The Ravens open one of the more crucial seasons in franchise history on the road against the Joe Flacco-led New York Jets. This is a watershed season, a defining point in this decade of Ravens football, possibly the most important season since they jettisoned the former Super Bowl MVP in favor of Lamar Jackson. Nobody in their right mind would question that decision now, as the two face off this Sunday in New Jersey. But the Ravens have Jackson on a relatively cap-friendly salary this season, and it’s, in all likelihood, the final season in which that will be the case. The Ravens, if they stay healthy, cannot afford to waste this opportunity.
How can they get off to a 1-0 start? Here’s the very first Battle Plan of the season…
Offensive Keys to the Game
Spoil the Sauce
The selection of Sauce Gardner was a curious one for the Jets. Many felt such an effective man coverage weapon might be wasted in Robert Saleh’s Zone heavy scheme. It was less strange than you might think though, and to understand this, as well as my first key to the game for the Ravens, you must know the origin story behind Saleh’s sideline superhero Defensive Coordinator-turned-Head Coach.
He got the Jets gig after prowling the bench in San Francisco, running a defense that finished top five in his final two years with the club. But he cut his teeth as the Defensive Quality Control coach in Seattle, during the Legion of Boom’s historic run of dominance. For those who don’t know, the position, which sounds like Dwight Shrute’s made-up Assistant to the Regional Manager job at Dunder Mifflin (apologies to non-fans of The Office), is actually one of the most important roles you can find on an NFL coaching staff.
He followed Gus Bradley to Jacksonville and is a Cover 3 savant who has a history of sticking to his well-fired guns. Albeit with one slight deviance on his record, when San Francisco suffered a near 2021 Baltimore Ravens-like raft of injuries, that forced him to adopt a different defensive philosophy.
Apart from that, Saleh’s dogmatic adherence to dance with the one that brought you, sticking to a Cover 3 shell of a defense that simply didn’t work last season, is almost Bradley-like in its total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face. It meant his first Head-Coached defensive unit turned in a league-worst performance last year, in almost all the categories that count.
That Cover 3 Seattle press-bail defense is far from infallible; in fact it’s predictability and rigid nature has been its downfall amongst the many branches of the original Seattle tree that have tried to implement it. Even Bradley, who made the defense work outside of Seattle when he moved to Jacksonville, has struggled to replicate his success since.
While this column, and many others, love to talk coaching schemes, more often than not, it’s players that make a scheme work, or not work – “the Jimmies & Joes, not the X’s and O’s.” Scheme cannot hide a multitude of sins, or in this case, lack of talent in the playing personnel. While many casual observers would believe that simply finding some Brandon Browner-like trees to play Cornerback in this scheme will suffice, it’s not a well-kept secret, among more keen observers, that the talent of Richard Sherman with the Seahawks and Jalen Ramsey with the Jaguars are the vital third leg of the tripod (attacking D-line & Cover 3 press-bail are the other two legs) that can make this type of defense work.
The scheme can hide the limitations of lesser Defensive Backs to an extent but, like every defense, this one has to switch to man coverage in a multitude of game situations and greatly benefits from a single guy locking down one side of the field.
This leads us to Sauce Gardner.
Sauce has famously never given up a TD in his career. That record cannot last in the NFL and the Ravens would be wise to try and break it immediately.
The Jets have made other additions in the back end, but it’s safe to say that Sauce is the rationale behind this defense being better. His addition, along with DJ Reed – familiar with the scheme from his time in Seattle – suggest Saleh has not abandoned his beliefs, and intends to run the same shell that has served him so well at so many stops in his career.
Sauce may well be the antidote to the Jets’ abysmal defensive performance last season. His presence might allow the Jets to use brackets on the other side of the field and help out their less talented DBs. But this will be his first game in the NFL and he may be vulnerable early. To attack him successfully and make his talent redundant, in his first game in the league, would be to take away the crucial tripod leg and turn this 2022 Jets defense into what it fears the most – the 2021 Jets defense.
