It feels like it’s over. It’s not. But it sure does feel like it. A historic drubbing by the Cincinnati Bengals and I think many Ravens fans are turning to the offseason for the solace of getting better, and healthier, to return for another run next season. But you can bet this organization has not written off a playoff run yet.
If, and it’s a big if, there are players returning from injury and the Covid list this week (off the list at time of publication: Tyus Bowser, Justin Houston, Chris Board, Kristian Welch, Geno Stone, Chris Westry), the Ravens could get closer to some semblance of the team that meant this season had peaks as well as troughs. It hasn’t been long since this team looked like a team of destiny. The problem is… the Rams come to town, they’ve sorted out their mid-season issues and look like a tough out that the Ravens absolutely must have.
Here’s how I think they might go about it…
The two faces of the Rams offense
This is a defense-heavy Battle Plan, and I make no apologies for it. The Rams have talent on both sides of the ball and clearly the Ravens will need to move the ball to win this game. But the Bengals gave a very effective demonstration of how to put this team away and keep them from winning a close game in the improbable or impossible ways that we saw earlier in the year. You can put this depleted defense to the sword with your offense firing on all cylinders. Raven defenders need all the coaching and scheme help they can get, so here goes…
To understand how to beat the Rams offense, you first have to understand the journey that unit has been on, not just this year but in previous years too.
The story of how Sean McVay acquired Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions, moving like an assassin in the night to outflank many of his peers and secure the prize pony of last off-season, ruthlessly jettisoning his own Quarterback in the process, is a good precursor to the story of this Rams offense.
In the same way that Shakespeare’s sonnet prologues acted as tone-setters but also as full explanations of the two hours’ traffic that was about to fill the stage, McVay’s single-minded pursuit of Stafford shows how much this Rams offense needed a Quarterback that could more effectively fulfill the promise of McVay as a play-caller.
His offenses for Jared Goff were based around condensed formations, pre-snap motion and play action, always including some of the heaviest use of these tactics in the league. It was the smoke and mirrors McVay needed to keep the offense ticking when Goff was the one pulling the trigger.
But you can only use a trick so many times, before the audience starts to work out where the magic comes from. The audience this time being NFL Defensive Coordinators having enough game film to start to pick apart that offense as seasons progressed. With Goff at the helm, the Rams offense became less and less effective as seasons went on and even led to flirtations with QB changes from McVay to lesser lights like John Wolford.
Stafford was a game-changer. McVay’s usage of pre-snap motion and play action plummeted (the condensed formations have stayed) this season in the early going, as he implemented a more heavy shotgun offense that took advantage of Stafford’s gifts and led to a potent offense sweeping teams aside. Stafford himself was having a career year.
One thing I haven’t told you though about the McVay offense of yore with Goff leading it, was that while it appeared complex, it was beautifully simple in its design. The most effective tool: making their running plays, which were at times wildly successful, look the same as their passing plays. To break it down simply, they would run a wide-zone play to the left before later running the same action, with identical opening moments to the play, before a play action fake and booting Goff out to the right to hit a Wide Receiver on a pattern to the sideline as part of a levels concept.
The Shotgun passing attack installed in the early part of the season was similarly simple and teams started to work it out. It led to three mid-season losses and a slump that threatened to derail their season.
But the Ravens aren’t lucky enough to face the Rams during the skid. Pah, luck and the Ravens, in 2021? No chance.
The Rams have righted the ship with four wins on the bounce and McVay has done it largely by returning to what worked in previous seasons, but intermingling it with his Stafford-specific offense. This has kept defenses off-balance and they have ridden it to a playoff spot. What the Ravens need to do this week is two-fold; they must slow down the old Rams offense by stopping the run – more on that next – but they must also understand how teams begun to slow the new Rams offense.
Happily, the way teams had done that chimes well with the Ravens personnel challenges on defense. Teams had simply begun to start keeping everything in front of them when facing the Rams. The offense was, and still is, living off the downfield throw, the offense being 2nd in completed air yards and 5th in intended air yards.
