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How to Get Revenge Against Miami

Battle Plans Waddle
original photo: Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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That fateful Thursday night in Miami a season ago, which now feels like the watershed mark at which the Ravens’ campaign came off the rails, needs to be avenged. The Ravens’ early season conquest of the AFC East, part deux, opens Sunday, as Baltimore welcomes back it’s Ravens to M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens made it to 1-0 despite the rain in New York, but it’s a different forecast this Sunday in Baltimore – so, in preparation for the game, SPF up Ravens fans (check Dolphins HC Mike McDaniel’s quotes from this week to get this reference) and read this week’s Battle Plans for how the Ravens might get past the Dolphins.

Offensive Keys to the Game

Under Pressure

There have been many “blueprints” for stopping Lamar Jackson over the early years of his career in the NFL. All of them have been debunked. The latest, which is yet to be thrown out by Defensive Coordinators, is the one Miami’s defense created in Week 10 of last year, a blitz-fest that has lingered a little longer than most as the in-vogue way to stop the Ravens offense. “Figuring out” Jackson is a folly; what better time to prove that yet again, with a win over the team that invented the latest iteration that supposed threatens to derail his career?

But Brian Flores is no longer in South Beach. You could reasonably ask, will this be the same Miami defense? The answer is: hmmm, maybe. Let me explain…

Mike McDaniel retained Josh Boyeras Defensive Coordinator. It was a bold move by the new Head Coach, but I’m using the word “bold” in the way that people use the word “interesting”, when they’re actually silently judging you for a misguided choice. There have been the proverbial rumors that players were not enamored with his remaining in post. But there is something even more worrying when it comes to Boyer…

Given how perfect the skewering that Brian Flores gave the Dolphins was, it’s no surprise that they have erased him from their lives, like he was their ex who, after being dumped, exposed with pinpoint accuracy, all of their flaws, so much so that they now act as though he doesn’t exist. That’s all-well-and-good, except, when you do that in this scenario, you end up with the logic that brought them to Josh Boyer.

Now, McDaniel doesn’t strike me as a fool, so I’m sure he signed off on this hire and gave the decision to keep Boyer diligent thought, but the Dolphins website promotes Boyer’s credentials in his recent seasons with the Dolphins. There is special focus on the turnaround of the defense in last year’s second half. Yet, it has now been reported that the catalyst for that turnaround was Flores taking play-calling duties away from Boyer.

I’m not sure the logic of, “the Dolphins defense was good last year, let’s keep the Defensive Coordinator,” really holds up under these considerations.

But, they were a good unit last week against an admittedly lackluster Patriots offense. They also did some of the things we saw from the Flores-coached defense last season. That, combined with the wild success of their gameplan to defeat the Ravens in 2021, makes it a fair assumption that Baltimore will see some of that same approach on Sunday. They must be ready to counter.

The approach the Dolphins take to blitzing is a unique one. I described it in last year’s Week 10 Battle Plan but to refresh, it is an approach that sees them walk up many defenders to the line of scrimmage, showing blitz. Those extra defenders then start to blitz at the snap. If the Offensive Line slides protection away from them and a free route to the Quarterback opens up, they continue on their blitz path. If the Offensive Line slides protection to them and their path is blocked, they bail out into coverage in an underneath zone. It schemes up free rushers but also gives the QB a lot of traffic to contend with in the underneath zones to prevent quick completions against this pressure.

I feel the Ravens need to meet fire with fire. The Dolphins dictated to them in this matchup last year; the Ravens need to give the Dolphins something to think about.

It starts up front. There are ways in which the Ravens can combat this through their protection, which I won’t explore here. But, they should at the very least, mix up their protection as much as possible, to stay unpredictable themselves. This is tough given how new the OL combination is for the Ravens, but Greg Roman must call plays that call for, man, slide, as well as both three and four-man half slide protection. Without that unpredictability, the Dolphins defenders will get a better and better feel for when to blitz and when to drop, playing faster and faster, as well as more dangerously, as a result.

The protection wasn’t the only issue last season though. The Ravens, while making some good choices in terms of play-calling and with Jackson throwing it to the right guy, simply didn’t make enough plays to force Miami out of their approach. The Ravens have to use scheme, specifically their route combinations, to set up these underneath Dolphin defenders for a fall.

Think of these route combinations I’m about to introduce as part of a boxer’s gameplan, not intended to knock out the opponent with one punch, but each punch used to set up later punches that might eventually lead to the proverbial haymaker.