This should be priority one: test him and find out early. If he wins, pivot quickly – there are a myriad of ways you can beat this defense. If you can beat him early and often though, Saleh’s defense could come down like a house of cards. I would take a simple two-step approach to find out if he can be exploited:
- Run straight at him. Rinse and repeat. The Ravens don’t run too much stretch or Outside Zone, and ordinarily it wouldn’t be the way I would attack this penetrating Defensive Line, but I’d make an exception to test Sauce early. He can play a little high in run support and it affects his play strength, so the Ravens could motion Nick Boyle or Pat Ricard to the wing and get after him. They could also move Isaiah Likely out into the X position early isolated with Gardner up against him or outside in condensed formations. Saleh won’t move him around the formation because he doesn’t like giving rookies too much to deal with in this defense, so he’ll be easy to target with personnel. That’s the strength of the Ravens rush attack coming straight at him.
- Once you’ve got him thinking about getting his clock cleaned by the running game, attack him deep on 3rd Down early in the game. Sauce has been brought in to improve their 3rd down defense. And I believe he will, as there are few weaknesses in his game, but if there is one, it’s that he can get hands-y downfield when he panics and he was penalized a good amount as a Bearcat. Challenge him deep – doesn’t matter with who, but I’d prefer Rashod Bateman who I trust most in the Ravens WR corps.
There is a real chance he’ll be up to the task, but this is the shortest path to demolishing this defense early. Their shiny, new raison d’etre lying on the floor in Mike Davis’ wake or grabbing the shirt of Rashod Bateman and hauling him to the floor before the ball gets there, with a Flacco-like long PI penalty, could flatten the Jets’ morale quickly.
It was a joy to watch Tyler Linderbaum’s pre-season debut and it’s hard to be more excited about the regular season debut of an Offensive Lineman. The Ravens gave us a glimpse of what Linderbaum could be in this offense: a mobile weapon that they can deploy to attack a run defense in new, cruel and unusual ways.
A big feature of this potential new rushing offense will be a heavier sprinkling of plays featuring a Zone Blocking Scheme, a departure from their usual Gap Scheme-heavy attack. Getting Linderbaum on the move in different ways to the usual approach could be another string to the bow on Greg Roman’s running game symphony. Like Saleh’s unwavering commitment to his scheme, Roman has been reluctant to weave too much Zone into his game plan but will surely do so, given how proficient Linderbaum is on the move.
But watching him Reach a 3-technique from the Center position, allowing JK Dobbins to cut through defenses like a hot knife through butter, will probably need to wait a week. This Defensive front is an attacking one, and could be even more attacking if the Ravens successfully get at Sauce early in the game, in an attempt to protect him. If that’s the case, the most effective running plays against them will be Counter, Power and Trap.
Against such an attacking defensive line, using their aggressiveness against them, to get defenders into the wrong gap, is the wisest course of action. Trap has been a great weapon to use against this front – it’s predicated on using the Defensive Line’s aggressiveness against them.
This would likely mean getting a play-side Offensive Lineman to swim Quinnen Williams or John Franklin-Myers, only to have either knocked convincingly off his path by a short pull from Ben Powers or Ben Cleveland – whoever starts at LG. This is a perfect play to use for Cleveland, who can just go hit someone with a short, straight run at it.
If the Ravens are successful at attacking Gardner early, then this running game should be executed at times out of the pistol and out of a 3×1 formation that puts stress on another weaker area of NYJ: the Linebackers. If the Ravens have been able to attack Gardner with some joy, then isolating him against Bateman as the backside receiver in a 3×1 formation will force the Jets to respond.
Under normal circumstances, playing in Cover 3 against the spread, they would rotate their coverage to the three-WR side, to remove any run-pass conflict for the Mike, allowing him to focus on his run defending responsibilities only. Success against Sauce on the backside would mean the Jets cannot do this, will need to give him help, and will force a run-pass conflict for their Mike.
The Jets were by far and away the worst team in the league against Shotgun plays last season and it’s worth testing that again with the pistol that the Ravens have worked in with so much success in recent years. Putting old friend C.J. Mosley in conflict and forcing him to cover at this point in his career, can be a recipe for disaster for the Jets. He may have to over-compensate to make sure he can make the plays he needs to in coverage, opening up more holes for Raven runners.
The Back-up Plan
All of the above is focused on knocking the Jets off their game. It’s based on the assumption that New York will only be better in a second year in this scheme, with a talented first-round CB, and other Defensive Backs that better suit the way Saleh wants to play. It strives to hit them from different angles and concentrate on the areas of weakness that still exist.
However, it might be that the Ravens can’t knock Saleh out of his comfort zone. Or it might be that he sticks to it fervently, even in the face of spectacular failure, staying the course and eventually steadying the ship. If this comes to fruition, there is a break-glass in case of emergency back-up plan, that is tried and tested against a scheme of this sort.
