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Battle Plans: An Unfamiliar Opponent, Yet a Familiar Foe

Wink Battle Plans
original photo: Joey Pulone/Baltimore Raven
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The Ravens found a way to escape from the clutches of another large comeback, this time against their arch-nemesis from a year ago, the Cincinnati Bengals, to return to a winning record on the season. After a preseason glance at the schedule, you could be forgiven for thinking it softened up somewhat starting this week, but the surprising New York Giants would beg to differ. Brian Daboll and Wink Martindale have turned around their fortunes.

A trip to face their 4-1 charges could be a potential stumbling block for a Ravens team looking to start a run that validates their status as an AFC powerhouse.

Here’s how they avoid that stumble…

Defensive Keys

Stop the run without selling out to stop the run

Daboll has had a circuitous route to becoming a Head Coach in the NFL. He is the rare case of a journeyman-like Offensive Coordinator who fell back to position coaching, only to be rehabilitated into one of the perennial offensive-minded head coaching hires that teams so covet these days. He was a Patriots assistant in the early 2000s and went back to Bill Belichick and later Nick Saban to resurrect his coaching career.

While so many offensive coaches have used these two great coaches to source another shot at being the guy on an NFL coaching staff, Daboll has a chance to eclipse all of them in success after running a Buffalo Bills offense that he turned into one of the most potent in the league. Daboll and his Bills offense maximized the personnel at his disposal and turned Josh Allen into one of the best quarterbacks in football.

Now he has a new challenge: turning around the Giants offense from a different position as the Head Coach, with far less talent and in different areas. Daniel Jones is certainly not as bad a quarterback as perhaps the last few years have painted him, but he is no Allen, their ceilings being very different. And Daboll never had the kind of rushing talent in Buffalo that he now has with Saquon Barkley, when healthy, a generational talent at the running back position.

You could be forgiven for lowering the expectations bar for this offense out of the gate, thinking that Daboll would need to wait until GM Joe Schoen, appointed in tandem with Daboll, had fixed this roster somewhat, especially at the QB position. But Daboll hasn’t needed an infusion of talent to get this offense working. He and new Offensive Coordinator Mike Kafka have found a way to utilize the players they have to get the Giants to 4-1.

Kafka was a shrewd hire off Andy Reid’s staff, and shows Daboll’s commitment to learning from other offensive systems, something that former Belichick or Saban assistants don’t seem to grasp so early in their shot at Head Coaching gigs.

The Ravens have a tough task to stop this offense this week, make no mistakes about it. The strength of this Giants offense matches up well with a relative weakness of this Ravens defense, and is something Ravens fans are not accustomed to. The Ravens must find a way to stop the run this weekend if they have any chance of coming away with their 4th win of the season.

In what seems like the long-distant past, NFL defenses were built to stop the run first and foremost. They set their defensive fronts first with this primary goal in mind before linking up their coverage structure to the front they desired for particular matchups. Simple numbers dictate why these two things are linked – commit five players to your defensive front and you have six to deploy in coverage; commit four players to your defensive front and you have seven to deploy in coverage.

Now, NFL defenses set their coverage architecture first and then connect their front to this. The proliferation of the passing game has changed the way defensive coaches build their units, from back to front. NFL teams have a counter that they can slide up and down the spectrum of defending the run and the pass, with it being rare that a unit truly excels at stopping both.

For so many years the Ravens have set their stall against the running game and in seasons past have been content to give up chunks of passing yardage in pursuit of a number one rushing defense. It has been a successful approach when paired with a Lamar Jackson offense. And given that many NFL offenses, especially the ones grown from the Sean McVay tree, that look like pass-first offenses, actually rely heavily on an effective running game off of which to build their passing concepts.

This clash with the Giants feels like a throwback might be necessary for the Ravens – at first glance this is an offense that dominates in the running game and has Daniel Jones running the passing game (read those italics with a derisory tone).

Many would suggest a defense dominated by heavy fronts. The Okie front, which was the Panthers weapon of choice to defend this offense, would be the way many coaches might choose to combat the Giants running game. It was a solid choice for the Panthers and the Ravens should certainly be ready with a heavy box as their plan B. But I’m suggesting a slightly different approach first, that stays truer to the new-look Ravens defense under Mike Macdonald.

I’m suggesting keeping their four-man fronts that they’ve been running this season, aligning their 3-technique to the running back side and running some simple line stunts against the Giants running game. That’s in the hopes of confusing this offensive line, and Daniel Jones when the Giants turn to their read option attack.

The difficulty with selling out to stop the run, is that Daboll has become a master of space as an offensive play-caller. Too much focus on one aspect of his offense and he has already built in counter-punches that can be very difficult to stop. For instance, if you load up against the strong side when he runs 13 personnel, he’ll spring Jones out the back door on a play action bootleg opposite those three Tight Ends, and have your backside defenders in a hi-lo bind.