I’d like the Ravens to take a page out of Sean McVay’s book for this game, and establish some concepts before running similar looking plays out of the same shell. We’ll start with the undercoat (mixing my metaphors) that I’d like them to apply: the simple slant/flat from 2×2 formations. The personnel for all these variations should be Isaiah Likely, Mark Andrews, Devin Duvernay and Rashod Bateman.

A slant-flat combination on both sides gets the Tight Ends running into the flats and the Wide Receivers running slants. Four underneath routes intended to provide four different escape hatches for Lamar Jackson facing pressure. This is too simple a concept to work often, but it doesn’t need to; it’s the whitewash on which the rest of the strategy will be painted.

slant/flat

Once the slant/flat has been utilized effectively, the Ravens can move on to the wealth of combinations beyond this – the Ravens should deploy:

  1. Mesh – Andrews and Likely both run inside crossing routes (this one may not work initially but may later; it’s needed though, to first establish the threat of crossers from the inside receivers)
  2. Tare – Likely runs a flat and Andrews runs a stick route
  3. Pivot – Likely and Andrews both run a pivot route that zigs inside before zagging back outside to the sideline
  4. Spot – mix up the formation to a 3×1 and Likely runs a flat, Duvernay clears out on a corner route and Andrews runs a curl, which would be the primary

All these are designed to get defenders in the underneath zones, especially the sub-par Dolphins Linebackers, concerned with Likely and Andrews, and get them running an array of underneath routes to be concerned with. They also have the added bonus of being quick developing routes for Jackson to use as get-out-of-jail cards against pressure from quick drops. There are of course other passing concepts that allow this variation of underneath routes, but the Ravens could start with these as the first punch in the combination.

The second punch can be the knockout blow and there are two more specific concepts I would engage once the Dolphins are suitably softened up by frequent underneath completions to the strength of this Ravens offense – the Tight Ends, against the relative weakness of this Dolphins defense – the LBs and secondary (outside of Jevon Holland, Xavien Howard and Brandon Jones when he’s blitzing). These knockout blows would be deeper shots…

  1. The two receivers on each side fake the slant and flat for the first steps of the route before transforming the slant into a corner and the flat into a post.
  2. Switch up the formation with Andrews and Likely now lining up outside Bateman and Duvernay. Andrews and Likely run an earlier pivot route but Bateman and Duvernay run wheel routes up the sideline.

Those knockout blows don’t have to wait until much later in the game. If the Pivot establishes as a successful concept early, and facilitates a short completion, run the Pivot Wheel soon after. Targeting the wheel gives Lamar a touch throw down the sideline that he’s become quite proficient at, and may not need to wait too long to pull the trigger on, depending on the coverage.

The Ravens receiving threats will need to make plays in this game to start manipulating the Dolphins’ defenders and not allow them to get comfortable in Brian Flores’… sorry, I mean Josh Boyer’s Plan A.

Dolphins Dominant Defensive Line

I think, perhaps controversially, that the Ravens will be hoping that the Dolphins bring the same blitz approach this week that they did last season. That’s because the Dolphins Defensive Line is a talented and diverse group that can hurt you in many different ways. The Ravens’ new-look Offensive Line may find them too much to handle on their own, let alone when they bring extra rushers.

If the Dolphins drop more personnel into coverage and concentrate on getting home with just their defensive front, then more traffic might help the weaker component parts of their back end. If they take more defenders out of coverage, even temporarily through their blitz approach, then I’m betting the Ravens have a better gameplan, perhaps featuring some of the aforementioned concepts, and can carve the Dolphins up behind that pressure. The more support the Dolphins provide to their defenders in coverage, the better for them.

They can afford to do this as their Defensive Line is as aggressive as it is talented. Christian Wilkins is turning into a legitimate game-wrecker as the jewel in the crown, but he’s surrounded by talented players like one-time supposed Ravens Free Agent target Emmanuel Ogbah, Raekwon Davis, 2021 first round pick Jaelan Philips, and a resurgent Melvin Ingram who gave the Pats Offensive Line fits in week one.

The key here though, is the phrase “aggressive as it is talented;” you can hurt them if you play matador to their bull. It starts with running the football. A few years ago, the Ravens let Zach Sieler go and he has blossomed into a solid Defensive Linemen and the Dolphins’ most gap-sound and effective run defender.

I said the Ravens should use the trap concept last week and I’m saying so again this week, along with plenty of their usual Gap running scheme utilizing plenty of pullers with Counter and Power. But if JK Dobbins returns, they should specifically get their staple Counter Bash play from 2020 back out of the vault.

The Ravens have used it less and less over the time that Dobbins has been absent. I’m not suggesting that Dobbins will be on a full workload this week but even his presence in the backfield, and running this play once or twice, will have a huge effect on the Dolphins Defensive Line.

