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How to Attack a Depleted Steelers Squad

Hollywood Brown TD vs Steelers 2020
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Notch up a new way to win for this year’s Baltimore Ravens: a dominant defensive performance after a four-interception day from Lamar Jackson. This Ravens team is as battle-tested as they come and they find ways to get the victory against the odds. I saw, in-person, the last two W’s, both of them probably the most unlikely of the season for different reasons.

Now, the team goes on the road to face the old enemy, nowhere near their usual selves but a wounded animal after a beatdown at the hands of the Bengals who haven’t reprised their role as the AFC doormat this year.

Here’s how the Ravens might avoid a trap defeat to the Steelers on a bounceback…

Offensive Keys

No Watt, No Tuitt, No Problem?

This is by no means the Steelers defense of old. It isn’t even the Steelers defense of a year ago, a unit they rode to an 11-0 start and that was, by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the most efficient in the league. Keith Butler’s crew though, by the same metric, are 27th in the league this year and not the feared unit they once were. In fact if T.J. Watt doesn’t suit up after his addition to the COVID list Monday, then this Steelers defense becomes even less feared, as the one thing this team does do well is sack the Quarterback.

Butler, who took over from the legendary Dick LeBeau as Defensive Coordinator in 2015, charted his own course as the play-caller for this Pittsburgh defense, and in the last two years had this unit amongst the most efficient in the league at stopping both the run and the pass. He did this his own way and with some subtle differences to LeBeau, particularly in how they go about pressuring the opponent’s Quarterback.

Butler constructed a fearsome front that included a dominant Cameron Heyward, his interior running mate Stephon Tuitt, and edge duo Watt and Bud Dupree. He then sprinkled in a less heavy dose of LeBeau’s zone blitz, dialing up particularly well plays that took advantage of Devin Bush’s ability as a blitzer. Finally, he added his own flavor to the mix with a little more pressure coming from the defensive backfield, utilizing both Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds to good effect.

This season’s Steelers are a different beast entirely, and much of it comes down to personnel. Tuitt has been a huge loss inside, and while he technically could return, the word is that he may be fully recovered from the knee injury that has kept him out this season. Howeve, he is still dealing emotionally with the death of his brother in a tragic hit-and-run case.

The hole Tuitt creates in the interior of this defense, that is less philosophically built on the blitz than historic Steelers defenses, is a substantial one. His best season in 2020 brought 11 sacks and 25 Quarterback hits. He was a menace on the interior to contend with, alongside stalwarts Watt and Heyward.

They were also supplemented by Dupree who, while always second in pass-rushers in Steelers’ fans hearts to Watt, was another threat that had to be accounted for. He helped the rest of the front be successful and racked up just under 20 sacks in two seasons. But he’s now in Nashville.

The Steelers have replaced both players with solid backup options in the improving former Raven Chris Wormley inside, in addition to Alex Highsmith on the outside, now in his second year continuing to show his potential. But even with Watt in the lineup, this team does not strike the same fear into the hearts of opponents as it once did.

Tuitt and Dupree completed a lineup that meant teams could never focus their pass protection resources on one single component part of the Steelers pass rush. They had to be fundamentally sound, play well as individuals, but also commit serious additional resources to keeping their QB upright. The front made the rest of the defense better because they regularly had fewer weapons to account for.

This has been demonstrated most clearly by the play of Bush this season, who still gives them a threat as an inside blitzer but who is struggling to contend with the way teams have been able to attack him this year, particularly in the run game (more on this and the impact of the loss of Tyson Alualu later). And the Mike Hilton revenge game last week was a reminder that it’s only Terrell Edmunds now who really brings a threat from the back end to your Quarterback staying upright.

The loss of so many elements of their pass rush success of previous years provides opportunities for the savvy play-caller. The Ravens this week though, will need to balance their deficiencies in protection with the Steelers woes in their pass rush. After all, this team has still managed to stumble its way to 30 sacks this season, good for fifth most in the league.

With Watt out, the Ravens can focus the majority of their resources inside on Heyward. Highsmith and Taco Charlton, who will likely replace Watt, will give Alejandro Villanueva and Patrick Mekari something to handle but they should be able to deal with them more regularly one-on-one. It’s why for this week, the Ravens should get Pat Ricard, Nick Boyle and Latavius Murray involved in the passing game early, particularly out in the flats.

I’ll have more on how the Ravens attack the Steelers coverage downfield later but Ricard, Boyle and Murray could all be a part of the short passing game early in this game. They should mix in some protection assignments for all three but not to the same extent they have in recent weeks. If the Ravens use all three players to supplement their pass protection on occasion they could start to decoy those guys as extra protectors and release them into the flats for some early passing game completions. The Steelers pass rush deserves less respect than it would have done last year or it would have normally done this year with Watt out.

Happily this chimes well with the Steelers dominant coverage look of Cover 3. I’ve talked about this at length in other Battle Plans but attacking a predominantly Cover 3 defense is predicated on manipulating the underneath zones early by peppering the flats. That can be the weak spot of this type of defense, particularly with guys out of the backfield like Boyle, Ricard and Murray.