The Ravens can’t simply sit back on their laurels on the back end, knowing that man coverage from their DBs, who are far superior in talent to the Giants’ Wide Receivers, will work a charm. Daboll is too good and will scheme open even seemingly average receivers against outstanding cover guys.

The Ravens need a way to keep their defense balanced and continue to run some of the heavier zone coverage that we have seen from them so far this season. They can do this by running those simple line stunts to confuse the Giants offense, when setting the 3-technique to the RB side, with either an Exit stunt, swapping their nose tackle and defensive end, or pinching the end and the tackle towards the center of the defensive line. This can create gap confusion for the offensive line and read confusion for Jones.

There is another reason why this approach might be a better option than turning the defense full-tilt towards heavy boxes to stop the run: the Ravens defense is not experienced enough yet to be dramatically changing its scheme week-to-week. This might have been possible with Marcus Williams, but the loss of one of the most promising Free Agent acquisitions in Ravens history to a dislocated wrist will be felt keenly. Not only in missing the plays that he made himself but in what he allowed the rest of the defense to be able to do.

Of course, this defense retains some experienced personnel in Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Chuck Clark, but a five-man front would also likely require the relative inexperience of two players from a pool of Geno Stone, Brandon Stephens, Pepe Williams and Kyle Hamilton to be on the field. The Ravens need to limit what they ask of their young players from a schematic point of view.

Stopping the run will be a huge challenge this week, especially given the Ravens’ inability to do so in recent weeks. But Daboll has not built this offense to be one-dimensional and if you push too hard to slow down Barkley, they can hurt you in other ways, even with a depleted wide receiver corps.

Plan B

The best laid plans can really be put to the sword by creative offensive coaches; you can bet that Daboll, while not expecting the above approach, could certainly adapt to it. The Giants’ running game is a multiple one, and evenly balanced between Zone and Gap concepts. The approach I’ve outlined above is one that, in theory, can be applied to a multiple running game like the one that Giants run and can help you against the option side of the Giants offense.

Daboll could find an answer to this though, and could get the Barkley side of the running game going. If that is the case then some of the passing concepts that the Giants like to run off this will begin to work, despite their talent level being far lower than many of the offenses the Ravens have already faced this season.

If that happens, the Ravens need a contingency plan. If they don’t defend the run well, whether they take the approach above or not, then they must change up their approach and commit more resources to stopping it. If they haven’t been able to stop the run, then they have likely turned the Giants offense into a potent one. It then becomes the same chess match as they’ve had to partake in recently – place your bets carefully and pick your poison.

With the Giants, the poison you undoubtedly want to swallow is their passing game. Given the talent level deficiency, there is much more margin for error for New York, especially against a good Baltimore coverage group.

It is worth trying to stop the NYG offense without loading up to stop the run for the reasons already outlined – Daboll has some solid counter-punches that he can go to. But the emergency plan should include running more Okie defensive fronts, getting more bodies on the line of scrimmage and in the box to take away the string to the bow of this offense that puts everything else in tune.

It puts more pressure on the Ravens in coverage, but this is not an offense with potent weapons like the Dolphins or the Bills, and the Ravens should therefore put the game on the backs of Peters and Humphrey in this scenario.

Offensive Keys

Beat the blitz

The once proud Ravens defense was decimated by injuries last season, and it spelled the end of Wink Martindale as Defensive Coordinator. Over the years, the Ravens have had to give up outstanding Defensive Coordinators to Head Coaching gigs and then fill in with a next man up philosophy. This always threatened to derail the continuity that helped an outstanding defense consistently finish among the best in the NFL, season-in and season-out.

In the 2000s I was always jealous of the Steelers continuity with Dick LeBeau, not often mentioned in connection with Head Coaching gigs and a decade-long run at the helm of a defense that never had to replace the head man. I did wonder if, after the many failed Head Coaching interviews, Martindale might provide similar stability for the Ravens defense.

But in truth, the cracks had been starting to appear in the façade. While Wink’s unit still had impressive outings, even when injury-ravaged, you could see that his approach was being overtaken somewhat by creative offensive designers. His blitz packages were still potent, but the defense was finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto leads.

The parting of the ways was still surprising considering the many injuries that the Ravens faced last season. Still, it seemed the Ravens wanted a more new-school Defensive Coordinator who was willing to adapt his approach and design a new Ravens defense for the new reality in the NFL, filled with QBs who relish facing the blitz, and who carve it up at an alarming rate.

I mention Wink’s dogmatic adherence to his scheme because it has not deserted him in his new job. So, I find myself penning a Battle Plan to defeat the guy I was suggesting ideas for last season.

Does this Giants defense look like other Wink-coordinated defenses? The answer, from the data and the film, is a pretty resounding yes. The Giants top the blitz rate charts and you can see a heavy dose of man coverage with some quarters and split-field Cover 6 thrown in there too.

I think you can hang your hat on Wink bringing the blitz hammer this week to a Ravens offense that struggled so hard to deal with the blitz last season. I know there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of open animosity between Martindale and the Ravens, but I think you can count on Wink looking to this matchup as a way to prove his approach is King, and that the Ravens made a mistake in kicking him to the curb.