Aggressive defenders like the ones all over the Dolphins’ front need to be forced into even a modicum of hesitation. The Ravens’ Counter Bash involves a whole load of misdirection that will be tough on the LBs but will also cause the front to think twice.

It’s an option play that involves the standard counter motion that a RB would normally use from Jackson at Quarterback, before reading the Defensive End to decide whether he keeps or hands the ball off to Dobbins. The Tackle and Guard pull and Lamar, if he keeps it, will run the usual path to the play side. If he hands it off to Dobbins, he would run a sweep to the backside into the open space.

I would run this play specifically in the direction that puts Sieler on the backside; he’s good at the point of attack and in backside pursuit, but he won’t match up well with Dobbins in space. I don’t love asking Tyler Linderbaum to down block in this situation, which is why this would need to be run sparingly, but I think he can do his job and the motion from the pullers will leave those aggressive defenders thinking twice about where the Ravens might hit them from next.

Mainly, the presence of Dobbins might open bigger holes for Lamar on designed runs, and the Dolphins were not suitably fearful of Lamar in the running game last season to slow down their pressure.

The other weapon to deploy here is the screen game. The Ravens actually ran a successful screen last week with Kenyan Drake as the receiver. More of this, as well as bubble screens to Wide Receivers, utilizing the same formations as earlier, with Likely and Andrews getting out as blockers in space. could also be effective. The Ravens need to get on the outside of that aggressive and dangerous line.

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Defensive Keys to the Game

Changing of the guard

No, I’m not talking about the new King Charles taking over from Queen Elizabeth, I’m talking about Mike Macdonald taking over this Ravens defense and showing us how things will be the same, yet different in Baltimore in 2022. His new approach will be key to victory in Week 2.

He draws yet another intriguing play-caller-on-play-caller matchup, coming up against McDaniel. If McDaniel is calling the plays, alongside the significant weaponry at his disposal as part of the Dolphins’ new look offense, then Macdonald faces a sterner test than a week ago in New York.

McDaniel has been an intriguing addition to the NFL’s Head Coaching fraternity. Full of personality, he appears to have won over his players early, given Tyreek Hill’s suggestion he needs a wheelbarrow as a receptacle for certain body parts, after McDaniel’s courageous calls last week.

He’s also had an intriguing journey to this point that paints a picture of the kind of eclectic offense he runs and the kind of collaborative Head Coach he’s going to be. His scheme is deeply rooted in the Shanahan principles (Wide Zone rushing attack/West Coast passing offense) that now dominate the league, and that I talk about ad nauseum in this column. He worked for Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan as Head Coaches. The younger Shanahan has taken McDaniel with him on every step of his coaching journey. He was also part of the team in Washington, that for one year, saw an NFL team possess Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur on the same staff.

But he enters his first Head Coaching gig already determined to engage with new ideas and break new ground for this offense, seemingly knowing that you cannot stand pat on the thing that works in the NFL for long. His staff contains an Offensive Coordinator, Frank Smith, who worked under Joe Lombardi (long time Sean Payton Saints Assistant) last year as the Chargers’ run game coordinator and for Jon Gruden before that. He also has Darrell Bevell on staff, architect of the Seahawks offense during their championship run.

McDaniel left some breadcrumbs as to the mantra behind this offense in Week 1 that I think Macdonald can follow to gameplan this week, while understanding that McDaniel is going to move and improve this unit each and every week.

The main aim it seems, perhaps predictably, is to get the ball into the hands of Hill and Jaylen Waddle in space. They use a lot of motion at the snap, mostly involving Hill, and they did use some RPOs but not as much as some expected. I imagine he will want to weave more of those into the gameplan moving forward.

Happily, the Ravens’ new approach on defense fits well in stopping this type of offense, as it did by shutting down the less talented, but similar in structure, New York Jets. If you didn’t notice last week, Macdonald did employ some creative blitz packages in homage to his predecessor. But, a look at the whole game reveals a very different gameplan to the one Wink Martindale so readily imposed on his defense each week.

The Ravens, it appears, are moving with the times. They operated out of a two-high shell most of the game. When they weren’t in this two-high, it invariably meant some kind of exotic safety rotation with Marcus Williams showing blitz before dropping back into the single-high Post Safety position, replacing Kyle Hamilton, who started there.

They used safety depth to stop the run when they played with a less than heavy box, with Williams playing far closer to the line of scrimmage than he did during his years with the Saints. It is a role that seems very suited to him and the speed at which his brain processes the game. He can be a more heavily used and heralded defensive weapon in Raven purple.