The way to slow the Rams offense, when they weren’t using their old offense to keep teams honest, was shown to be dropping into heavy intermediate zones with a single-high Safety, with the middle of the field closed, as this seemed to have the most effect on their most dangerous passing concepts, and forced Stafford to take what was given.
Of particular importance in this scenario will be the Ravens Linebackers’ ability to stay disciplined and not take the eye candy that the Rams can often give them to open up deep and intermediate holes in the coverage. The Rams will run comeback routes at just the right depth to attract the deeper hook/curl defender out of his zone and into a more underneath area of the field. Leaving these guys alone and asking Stafford to be patient is the key.
If the Ravens can do this, allowing the Rams to stay on schedule (I’ll explain why this is okay later), but not ahead of it by giving up chunk plays, then they have a chance.
“Hold the line, stay with me”
It’s a mist-ridden morning in Germania, the province of Europe we now know as Germany, but what was then, one of the many lands conquered by the Roman Empire. The armies of Emperor Marcus Aurelius stand at what they believed was the edge of the world, ready to take yet more territory in their quest to further glorify Rome.
That bit isn’t fiction. But when I start referring to General Maximus you’ll realize I’m referencing the popular movie “Gladiator” so I’ll just be open that, that’s what I’m talking about here and we can drift into the artistic license that Ridley Scott took with the story to illustrate my first point. Thought it was worth the first paragraph, though, to set an atmospheric opening.
In the movie, during the opening scenes, a battle ensues with the majority of the Roman army engaging the native savages on the open battlefield. But the story also follows their leader, General Maximus, in the woods with his cavalry attempting to ambush the tribes they are facing from the edges. As they ride through the trees, Maximus proclaims “Hold the line! Stay with me!” Subsequently, they ride into the enemy and win the day.
I often think about this scene when I write about the Ravens setting the edge in the run game – tenuous, I know, but I’m a big fan of the movie. And my podcast partner for Battle Plans Dev Panchwagh wrote a piece last week giving Marvel’s “What If” concept a Ravens tint, and I wanted to bring my own pop culture reference to Battle Plans this week.
To extend the reference too much, Brandon Williams and a hopefully returning Justin Madubuike could sound the same battle cry as Maximus this week to the edge defenders alongside them – “Hold the line! Stay with me!” Setting the edge against this Rams defense will be paramount this week if the Ravens have any chance at a shot at a wild card or a miracle division championship.
That’s because the Rams run a wide-zone offense. This type of rushing offense, which I’ve mentioned before and explained at length in previous Battle Plans, is predicated on getting horizontal movement from the defense to create running lanes for the Running Back.
The Rams offense is top five in efficiency when running to both edges of a defense, directly because of their wide zone offense and their prowess running it. It is remarkable to see a team so good at getting to both edges in the running game.
But Madubuike and Williams are disciplined run defenders, and if Calais Campbell can go too and play a good snap count then he too will stop cutbacks inside. If Bowser, Odafe Oweh, Jaylon Ferguson, and hopefully Houston et al, can set a physical and dominant edge, the Ravens interior run defenders can go to work shutting down this running game, with it being funneled back inside to them.
To help them, Darrell Henderson injured his knee in LA’s last contest. He has proven to be an able replacement for the highly drafted Cam Akers, who was surprisingly brought off IR after an earlier season Achilles injury. I always liked Henderson coming out of Memphis and thought he could be a good NFL back. He is efficient and has helped the Rams to be more balanced through this season. Sony Michel is a decent backup, but not at the same level as Henderson.
There’s also a specific reason why this is Part 2 of the Battle Plan to shut down the Rams offense. The first and most important, stemming from the explanation I offered in the first part of this piece, is the journey this Rams offense has been on.
The Rams success in recent weeks, is due to their return, in part, to old ways. McVay has started to effectively blend the offense he designed for Goff, with the one that was so successful but became so predictable through the early weeks of the season, with Stafford at Quarterback.
