My Grandfather, when watching a golfer miss a crucial putt by not giving it enough juice, used to say that you “get nout for short.” Nout is slang for “nothing” in the part of the world I’m from. And the Ravens will get nout for short this season, ultimately coming up short one more time against the Rams last week in another keeping-it closer-than-we-thought loss. This leaves a near-impossible playoff-clinching scenario involving the hapless Jags beating the impressive Colts and means this is almost certainly the final Battle Plan of the season on how the Ravens go about beating the Steelers and ending Ben Roethlisberger’s career on a down note. As it’s the second divisional matchup between these two foes, you get a shorter than normal, start-stop-continue piece on what the Ravens should do given what happened in the first game between these teams.
At the time of writing Battle Plans in Week 13, this Steelers defense was ranked 27th in the league in DVOA but since then, have improved that mark to 15th. The jump has been rooted in the improvement of the pass defense which, even when giving up points to the Vikings and the Chiefs, has been far stingier than earlier in the season.
This could certainly be due to the more consistent playing time from some of the important component parts of their defense who hadn’t always been available in the first two thirds of the year. T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Joe Haden have been more available in recent weeks than they had been, and the Ravens didn’t see Haden in their Week 13 battle.
The Steelers still run a majority of middle-of-the-field closed coverages, and in the first Battle Plan for the Steelers, I wrote about how that could be attacked using certain passing concepts, particularly from heavy formations like the Yankee concept which not only attacks MOFC coverage especially well, but forces teams to run MOFC coverage for fear of the run game.
What I failed to notice with that recommendation is that Yankee is good for forcing a normally MOFO coverage team to run with the middle of the field closed. That’s not necessary against the Steelers who often run Cover 1 or Cover 3 regardless. What the Ravens need to start doing more of, against this Steelers coverage, is finding creative ways to attack it, particularly out of heavy formations.
I’m cheating a little on this one as it was something they showed in the first game, but the Ravens need to start doing more of it in this game. To illustrate what I mean, there was a play on the very first drive, when they attacked a Cover-3 call with four verticals.
Four verts, as well as being everyone’s favorite play on Madden, is also the original way heavy run teams used to attack a heavy Cover 3 defense, which they would see a lot of due to defenses bringing their Safety into the box to defend against the run. It was Nick Saban who is widely credited with the creative way to solve this problem that teams had facing four receiving threats running vertically against three deep defenders.
This was where pattern matching was born which, at its core, builds in rules to a coverage scheme that allows certain defenders to change their assignment based on what route a receiver is running.
One way to manipulate those rules and cause some hesitation, is to get the opposing defense concerned about the running game with those extra defenders in the box needing to respect the threat of run.
On the aforementioned first drive, the Ravens were running the ball well. Then, out of a heavy formation that included two Tight Ends and Pat Ricard, they threw four verticals at the Steelers, but it included the two Tight Ends on the inside routes and Pat Ricard running a wheel route to the outside and up the field. The CB showed little respect for Ricard’s route which meant the Tight End to that side was stuck in a tight throwing window.
Sorry guys, should have given you this when I submitted the piece pic.twitter.com/0XzdtPqQUf
— James Ogden (@NflOgden) January 5, 2022
The box Safety though, who would have ordinarily had a pattern match rule on to take the Tight End up the seam, doesn’t, as he’s more concerned with Ricard’s route which looks initially like an out route. This means the deep Safety has to respect that seam route, especially with it being Mark Andrews, even though the CB could likely make a play on both Ricard and Andrews due to Ricard’s lack of athleticism.
This all has a knock-on effect to the other side of the field; the deep Safety stays too centered to cover the Andrews seam route and therefore the other Tight End (in this case Josh Oliver) is open, but the QB doesn’t pull the trigger quickly enough. This was beautiful play design from the Ravens, and they need to run this play again and start using others like it, targeting MOFC coverage from heavier run formations that aim to neutralize the Steelers match principles when in Cover 3.
The Ravens, put simply, need to stop running such a heavy gap scheme rushing attack against the Steelers. The Steelers run defense this year, in contrast to the pass defense, has remained poor, currently 27th in DVOA. They are quite plainly, not good at all at defending zone running schemes.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, this is not their MO at all. The Ravens do not feature as much Zone Blocking Scheme as other teams in the league who predicate their offense on it. Every team in the league is multiple and run many different types of run blocking, and that includes the Ravens, but the Ravens run decidedly more gap and man runs than most teams in the league.
The Steelers big bodies up front do well against these concepts, but they’ve shown that they can struggle with a zone rushing attack. They will be expecting a heavy dose of pullers and the Ravens usual approach; while the Ravens won’t be able to pivot their entire rushing offense, it would behoove them to move to a more even hybrid than they usually employ.