Unhelpfully for Wink, this Ravens offense is not a facsimile of last years. There is a far greater variety to this offense; seemingly against the normal modus operandi, it has evolved and in keeping with what Baltimore sees from its quarterback each off-season, Lamar Jackson has continued to evolve. From the worst, to one of the best in the league at dealing with the blitz.

Happily for the Ravens, I’d be very surprised if Martindale switches approach and takes the road that John Harbaugh was seemingly begging him to take by tempering his usual instincts against a foe that has proven the blitz is the entirely wrong way to attack them. I also think that Wink will back himself and his particular pressure packages, given how exotic they can be, to be the ones that eventually trip up this new version of Lamar and the Ravens offense.

The key to success this week in picking up Wink’s pressure packages will undoubtedly lie in Jackson’s continued development in identifying pressure packages and the continued good play of the interior of the Ravens offensive line. Ben Powers, Tyler Linderbaum and Kevin Zeitler have actually proven to be a solid unit, despite the existence of a rookie and a much-maligned mid-round Guard. They have worked together impressively to defeat blitz packages and limit the free rushers at Jackson. Jackson hasn’t had the most time in the league to throw the ball, but he’s had enough to carve up defenses when he’s facing pressure packages that foiled him last season.

Hit the Honey Hole

The other idiosyncrasy of a Martindale-led offense is in his coverage scheme. It’s interesting to speculate a little on the approach Wink might take in coverage this week. He will clearly want to shut down the Ravens and win the game but doing it without adapting his approach even a little will likely backfire spectacularly.

The blitz, with a large measure of man coverage behind it, can be poisonous when facing down Jackson’s legs. I think he will bet on his pressure packages, outlined in the previous section, which means he will turn to his change-up with his coverage approach. That means a lot of Quarters and Cover 6.

The split-field coverage was one we saw him use in Baltimore regularly and I think the Ravens will see plenty of it this Sunday in New York. That means the Ravens need to run as few unbalanced personnel packages as possible, running 2×2 formations and splitting passing concepts to attack the different halves of this coverage.

I wrote in the Battle Plan for facing the Dolphins about utilizing the Curl/Flat concept to beat some of the Cover 0 blitz approach they were taking. The Ravens can safely return to some of that, but especially to the Curl/Flat which will work well against the Cover 4 side of the formation. That’s as long as it’s combined with a hi-low concept on the other side like Smash, which works a corner route and a curl in tandem to put the defenders on the Cover 2 side in conflict.

Jackson needs to quickly identify whether the zone coverage he’s facing is Quarters or Cover 6, and if Cover 6, which side of the field is Cover 2. I’m suggesting quickly identifying Cover 2 to decipher where the honey hole is (the void in the Zone of Cover 2 to the sideline behind the underneath defenders) because a particular strength of Jackson in throwing outside the numbers, is the touch throw to the sideline that works so well against this coverage.

Feed Mark Andrews… again

I highlighted Mark Andrews in the matchup of the week for the encounter with the Bengals because of the relative weakness of the Bengals defense in defending tight ends compared to their prowess in shutting down other parts of an opposing passing offense.

Happily for the Ravens, they face another defense that struggles with tight ends, and they still have one of the very best in the business in Andrews. Ravens fans were used to bemoaning Wink’s units in Baltimore for their lack of ability to control sometimes even mediocre tight ends; this time they get to see the Ravens take advantage of it to their benefit.

He’s not in matchup of the week as I can’t see Martindale choosing man coverage as his weapon of choice to combat Andrews, as he simply does not have the firepower to match up. So, it’ll be Andrews feeling for the soft spot in Zone Coverage and the Ravens using their passing scheme to get him open, that’s crucial this week.

Some combination of the Curl/Flat and the Seam route with some of the Ravens’ signature Option routes should be things they turn to for Andrews.

Matchup of the Week

Tyler Linderbaum vs Dexter Lawrence

I should perhaps track the matchups I pick in this spot every week because I’m sure that I’m picking battles in the trenches at a far more regular clip than anything else. But this one is a doozy, so you won’t find any apologies from me for keeping my eyes trained on the middle of the Ravens Offensive Line this week, watching how impressive rookie Center Tyler Linderbaum fares in one of his toughest tests yet. Linderbaum has started in promising fashion and looks to be someone the Ravens may be able to rely on for years to come to anchor their Offensive Line.

One of the most impressive aspects of his play both in college and in the early running in the NFL is his recovery ability in pass protection. It’s the skill that unlocks the very top of the spectrum of outcomes for Offensive Linemen, when they are able to right themselves from compromising situations, that look all but lost, and get to a stalemate where the Defensive Lineman doesn’t get the emphatic win it looked like they might get. Linderbaum will need all of this ability and every other tool in his bag that he’s accumulated over his short career against one of the best interior Defensive Linemen in the NFL: Dexter Lawrence.

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