It’s because of this, that stopping the running game is so important. If the Rams can be predictable with their Shotgun passing game, then stopping what they’ve found to make it less predictable is crucial. Their most recent three losses all came with running attempt totals in the bottom five on their season so far.
Taking away the threat of the run, takes away the threat of play action, which takes away the change of the pace to the Shotgun passing game that had become so predictable and allows the Ravens to be more successful in combating the passing game in the way outlined in the first part of this Battle Plan.
Speaking of which, I promised an explanation of why allowing the Rams offense to stay on schedule is not ill-advised. The Rams are 30th in efficiency at running the ball on 3rd and 4th down. Your best chance to stop this offense is when they’re close enough to the sticks that McVay feels the need to bully you with his run game. If you can get them to third down, they are distinctly less efficient as an offense and the Ravens could start to get off the field, particularly if they can stop the run with the effective edge-setting already outlined.
File it under miscellaneous
There are some extra keys on the defensive side of the ball that are worth mentioning and will need to be paid attention to this week in practice and in the game plan.
It is no use at all dropping into intermediate zones and keeping everything in front of you, forcing the Quarterback to be patient as we’ve already mentioned, if you don’t come up and tackle when they do make completions. It will be no easy task this week as the Rams are top ten in the league at gaining yards after the catch and clearly the Ravens have had their struggles in the YAC-prevention department.
One of the reasons the make-Stafford-take-what-you-give-him approach might work is the Rams are in the top third of the league in most dropped passes, but you have to combine it with good tackling when they do reel in the pass.
2. Getting pressure
This is a tough one as it will go against Wink’s tendencies again (he’s having to restrict himself so frequently this year). There will always be the blitz in the vault, that Wink has that Stafford won’t have seen before, with him operating in the opposite conference to the Ravens but there’s a reason he’s one of the least-blitzed Quarterbacks in the NFL. In addition to that, only Tampa Bay have allowed less pressure on their QB than the Rams Offensive Line have on Stafford. Houston, Bowser, and Oweh have to find a way to get home for the occasional drive-killing sack – the coverage game plan will help, but it won’t do the whole job, as it didn’t with Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay two weeks ago.
3. Covering Kupp
Speaking of the Packers’ offense, the Rams’ offense has a similarly dominant Wide Receiver in Cooper Kupp. He doesn’t have the same longevity of success as Davante Adams, but he’s having an Adams-like season with Stafford as his Quarterback. The Ravens couldn’t use the Adams plan with the Bengals – their offense has too many weapons to fear. Kupp warrants the same amount of attention as Adams did, but the Ravens should fear Van Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr. a little more than they did Alan Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, so cannot give all their attention to stopping a surging Kupp.
I expect them to chart a middle path between the two approaches and deploy significant resource to stopping Kupp but not quite the same gameplan we saw for Adams for fear of Jefferson or OBJ shredding one-on-one coverage from the Ravens band of replacement Defensive Backs.
Morris is not Staley
I’ve written far too much about Vic Fangio in this column over the course of the season. Thankfully, Raheem Morris, the Rams Defensive Coordinator, is not a Vic Fangio disciple. But the guy who used to run this defense is. Brandon Staley turned the 9th ranked defense in terms of DVOA, into the 4th ranked defense, and crucially brought some balance improving their run defense from a middle-of-the-road unit to one of the best in the league.
He did this by implementing some of the principles he learned from Fangio, daring teams to run into a light box but also by charting his own path – taking what he had learned, what he knew he had at the Rams, and what best suited him and how he thought he should go about constructing a defense, and applied it all.
I think McVay hired Staley because he could a bring a scheme to his team that has some parallels to his own offensive approach – making the pre-snap alignment and even immediately post-snap movement look the same despite a different schematic approach play-to-play.
With Staley staying in the same city but coaching for a different team, McVay hired Raheem Morris and clearly asked him to not change too dramatically the tenets that Staley brought to the Rams. All of the pre-season noise and immediately after Morris was hired was that he wasn’t here to bring wholesale change but to build on what had come previously.