Outside of an early big run from Devonta Freeman and some Lamar Jackson rushes, the Ravens struggled mightily to run the ball on this front in the first contest between these two. Digging out some more of their zone runs for this game, could help the Ravens to run the ball with more success against a front that still badly misses Stephon Tuitt.
Speaking of the Running Backs, one thing the Ravens did well in the first meeting between these two on offense was target their backs in the passing game. The Steelers defense is very good at taking away your primary pass-catching threat, and the Ravens did well to target their backs out of the backfield at a more regular clip than they usually do.
The added advantage to this is that it starts to manipulate the underneath zones when the Steelers run Cover 3 and gets the hook/curl, curl/flat defenders having to respect their underneath coverage responsibilities, and, hopefully starts to get them to cheat outside/down to open up the seams for Andrews to do some damage. The Ravens should look to target Freeman and Latavius Murray out of the backfield, who both proved they have that club in their bag in the Week 13 meeting.
Starting this side of the ball with a “start” which I know the Ravens won’t do is probably ill-advised but desperate times call for desperate measures. And the Ravens defensive backfield is in a desperate state if there ever is one.
Also, if you looked purely statistically, you’d think this instruction very foolish because I’m pretty confident that any data service websites will have counted Anthony Averett as responsible for coverage that gave up about half of the yards Diontae Johnson hung on the Ravens the last time these two teams met.
Taking a look at the tape though, you’ll see Averett with close coverage on two catches and caught in a miscommunication on the other, which ended up being one of his touchdowns.
Johnson is a dangerous receiver because you can trust him to play outside but he has the movement skills of a more interior weapon. The Ravens have very little in the way of healthy Cornerbacks that can match him.
I don’t believe in Chase Claypool’s potential yet as a dominant number one Wide Receiver and need to see more pure Wide Receiver skills out of the physical mismatch – but the Ravens can match up the similarly raw Chris Westry or even an aging Jimmy Smith on him.
But in Johnson, the only chance the Ravens have of covering him with any kind of adequacy is through Averett. At full strength the Ravens don’t have to do this but in this particular scenario against this particular receiver, through whom the Steelers offense runs after Najee Harris (mentioned later), the Ravens should start trailing Johnson with Averett. This affords him the respect his play deserves and the Ravens current roster-state warrants.
Wink Martindale has had an impossible job in recent weeks, knowing that his secondary is built for man coverage yet severely depleted and knowing that he needs more pressure on Quarterbacks to help protect that weakened area of his defense. He’s also been facing a number of Quarterbacks who thrive against the blitz, which is obviously his go-to-weapon when he needs to get more pressure.
Roethlisberger is a unique QB in a unique offense in terms of measuring success in getting pressure on an opposing Quarterback. When facing him, you really have to look at the average pressure he faces over the course of a game rather than looking at league average, given how often he gets the ball out quickly.
In the first matchup between the two, the Ravens managed about a league average pressure rate against Roethlisberger, but they did it by utilizing the blitz more often than opponents normally do against him and more often than they themselves normally do. So they had an abnormally high blitz rate for one of the more blitz happy defenses in the league and against a Quarterback who most teams choose not to blitz an enormous amount.
While the blitz got pressure early and forced a spluttering of the Steelers offense, Roethlisberger began to work it out and settle in as the game drew on. It seemed he remembered that this was a team he has seen many times before and got to grips with what was being thrown at him. This week the Ravens should not blitz as much and empty the vault of exotic simulated pressures to keep Roethlisberger on his heels early, before pivoting to the heavier blitz packages later.
They need to keep Roethlisberger uncomfortable and out of a groove to hand their old nemesis a loss in what is likely to be his final game in the league.
Gone are the days when this Steelers offense can’t run the football at all. Despite a still somewhat questionable run-blocking Offensive Line, rookie Running Back Najee Harris has added another dimension to their rushing attack. Their offense is a mostly zone-based offense with both inside and outside concepts, mixing in Counter and Power and Duo to subtly adjust the aiming point for the Running Back and therefore the point of attack for the defense to respond to.
The Ravens did a good job of shutting down this part of the Steelers offense as they often do to zone rushing offenses. They held Harris to 3.38 yards per carry, also doing well to negate him in the screen game which is something the Steelers are as good at deploying as the Ravens are bad at defending.
The Ravens though didn’t do this through setting the edge and occupying double teams: the main way in which they countered the Steelers’ rushing offense was through penetration at the point of attack. Justin Madubuike, in particular, had a run-game-wrecking day, using his upfield burst and his hand usage to get in the backfield regularly, making Harris constantly adjust.
Where the Steelers did have some success was when Harris was able to adjust, which he is able to do given his considerable skills as a runner, and find a new lane. Most of the time the Ravens got plenty of guys to the football in short order and were disciplined with their backside pursuit to shut down the back-door option for Harris. They need to continue to do that this week.