Back to the second divisional game format this week for Battle Plans, I’ll take you through what I think both units should start doing, stop doing and continue doing based on the first game between these two foes. This one, could not be more important to the season – the Ravens fight for a playoff berth has its best chance of success in-division, as AFC North Champions. The Bengals stand in their way and would likely give themselves an insurmountable lead over the Ravens with a victory – the Bengals would have to lose out and the Ravens win out with a loss for the Ravens on Sunday.
The Ravens need to start protecting their Quarterback better in this matchup. Lamar Jackson was sacked 5 times and hit 7 times by a rampant Bengals pass rush. The Ravens pass protection has undoubtedly gotten better since this game, but both Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard proved a handful, while Larry Ogunjobi was a terror inside.
Some of the solution to this problem is through personnel – either improving or changing. Pat Mekari started this game, but it was early in his tenure at Right Tackle and he has improved significantly to the point of being a solid starter when healthy. Health would certainly be a question mark this week, should he play, but David Sharpe looked solid in relief of Tyre Phillips last week. Sharpe certainly had some technique deficiencies, particularly with his hands, but he played a good game against Rashaan Gary and you can only beat the man in front of you.
Ben Cleveland was pressed into service against the Packers and showed his pass protection chops, something that will be entirely different to get right against far superior competition, but I’d bank on Cleveland to get the nod again this week, simply because Ogunjobi seemed to have Powers’ number back in Week 7.
There are concerns about Mekari/Sharpe and Cleveland covering their assignments this week as mentioned, but the matchup the Ravens will be most concerned about will be Villanueva, once again going up against Trey Hendrickson.
Hendrickson already has 13 sacks on the year and 22 Quarterback hits. He has a unique blend of size, athleticism and power that you look for in an edge-rusher, but most crucially for his matchup with Villanueva; he’s a master of converting speed to power. He did this numerous times to Villanueva in the first matchup and he could certainly do it again, despite Villanueva’s improvement in pass protection recently.
After Alejandro Villanueva's holding penalty negated a 39-yard burst from Lamar Jackson, #Bengals DE Trey Hendrickson made sure he saw the video board replay.
— Bobby Trosset (@bobbywbal) October 25, 2021
Lamar used his innate ability to avoid the rush from that side to good effect in this game but with other potential holes in the protection, and the chance that Huntley might start again (not the same level as Lamar in evading pressure), the Ravens need to provide significant help for Villanueva. That means deploying Nick Boyle to good effect as an extra protector consistently: he wasn’t available in the first game. As well as utilizing the Latavius Murray chip they’ve used in productive ways during recent weeks.
In addition to this, the Bengals did bring a three-man rush at times that I think the Ravens Offensive Line can handle — they did in the first game. For whoever plays Quarterback, quickly identifying this and getting the ball out on time, or holding the ball and showing patience before carefully selecting the right escape path out of the pocket, is crucial. This was something Lamar didn’t do well in the week seven game.
The Bengals have a very effective coverage scheme and one that matches up well with the Ravens’ weaknesses. Lou Anarumo, the Bengals Defensive Coordinator, is putting together an effective unit – 11th in DVOA on the season, and it was Kryptonite to the Ravens offense in week seven.
One of the main reasons for this was the chameleon-like use of coverage that I talked about in the original Battle Plans for this matchup. The Bengals run different coverages on a snap-to-snap basis and have very little tendencies that you can hang your hat on and attack as an Offense.
The Ravens have been at their best when they’ve had time to prepare a solid game plan for a particular type of defense that has tendencies they can scout ahead of time and prepare for all week in practice. This Bengals defense doesn’t give you that luxury. They can change their style to fit different opponents and game situations, making adjustment effectively on the fly. They’ve also added a good amount of disguise to their coverage.
The Ravens struggled to break this down and the now long forgotten days of the high-octane downfield passing offense the Ravens ran in the early weeks of the season came off the rails a little in this matchup earlier this season. The Ravens and Lamar Jackson seemed to get greedy in this game and didn’t take what the Bengals defense gave them at times.
Tyler Huntley got the ball out quickly and on time, made great decisions and ran a more efficient offense this past week than we’d seen in recent weeks from the Ravens. The offense had some good passing concepts to beat the Bengals in week seven but the Bengals took away the deep ball and Lamar didn’t often take what they were giving them, preferring the covered dig route to the open drag route on a mesh concept.
Unlike their big cat neighbor-leopards, the Bengals secondary can change their spots, but they can also be manipulated like any other coverage scheme, with patience and adherence to a game plan. The Ravens need to stop chasing those downfield completions and I expect to see them put in place some more choice routes this week, as well as early game completions to different areas underneath to keep their back-end defenders honest.