In truth, it is still a very good unit that makes excellent use of its stars on defense but in trying to stay true to what came before while adding his own flavor, Morris has opened up a chink in the armor that offenses have been able to exploit. It is often the way that when someone is asked, or takes it upon themselves, to incorporate some of the component parts of a winning approach, they fail. Not because what they bring to the table isn’t valuable but that they are not able to accurately pick up on that recipe for success and inevitably discards or places less emphasis on a crucial cog in the machinery.
In this case, it’s disguise.
Some of the disguise that Staley employed has gone from the scheme – not enough to plummet down the ranks of defensive units but just enough to for offenses to take advantage. A simple scheme like the one Fangio employs is easy for players to understand and execute but that goes the same for opponents, so the nature and frequency of the disguise must be thought through carefully, otherwise the defense becomes predictable. Morris is a good coach and play-caller so it isn’t wholly predictable, but there is more predictability to it than last year’s incarnation.
This stems from staying in the two-high shell that is presented pre-snap slightly more than Staley would have done and with more obvious tendencies. This coupled with a heavy dose of off-coverage from his corners and the Ravens may have something to attack.
With or without Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have a short, timing-oriented, west-coast style attack that they are able to deploy, and it will work well against this Rams defense. I’ve used a boxing analogy before, but the combination punch of comeback routes against off coverage along with their best middle-of-the-field-open passing concepts, also mentioned before, likely with Marquise Brown on deep post routes, should give the Rams something hot to handle.
I’d use some eye candy in their passing concepts, including routes to the flat and deep, to help open up some of these areas of the field. Using Mark Andrews effectively as a decoy will be a key to this game too as the Rams are good at taking away Tight Ends from opposing game plans and will likely be especially concerned with the Ravens most dominant pass-catching threat.
Be like Kliff Kingsbury
I want Greg Roman to be more like Kliff Kingsbury (just in this game mind; I can’t picture Roman with his feet up in a house like Kingsbury showed us in the work-from-home Draft a couple of years back).
To run some of these passing concepts that should work against this Rams defense, the Ravens should also employ some five-wide formations. This is difficult given the lack of a real pass-catching threat at Running Back, but it’s something they have to try to get going this week. Arizona has beaten this Rams team twice and some of the things they’ve done in the passing game can be replicated.
This team has a talented receiver corps. They can put five guys on the field and all will be a threat, as even Tylan Wallace got some significant snaps on offense last week. Spreading the Rams out helps an offense to be able to take advantage of more helpful matchups. Targeting Linebackers and Safeties is preferable to going after Jalen Ramsey and former Raven Darious Williams in coverage.
The Ravens need to get the ball out quick to avoid Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, and Von Miller terrorizing whichever Quarterback ends up playing in this game, but that will also go well with the Rams weakness – short passes over the middle. Five-wide formations, particularly in 4×1 sets, which is an effective approach the Cardinals take against this team, will create some opportunities for Devin Duvernay and James Proche to win inside quickly.
With so much off-coverage, some quick Wide Receiver screens to the side of the field not containing Ramsey might also be used.
Matchup of the Week
Jimmy Smith vs Odell Beckham Jr.
The Ravens Defensive Back depth chart has been decimated. It’s clear to see. But what’s also clear is that the Ravens cannot go into this matchup with the Rams with the same defensive backfield as they did against the Bengals. They will get similarly shredded. If the Ravens do get Jimmy Smith and Chris Westry back, they will have a chance, albeit a slim one, to get out of Sunday with a victory.
As already covered earlier, Kupp will demand significant attention this week, but he still lines up inside, either in condensed formations or regular formations. Tavon Young will draw the assignment at times, but the mismatch in the size of the two will likely necessitate others being involved both as the primary cover guy but also as back-up.
That means the outside guys, likely Smith and Westry, if they’re available, will need to hold up in many one-on-one situations throughout the game. I bet the Ravens scheme for Smith to draw Beckham most often and this will be a throwback matchup, the winner likely being the one who can best recapture their former play. Beckham has been a useful addition for the Rams after the injury to Robert Woods and the Ravens will need to shut down a guy who has torched them in the past, albeit not recently.