It requires patience, something the Ravens have not had an abundance of in the past, but showed some propensity for last season. The tried and tested way to attack a Cover 3 defense is in the flats. And against NYJ in particular, that’s with receivers out of the backfield. The Jets might be in for an early dose of Likely streaking into the flat or newly signed Kenyan Drake out of the backfield, who has always been a competent receiving back.
Jackson will need to take only what he is given, early, as part of an overall gameplan to manipulate the defenders in the underneath zone. If the Ravens can successfully pepper short completions into the flat and gain precious yards after the catch, the defenders underneath must begin to respect this and begin to cheat, widening to get in position to stop it. The Jets were dead last in DVOA in defending short sideline throws in 2021; they will have a complex about it.
Once this “patient early” approach plays out, the Ravens can then go for the kill in the soft under-belly of the Cover 3, the seams. Only when the underneath zone has been manipulated sufficiently will the seams truly open up, but once they do, it’s hard to not see Mark Andrews and possibly even Likely, feasting.
Defensive Keys to the Game
Mike Macdonald and his safeties
The Ravens sunk some serious roster resource into the Safety position this off-season. They also moved on from Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale and brought back, from Michigan, long-time Ravens Assistant Mike Macdonald, after he departed over a year ago to coordinate the Wolverines’ defense.
He returns to a league rife with two-high shell defenses, trying to build a Ravens defense fit for the brave new NFL world. He has the horses though, after the Ravens added one of the best deep safeties in the game in Marcus Williams from the Saints in free agency, at great expense, then picked Kyle Hamilton in the first round of the NFL draft.
The two of them have outstanding and potentially complementary skill sets to allow the Ravens to look very different on the back end. But don’t sleep on Chuck Clark, who will still play a major part.
This investment in both a more flexible and modern scheme with Macdonald, and a versatile Safety group to deploy, should actually get something of a litmus test in Week 1, which you might not think when looking at the Jets offense at a surface-level.
When Saleh left the 49ers, he took his best friend’s brother with him. Saleh was best man at Matt LaFleur’s wedding, so it can’t have been hard to convince the wunderkind’s brother to follow him to the Jets. Mike LaFleur has spent six years as a Kyle Shanahan assistant and is firmly rooted in that Shanahan/McVay coaching tree that has spawned so many of the NFL’s best offensive units.
LaFleur’s first season as coordinator confirmed that. There was a heavy dose of Split Zone in the running game, lots of motion, and play-action. He was mostly looking to adhere to one of the main canons of this type of offense: lots of motion and flow to get the defense moving in the wrong direction or to adjust unnecessarily, creating space in which to work.
The Jets shotgun rate was not much to write home about last year, especially when compared with the other Shanahan-tree offensive systems in the league. Where the Jets did differ, is in the effectiveness of those Shotgun plays. They were among the worst teams in the league in that regard, while being a middling to good team, relatively, when not running in Shotgun.
This flips the script on most offenses of this ilk, which are usually good at both but almost always better in Shotgun.
It means that while a bigger majority of the Jets’ plays will come in Shotgun, the most dangerous plays will undoubtedly be when they aren’t in Shotgun and the Ravens must look to take away their most dangerous schematic offensive weapons.
To do this, the new-look Ravens defense will be key. Running a two-high shell pre-snap when the Jets are under Center and either rotating from this to a MOFC (Middle of the Field Closed) coverage or sticking with Quarters, is critical. Changing the picture Flacco sees pre-snap and post-snap, particularly if he is turning his back to the coverage to fake the hand-off on play-action, is a weapon to be deployed against good play action teams.
The Ravens, with their versatile Safety group, can do this very well now.
Match motion with motion
The Ravens have been historically good at stopping the Zone running team. Their defensive front, filled with guys who excel at two-gapping, has shut down some of the more potent versions of the scheme in the league in recent years. But, schemes must adapt to the players, as we’ve just pointed out with Saleh’s defense.
Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe are both gone. The Ravens have relied on players like this in years gone by, able to control the point of attack and tackle runners in two gaps, to shut down rushing attacks. They play as part of a disciplined and long-embedded unit that stops the run. When you can stay this disciplined, and prevent vertical movement to the LBs, you have a great chance at shutting down the Zone running scheme in particular.