The other final reason why targeting the flats in this way is important is that without Watt, and reading the tea leaves from Mike Tomlin’s postgame comments, you could suspect that the Steelers gameplan this week will include far heavier usage of the blitz. Lamar Jackson is the most blitzed Quarterback in the league and the Steelers will likely turn up the volume on this part of their defense for Ravens week.

Getting guys out quickly in behind areas where the Steelers might bring extra rushers from could be a useful safety blanket and slow down that blitz somewhat.

No Alualu, No Problem?

Spending the most time talking about the Steelers pass rush is appropriate because if you can neutralize that, then you open up most of your playbook to attack them. But talking at length about the Steelers’ personnel losses cannot be complete without talk of the loss of Tyson Alualu and the impact on the run defense. This is still a 3-4 defense on early downs and the loss of Alualu has severely affected this team’s ability to defend the run. It has left a glaring hole, a weak spot that can be attacked all day.

Pittsburgh gives up the highest yards per carry in the league at 4.8. They are also the worst team, from an efficiency standpoint, on 1st down. Running the ball on early downs is a must for the Ravens this week, as it is the glaring weakness of the opponent.

But a deeper look at the film shows just how to attack this Steelers run defense and it may require an adjustment from the Ravens this week. The Steelers have been pretty good at defending gap runs, the Ravens’ preferred call. Speculating a little on the reason for this is that Wormley and Heyward are still good run defenders and they can cover somewhat for the weakness at nose when facing gap runs.

Where the Steelers really struggle is against zone runs and particularly outside zone, where they get gashed. The Ravens don’t run a lot of outside zone, a running scheme I’ve talked about at length in recent Battle Plans when preparing for the Ravens’ opponents. The Ravens Offensive Line isn’t built for outside zone and they can’t construct a running game based on outside zone in a week but I would certainly sprinkle in some plays early to see if the Steelers can stop it.

There is speculation as to whether the Running Back genuinely does read all three potential aiming points (bang, bend, bounce – look back at last week’s Battle Plan for an explanation of these) for outside zone equally. Some coaches will tell you that there is a pre-determined primary read for each play that can be adjusted on the fly but is the target for the back.

This would be an easier way to install some outside zone for one week and if so, I’d focus on plays with a primary bend read, taking the Running Back away from the clutches of Wormley or Heyward at the point of attack to really test the ability of whichever guy fills in for Alualu at Nose Tackle to hold up on the backside of those runs.

As mentioned, the Ravens won’t be able to pivot their entire running attack for this game to outside zone though so I’d look to find other ways to attack the weakness of this defense. Some of the usual powers and counters with pulling linemen might need to be less of a focus for this game and the Ravens may look to attack the A gap more consistently.

The trick to defeating this run defense is to get through the front and out to second level/open field where the Steelers have been particularly weak.

The Ravens need to do this by staying true to who they are to an extent but also mixing in some more of where the Steelers have been shown to be weak this season.

Boyle catches his first pass of the year

I’ve already mentioned using Ricard, Boyle and Murray creatively and mixing up whether they stay in to help protect Lamar, or if they get out quickly into the flats to attack the Steelers defense. The Steelers, in coverage, play plenty of Cover 3 but they also play Cover 1 and run plenty of match principles in their coverage. They also give up a lot of yardage to your number one WR and are vulnerable to deeper passing plays.

I’ve talked about the Yankee passing concept before but it’s one I’d like to see the Ravens utilize more and it’s one that I think could really hurt the Steelers this week.

Once the Ravens have established throwing the ball to the flats and using Ricard, Boyle and Murray creatively both in protection and in the passing game, I’d throw in a 21 personnel formation that has all three of the aforementioned guys as backs and receivers with Rashod Bateman and Marquise Brown as the WRs.

The Yankee concept run out of this formation forces most teams to respond with single high coverage, and the Steelers, as a predominantly MOFC (middle of the field closed) coverage team would certainly do so. The Yankee concept then works a deep over route with a deep post route from the two WRs with max protect to give the play time to develop.

With Brown running the deep post and Bateman running the over, I think you have the opportunity to use the most dynamic duo of receivers Baltimore has seen in a long time in effective combination, playing to their strengths. Maybe they’re saving this for when they absolutely need a big play to get back into a big game, but they run out of these heavy personnel formations so often that teams still wouldn’t know when this particular concept was going to hit them.

There are of course a number of other Cover 3 beaters that they could run. Dig routes have been successful against the Steelers, as have other passing concepts that combine deep crossing routes in the same way Yankee does.

Defensive Keys

Steelers still shoot their shot with short passes

Matt Canada was hired by the Steelers to be their Quarterbacks coach last season in a move that seemed to signal Randy Fichtner wouldn’t be kept on beyond 2020, especially given Canada’s resume as one of the brighter offensive minds in college football. 2020 brought an offensive year for the Steelers that started promisingly but the offense became increasingly one-dimensional and easy to defend.

Canada was supposed to breathe new life into a stale offense, particularly in the run game, with a reputation for innovative running schemes, simple for players to understand and run but difficult for defenses to decipher. The way Canada’s scheme operated in college was through the use of complex and varying formations and motion to disguise what was a reasonably limited number of concepts, deployed intelligently by a superior Coordinator.

