens might get the ball to the outside in their running game is a challenge. It’s one that Greg Roman hasn’t entirely worked out yet, especially as more and more teams play with a five-man front against the Ravens on obvious passing downs and set hard edges.
I still think the Ravens could stand to run more outside zone than they do but it’s not a weapon Roman deploys often, so it’s not worth dwelling on.
So it might be worth changing the conversation and not talking about how to get outside, but how to overwhelm the edges of a weak-edged run defense. Using multiple pullers, as already mentioned but also with an H-back and a Fullback, in those heavy sets I suggested the Ravens get into, would be a start.
These plays with multiple pullers often have both Power and Counter principles built into the play. They would feature some patience from the Running Back before directly attacking the weak spot of this defense, but not trying to get outside, aiming directly at where the Offensive Tackle was, before he down blocks.
Happily against this Bears defense, which is not especially effective against the run in general, you can also attack the middle of the defense with your rushing attack. To use a boxing analogy, this would be the head shot that you work off of the body shot (Power Counter type runs just mentioned). The Ravens have plenty of run concepts that attack the interior of the defense.
Some weeks, you might not be able to soften up the edges with interior runs (if facing a more potent interior run defense). But when you can, if both of these punches are deployed effectively, it could set up the haymaker. This week, that’s getting Lamar Jackson on the edge of this defense and letting him run free, probably through the Veer Read. The Ravens need to be patient and work the body and head before unleashing this later in the game.
If you can get Lamar around the edge and into the defensive backfield, one of the most dynamic open-field runners in the league will find a lot of room to run against a defense which has not been good at defending in space.
Extending the metaphor – knockout punch in the passing game
Something the Ravens have shown in their passing attack so far has been patience. If you’re reading Battle Plans and watching closely, you’ll have noticed them deliberately playing the long game by hitting specific routes and concepts early to manipulate zone coverage. For instance, targeting the flats early against more predictable Cover 3 defenses.
Last week, there were many obsessed with the Cover 0 that the Dolphins ran against the Ravens and seemingly neutralized what has been at times, a potent passing offense this season. Cover 0 has become an annoying catch-all phrase for the type of all-out blitz Ravens fans used to see Dean Pees use regularly in clutch situations. The Ravens became famous for it under Wink Martindale, but the term is also lazily used.
The Dolphins do run a lot of Cover 0 but if you run a blitz that brings six, seven or even eight guys, depending on the Offensive personnel, you don’t have to run Cover 0 behind it. The Dolphins didn’t always run Cover 0 behind their exotic and often heavy blitz packages last week. They ran Cover 3, with some match principles built in, (credit my good friend Michael Crawford @abukari on Twitter for noticing this first) which change the coverage based on the route they’re facing. It was an especially clever game plan, but it was a high-risk, high-reward strategy that paid out due to it being executed to perfection by the defensive personnel.
I reference the abomination that was last week’s game, not because the Bears blitz a lot; on the contrary, they are second to last in blitz rate. I mention it only to better illustrate my point that often, patience is a virtue in offensive football. The Ravens persistently targeted the flats last week to try and manipulate the Dolphins defense and to soften up other areas of the field, like the seams and to open deeper shots. It didn’t work, but I’m not convinced it was the wrong plan altogether.
I think the Ravens will need to be patient again this week and soften the Bears up for deeper shots. The Bears run a lot of underneath zone coverage and Roquan Smith is particularly good in it. But he’s also trigger happy and likes the big splash play in the backfield towards the sidelines. The Ravens may have to take some of those if only to create more space for Mark Andrews to work.
That tactic has worked against this defense to the tune of being in the bottom third of the league efficiency-wise at defending Tight Ends. Andrews should eat this weekend if the Ravens are patient enough. And drag routes underneath may also come open against this defense that doesn’t blitz much and when they do, don’t drop guys into coverage in the middle of the field.
Perhaps extending the metaphor too far by mirroring the earlier boxing talk, this shouldn’t be where the plan to land the knockout blow ends. The real weakness of this passing defense is the deep middle. They mix their coverages, but whether the middle of the field is open or closed, the Bears have given up deep shots down the middle. On the face of it, this matchup with Lamar – the NFL’s leader in completed Air Yards – does not bode well for the Bears. It’s even worse when I tell you that Bears are dead last in defending a team’s number one Wide Receiver.
That means Hollywood Brown, deep on post routes. Two concepts I’d like to see the Ravens use to get Hollywood’s wheels going: Yankee and Mills.
Yankee will work well this week as it’s most often run from heavy personnel, which I’ve already suggested the Ravens should use. It works a deep post over the top of a deep over route, this will also work well in combination with the punches the Ravens land with Andrews if he’s the one running the deep over. Similarly Mills works a dig from an inside receiver, only this time from the same side as the outside receiver running a post over the top.
A Ravens defensive favorite: feast on the rookie QB
It’s probably not a stretch to say that I wasn’t the only observer flummoxed by Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace keeping their jobs at the head of the Bears’ franchise. I was even more surprised to see them allowed to trade future draft capital to trade up in the 2021 draft to secure a potential future signal-caller, given how precarious their positions were.
But in Justin Fields they found an exciting prospect for the future and a Quarterback that could, in the future, be a handful to defend. Unfortunately for the Bears, that likely doesn’t come this year and likely not this week, against a Ravens defense that has feasted on young Quarterbacks.