A starting D-line of Calais Campbell, Michael Pierce and Justin Madubuike, features players who can two-gap, but aren’t quite among the best in the league at it. All three are more natural penetrators than patient two-gappers. Of course, Campbell, Pierce and Madubuike, as well as Broderick Washington, will be able to play the traditional Raven-way, but the Ravens might also want to use some other techniques for stopping the run.
Schemes like LaFleur’s are predicated on the offense dictating play to the defense, but there are ways in which the defense can turn the tables.
The Jets were in the top five in the league for all types of motion both pre-snap and at the snap. Defenses can also utilize motion to confuse the offense pre-snap by Defensive Linemen subtly changing their alignment. One specific way in which this could work would be changing in and out of a reduced alignment, where the two most interior Defensive Linemen alternate getting closer to and further away from the Center, just before the ball is snapped.
The Ravens should also reprise the Martindale defensive staple of bringing lots of defenders to the line of scrimmage pre-snap, before dropping different defenders out, changing the numbers the defense is facing at the line post-snap.
I also wanted to talk about gap exchange here, but I’ll save that for the next Zone heavy team on the docket – likely the Dolphins next week under new Head Coach Mike McDaniel.
Both of the tactics mentioned should work in confusing an Offensive Line that is quite new in its make-up. Communication and understanding of which defender is going to be in which gap is a crucial element to the successful execution of Zone runs. While the additions of Laken Tomlinson and Duane Brown should make the Jets’ Offensive Line better, they are new to each other as a unit, and might struggle if the Ravens defense brings their own smoke and mirrors to the party.
Change your tune on the banjo
LaFleur has also shown that he is willing to use condensed formations in the same way that Sean McVay has done in LA. In another attempt to create space for his offensive playmakers, he will utilize a variety of passing concepts out of a stack or a bunch, close to the end of the line of scrimmage, including route combinations using both the Ohio and Dagger concepts.
Again, the Ravens need to focus on setting the agenda and not react to the moves that LaFleur makes. You might think that a vanilla Ravens defensive approach might work this week, given the Jets were only 22nd in DVOA on offense last year. A closer look, however, will reveal that they had the easily-toughest schedule by the same measure – they faced a gauntlet of efficient defensive units and the Ravens were not one of these last year – they will need to be at their best on Sunday.
One of the ways in which they can keep the LaFleur offense guessing is by changing up the rules of their banjo coverage when defending these stack and bunch formations. To prevent natural pick plays from occurring, defenses have rules for who covers who when a Wide Receiver comes out of a bunch formation. However, LaFleur will quickly take advantage of defenses who don’t change up their rules for covering these players snap to snap. There are concepts that work against the different combinations of rules the defense will have to decide who covers who, and LaFleur showed last year that he was a master of taking advantage of that. The Ravens must keep him guessing.
One additional point for the defense: it’s now confirmed that the starter will be Joe Flacco. LaFleur showed last year that his misdirection through smoke and mirrors can get Tight Ends and Running Backs leaked out to the opposite side of the flow of the play. They were often wide open and targeted frequently. Ravens fans know all too well the power of the Flacco checkdown, so not only must the Ravens’ Linebackers play disciplined in coverage, but open-field tackling must be far better than it was last year.
On the point of discipline, LaFleur has also showed a propensity for the classic McVay tactic of establishing successful concepts and then building off them by running a play that looks and feels very similar in the first moments of the play to something seen on an earlier down, that went for a big gain. The Ravens cannot overcompensate after getting beaten by a previous play but must stick to their guns and the defensive framework Macdonald sets for them.
Matchup of the week
Marcus Peters vs Elijah Moore
There are intriguing matchups all over the field that I’ve touched on throughout this piece, including Patrick Queen against Breece Hall and Michael Carter in the passing game, Bateman against Gardner on the offensive side of the ball for the Ravens, and an early pass protection test for Linderbaum against Quinnen Williams. But I’ve settled on the returning Marcus Peters and Elijah Moore.
It’s hard to pick a matchup for a Ravens Defensive Back as the Ravens do not trail specific Wide Receivers, but Moore and Peters will be lined up against each other on plenty of occasions. As mentioned, the Jets play with tight stacks on offense so Moore can look like a primarily slot receiver but he’ll be moved all over the formation, with Braxton Berrios as the primary slot, so Peters will face him a lot.
The Ravens will need to take away Moore, especially if Flacco starts, given that Moore was Flacco’s new Dennis-Pitta-style BFF in the one game they started together last year.