More on the way Macdonald brought pressure in the next section, but this coverage shell, that disguises the true intentions of the defense and allows the play-caller to mix coverages with far less predictability, should really help the Ravens to deal with the threat of Hill and Waddle. It will mean the Ravens can more easily maintain an equal focus on two equally dangerous receiving options. And they will be better able to respond to the motion at the snap that McDaniel likes to employ so frequently, without giving away their hand.

Also key, will be the further fixing of a fundamental recent flaw in this defense. The open field tackling certainly didn’t present as many issues as it did frequently last year, but there were a few moments that the Ravens can ill afford against the outrageous YAC ability that Hill and Waddle possess. And when they run out of a 3×1 formation, the Ravens need to stay aware of Chase Edmonds breaking out to the weak side of the formation – he can be a mismatch that the Ravens nickel defenders and Linebackers need to be aware of.

One extra thing the Ravens should do, is make the Dolphins Tight Ends beat them. Frank Smith, the Dolphins OC, has been a long time Tight Ends coach and oversaw Darren Waller’s breakout with the Raiders. McDaniel also brought with him Jon Embree from San Francisco as Assistant Head Coach – he coached Tight Ends there during George Kittle’s breakout.

So, Tight Ends appear to be a big focus for McDaniel. Indeed, Durham Smythe and Mike Gesicki were on the field a lot in Week 1, but were almost exclusively used as big decoys to get others open. The Ravens shouldn’t be afraid of a big Gesicki receiving line if it means that Waddle and Hill have been kept relatively in check. The Ravens do have the personnel, in Hamilton and Brandon Stephens, to get creative with the way they cover Tight Ends, but they must remember that, despite all the eye candy, it’s the checkdown or bubble screen to Waddle, Hill or even Edmonds that can do the real damage.

Tame Tua

There is a surefire way to slow down Tua Tagovailoa and frankly, the best way to stop Hill and Waddle, is to stop them getting the ball in their hands in the first place. This starts and stops with getting pressure on Tua.

The 2022 version of the Baltimore Ravens defense will do this slightly differently, as evidenced by the first outing in New York on Sunday. As already mentioned, there was an impressive array of pressure packages on show, but it was more limited than usual and used more sparingly. Macdonald will clearly be taking the approach that John Harbaugh demanded of Martindale at times last season.

MacDonald actually more often than not brought only four rushers and in the majority of those instances he brought a normal defensive front including two edge rushers and two interior defenders. Those defenders were far more likely to get pressure on Joe Flacco than they were last season. Michael Pierce is more of a penetrator than his predecessor Brandon Williams and brought his own fair share of pressure. Calais Campbell was his usual self and Justin Madubuike looked to finally being approaching the breakout so many of us anticipated. Broderick Washington also played well, Odafe Oweh didn’t get home but garnered a lot of the Jets attention, and Justin Houston reminded us all what a savvy and effective pass-rusher he can be.

It was the Jets, who are banged up and troubled on the Offensive Line, but the Dolphins are not exactly the Great Wall of China on the OL either. They are dealing with injuries at both Offensive Tackle spots and I expect the Ravens interior rush, as well as Oweh and Houston, to run riot as they did this week.

Clearly, peppering in some of those pressure packages that worked so well should be a feature of this gameplan too. But a “peppering” is all Macdonald should muster this week; a few twists of the pepper shaker is all it needs. The Ravens need as many tacklers in open space as they can get. They need to force Tua into quick throws, but they also need the requisite number of defenders in coverage to give them a good margin of error on the hardest job in football: tackling Waddle and Hill. This four-man Ravens rush showed enough in Week 1 to convince that they can do the same to this Dolphins Offensive Line.

Matchup of the Week

Justin Madubuike vs Liam Eichenberg/Robert Hunt

A huge key to this week’s game, as already espoused, is the Ravens’ ability to get pressure on Tagavailoa and make sure any completions to Hill and Waddle are quick ones into tight coverage. Crucial to this will be the Ravens’ ability to get pressure up the middle quickly. Some of us forgot that Madubuike’s second year was really his rookie year after missing so much time his first season. He showed in Week 1 that he’s ready for a breakout as the Ravens’ interior wrecking ball.

I’ve already talked about him working in tandem with Oweh on stunts, but he has a straight-up winnable matchup against the weakness of the Miami Offensive Line, in Robert Hunt’s pass protection, or if he moves to the other side, Liam Eichenberg has struggled with most things since he entered the league. Madubuike should feast. And, more than likely, as goes Madubuike and the Ravens interior pass rush this week, as goes the Ravens’ pursuit of a second win to open the season.

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