What has transpired with the Steelers this year is that Canada hasn’t fully implemented all the elements that made his offense successful in the past and it has showed. He has brought plenty of pre-snap motion to this offense, but what he hasn’t managed to do is bring a variety of formations, particularly in personnel which was a big feature of his college offenses.

The Steelers run more 11 personnel than most teams in the league and aren’t that effective with it. This offense also looks very similar to last year in how quickly they get the ball out and how short the passing game is. This offense lives off out routes, routes into the flats in general, slants and screens. They have an intended air yards per attempt of 6.8 which puts them second to last in the NFL.

As this offensive scheme looks so similar to last year the Ravens can afford to sit on those shorter routes and not be too frightened of any downfield threat. Chase Claypool hasn’t yet taken the next step and Diontae Johnson, while being their most productive and efficient Wide Receiver, should not strike fear into Marlon Humphrey.

The difference in this phase of the game for the Ravens, will not be scheme, it will be execution. Those short passes can’t hurt you if you tackle well and the Steelers have not added anywhere near enough yards after the catch to make this offense an ultimately successful one this year. If the Ravens tackling issues show up this week then they could have trouble with what is usually a pretty anemic passing offense.

The Ravens should dedicate a good portion of practice time to tackling this week. Scheme can help you with the Steelers as it can every week but stopping their receivers immediately after the catch is the shortest route to quickly neutralizing this offense.

Facing a Zone Blocking Scheme… again

As already mentioned, Canada has managed to bring his heavy use of motion to the Steelers offense. But they run off this motion, far more than they pass off it, and they don’t run the ball very effectively. I’d like to see the Ravens key on this motion and not be distracted by what is ultimately just smoke and mirrors and doesn’t really add anything to the running game in terms of effectiveness.

Of course, the whole of the run game isn’t very effective, it’s just that using motion is a part of that story, not an exception to it. Knowing that Canada deployed a multiple rushing attack in college and used gap runs particularly effectively, I was expecting to see a different type of running game that the Ravens would need to prepare for than in previous weeks. But this running game is still predicated on the zone blocking scheme.

They do sprinkle in some Counter concepts to good effect, as well as trying to bring in some Power and Duo concepts to lesser effect, but they mostly run an even mix of Inside Zone and Outside Zone…poorly: their yards per attempt this season sits at 3.7, one of the worst marks in the league.

The Ravens have shown in recent weeks how personnel doesn’t seem to be a challenge for them in terms of stopping Outside Zone runs. They caused the Browns to abandon the run mostly in their contest last week, and have shut down other good proponents of this scheme. Inside Zone has had some more success against them as their unit is more predicated on stopping lateral movement than vertical movement.

So, the key for the Ravens, will be to key quickly on the run at the Linebacker level using motion and Offensive Linemen footwork – which can distinguish between Outside Zone and Inside Zone quickly – and get after Najee Harris in a hurry from the second level. Defensive Linemen need to be stout at the point of attack and occupy any double teams that come their way on Inside Zone runs. Patrick Queen has been playing very well of late and should be able to bring the hammer on the Steelers Inside Zone rushing attack this week, which I suspect they will focus on more, if the Ravens’ defensive linemen can keep him clean.

Wink’s pressure packages… again

It seems like every week I talk about the pressure packages the Ravens might utilize on defense. So I’ll keep this one short but I do believe it’s worth visiting as there is a particular way to attack Ben Roethlisberger and this passing attack that the Ravens need to stick to.

I’ve advised this before but I think it’s actually most relevant for this game: I’d like to see Wink employ a heavy use of simulated pressures where he walks up several defenders to the line and then drops them out into coverage, or all-out blitz packages where he brings the house. More specifically on the simulated pressures, I would use the packages that only end up rushing three.

When you hedge your bets against Roethlisberger and this passing offense by bringing one extra guy and playing zone behind it, he can carve you up. When there is more traffic in coverage, especially underneath, it can be difficult for him to find those quick completions accurately as he has to adjust the throw and keep it away from the coverage. When there are more rushers and one consequently gets home quickly, Roethlisberger has to rush an already quick throw and can be inaccurate.

Matchup of the Week

Brandon Stephens vs Pat Freiermuth

As usual with Steelers week, there are intriguing matchups across the board, including Joe Haden going up against Marquise Brown, Tavon Young on Diontae Johnson, and Odafe Oweh taking on Dan Moore to name a few. But I wanted to focus on a rookie-on-rookie matchup between Pat Freiermuth and Brandon Stephens.

Both young players have shown promise and Freiermuth has given Roethlisberger a safety net he hasn’t had since Heath Miller, but this will be an interesting test of how far both have come. Stephens in particular, who of course won’t be lined up and asked to cover the Tight End all through the game, will need to be fundamentally sound in the angles he takes and come up and tackle Pittsburgh receivers after the catch at regular intervals. He has the makings of being a useful part of the Baltimore secondary for years to come and so they will likely face off a lot over the coming years. This first matchup might set the tone.

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