As an aside, they also need to eliminate the split-back option plays they were running against the Bengals last time, they were ready for it and likely will be again.
This is a tough one to write and I’m looking at one specific drive for what the Ravens should continue doing this week. On one drive in the 2nd quarter of the week seven game, Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews were able to hook up on his only receptions of the game. They were able to do a couple of things that the Ravens do well when they get the ball to Andrews and it coincides with the weaknesses of this Cincinnati defense.
Firstly, they connected on a pass when Lamar left the pocket and Andrews managed to extend his route to stay open for his Quarterback. Andrews is very good on these scramble plays and has managed to be a safety blanket for both Lamar and Huntley after they leave the pocket because of pressure. As already discussed, the QB this week will likely face significant pressure from this Bengals defense, so he will need to feel the rush and escape when necessary. They’ll need to look for Andrews when they do.
Secondly, they attacked the real weakness of this Bengals pass defense – the intermediate/deep middle of the field. Jackson was able to layer in a throw between several defenders in zone coverage to Andrews on an intermediate route in the middle of the field. You can see teams complete balls on the Bengals in this area of the field and the Ravens need to pepper it more this week, even when the Bengals load defenders in the middle of the field to force the Ravens to throw outside, they still need to find those holes in the zone in the middle of the field and exploit them.
The Bengals are also a bottom ten team in defending Tight Ends, so Mark Andrews should have another big game, or at least free up others to have a big game if the Bengals commit an inordinate amount of resources to stopping him.
A lot of the defensive section is going to be about pressure.
One thing I’d like to see the Ravens use more of is some of the rules I referred to in the Dolphins Battle Plans that Miami uses in their blitz packages.
I wrote this back then:
“Their defenders on the line of scrimmage are taught to engage the OL directly across from them before bailing out… 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.”
That means that as an extra man on the line of scrimmage showing blitz but ready to drop out, you are given license to continue to come at the Quarterback if the Offensive Lineman doesn’t engage you because the thought from the OL is that an exotic pressure package has been dialed up and he will be needed to help handle an overload elsewhere.
The Ravens have started to mix in some of these rules, including last week against the Packers. They will need to use them again this week. There will be more on the blitz in the next section but Burrow started to pick up what the Ravens were doing in week seven and even added his own deception to take advantage of their over-aggression – think the discount double check bluff that went for a big gain.
The Ravens need to put Burrow in a bind, give him something different that he isn’t expecting. He is expecting to see lots of defenders on the line of scrimmage with some coming and some not. The Ravens need to make him and his Offensive Linemen think twice about the guy they think is dropping into coverage.
What I’ve written about above goes hand in hand with this section – the Ravens need to stop blitzing the Bengals so much. There were a lot of simulated pressures or straight up blitz packages dialed up by Wink Martindale in the first matchup between these teams.
Let’s first be clear: some of them worked. Burrow was under pressure in this game and he didn’t burn the Ravens time and time again because of them bringing extra guys. But after watching the game again, it all got a little predictable. It looked like Burrow had a feel for what was coming and when. What I wrote in the “Start” section could help, but I’d also want to see Martindale be more selective with when he all-out attacks this offense.
You can’t leave Burrow to his own devices. He’ll carve you up, especially with such a depleted secondary. And he isn’t yet on the “Do Not Blitz” list. This means you’d like to see some pressure packages as normal from this defense but dialed back from 11.
The other thing the Ravens cannot do in this game – and it’s not a note from the game between these teams, but rather one from the Packers game last week – they cannot sell out to stop Jamar Chase in the same way they sold out to stop Davante Adams.
It would be tempting, without Humphrey to cover their tormentor-in-chief from week seven, to place the same kind of emphasis they placed on covering Adams this week, on covering Chase. This would be a grave mistake.
That approach last week was one I recommended in Battle Plans and was a specific bet to be made that Valdes-Scantling and Lazard were not good enough to beat the Ravens on their own. If you make this bet against the Bengals, you’re betting against the house. This is a huge challenge for the Ravens’ depleted secondary; the Bengals have constructed a balanced receiving corps – Higgins, Boyd, heck even CJ Uzomah can beat you, if you focus too much on Jamar Chase.
— Pro Football Culture (@proftblculture) December 13, 2021
Not a long section as there wasn’t a huge amount the Ravens did right in this first matchup on defense. Scraping the barrel somewhat, because the Bengals did still average 4.8 yards a carry, was the Ravens run defense early in this game. They were getting good penetration from the second level against the Outside Zone scheme. And the Defensive Linemen were getting into rushing lanes with ease. The Ravens need to replicate this but also sustain that through the whole game and possibly against a Joe-Mixon-less Bengals offense.