Fields is not yet fulfilling his considerable potential. Football Outsiders has two measures for Quarterbacks: yards added above replacement level play and their more standard DVOA efficiency metric. They rank QBs with a minimum of 150 passes, of which there are 33 in the league. In DYAR and DVOA – Fields is 32nd and 33rd respectively.
But as much as the data tears Fields down, it can also build a case for why the Bears are not using his talents effectively or allowing him to excel. Fields was an effective operator in the RPO game in college but the Bears have only run 29 RPOs all season, which is towards the bottom of the league. They also have an effective running game but they aren’t using it to help Fields, the Bears being bottom 10 in both number of play action plays run and yards gained on play action.
It’s not just the play-calling though (although some of this could also be put down to the play-calling and play design); the Offensive Line has given up the most sacks in the league with 33 and their 11.7% adjusted sack rate is easily the worst mark in the NFL, as nobody else makes double figures.
Speaking of being easily the worst in the league at something: the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints have 895 Yards after the Catch – that’s a bad year. The Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t much better with 906. The Ravens are only marginally better at 971 and feature as one of only seven teams under 1000 yards after the catch.
The Bears have 552. Their YAC per completion at 3.7, is a full half yard worse than the next team. So when the play-calling and play design allow it, when the Offensive Line gives him enough time, and when Fields manages to complete an on-time, on target throw, he rarely gets anything above the air yards on the throw.
This is all to say that Wink needs to dial up his usual rookie blitz packages, sit back and watch the fireworks. This is especially relevant on 3rd and long, as the Bears are 31st in 3rd/4th and Medium/Long, and 32nd on all 3rd/4th Down plays. It’s also why part two of the defensive keys is important: stopping the run and putting this Bears team in a negative game script can be a recipe for disaster for them.
I would expect to see a stunt/game moratorium this week as we’ve seen from Martindale before against mobile QBs. Fields is a pocket passer but he’s dangerous in space and you’ expect to see a heavy snap count for Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser this week to keep as much athleticism on the field as possible.
The Ravens also need to stay disciplined on the back end and avoid any of the communication errors that have led to big plays over the course of this season – Fields can push the ball downfield, particularly to Darnell Mooney, or Cole Kmet on crossing patterns, digs and overs.
The Bears also like to run naked bootlegs for Fields and give him half-field reads. These come with play-action and so I’d keep rolling coverage and moving the Safeties immediately post-snap, to keep him seeing different coverages from when he lines up under Center to when he snaps his head around after play action.
Shut down the Bears like they shut down the Vikings
In the offseason I charted what I termed Defensive Assists, by watching film and assigning responsibility to the player on defense who helped another player make a tackle for loss or short gain, or sack the Quarterback. This is because the Ravens defense is predicated on being better than the sum of its’ parts; on defending as a unit and unselfish play allowing others to succeed.
I’ve written about it a lot and there has been other commentary around it, but one of the most unselfish and effective defensive linemen in the league is Derek Wolfe. He was a huge part of the Ravens run defense last season and he made everyone else around him better. Losing him now for the season is a big loss and one that may mean the Ravens come unstuck when they face the current class of the AFC, the Titans (possibly with a returning Derrick Henry in January).
But that’s a challenge for another day; losing Wolfe for this game is a problem too but not an insurmountable one. This rush offense is a predominantly wide zone attack that the Ravens have seen a lot of and, outside of a couple of big plays, recently played well against when facing one of the best proponents of this attack in the league, in the Vikings.
They need to resurrect the plan from Vikings week for this game (I wrote about it in the Vikings Battle Plan) to stop the wide zone attack which includes good edge-setting, staying stout at the point of attack and backside discipline. But every wide zone team has a change-up that they run to keep you honest when defending the outside zone run.
For the Bears, this is the Duo run play that gets two double teams working inside. I seem to say this most weeks but occupying double teams inside is paramount this week. The Bears can run duo pretty effectively (though I actually think Khalil Herbert runs this better than David Montgomery) and get to the second level well, getting hats on Linebackers.
The Ravens need to keep their Linebackers clean this week and occupy those double teams – possibly running out both Brandon Williams and Justin Ellis to keep the middle clogged as best they can in more obvious running situations and, on occasion, on 1st and 10.
Matchup of the Week
Darnell Mooney vs Anthony Averett
I toyed with including the respective Special Teams units as the matchup of week, given that the Bears allow 12.9 yards per punt return, currently 3rd worst in the league. Devin Duvernay might break one this week. But the Ravens might get ahead early in this one and if they do, the intriguing battle to watch will be whether the Bears deep passing game finds any success.
It’s been the one area that they have managed to find a way to utilize Fields’ talent. The guy to watch downfield for the Bears is second year speedster, Darnell Mooney. Mooney continues to add receiving skills to his considerable physical gifts and it makes him a more all-around threat, but it’s still the deep shot that he is most dangerous on. Allen Robinson, while in the midst of a down-year, would still be a risk that needs to be accounted for most often with Marlon Humphrey. He is listed as Doubtful though. If he plays, that means Mooney will see a lot of Anthony Averett. If not, the Ravens can afford to more evenly split the load here.
Averett has been a big contributor for the Ravens this season after Marcus Peters went down, but this is a big test for him and his development in defending comeback routes on the outside. Mooney’s speed has to be respected but he’s similarly developing into his role as an all-around receiver and therefore getting open on the whole route tree. This matchup will therefore be a good watermark in testing Averett’s development against a developing route runner.