A short Battle Plans for a short game week. The Ravens take on a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that, in losing to the Panthers, proved that they are not “who we thought they were.”
The Buccaneers, one of the Super Bowl favorites heading into the season, are languishing at 3-4 with a multitude of issues that make the concerns Ravens fans have with their team look laughable.
The Ravens should be able to take advantage on Thursday night and keep this season rolling. Here’s some of the options how…
Pick a gap, any gap
The most surprising turn of events in a season that promised so much for the Buccaneers is the wildly inconsistent play of their usually stellar defense. Todd Bowles took over this defense in 2019 under Bruce Arians’ Head Coaching stewardship and immediately led the unit to consecutive top five finishes in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. This was highlighted by an outstanding top-ranked run defense that powered their run to the Super Bowl.
In 2021 there were teams that could run on Tampa, as it didn’t quite live up to it’s usual standards, but it was still a good unit, that looked back to its dominant best through two weeks this year. However, things have taken a turn for the inconsistent, culminating in a staggeringly below-par outing against the Christian-McCaffrey-less Panthers last week.
There are some fundamental flaws in this run defense, exposed by a Carolina team that was struggling badly coming into their week seven encounter. The middle of this run defense is staggeringly overmatched against an even remotely competent running scheme. The Ravens can certainly exploit this, and should find success against the Buccaneers running the football.
The most serious issue with this Buccaneers defense last week was how far from gap sound they were. The Panthers exposed this time and time again with D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard, not exactly two backs with the greatest pedigree.
A key for the Ravens will be rolling back the years to 2019 somewhat, breaking out their read option run game. The Panthers exposed the worst of the Buccaneers run defense with their read option game. There were gaping holes through which Panthers could run untouched into open pastures beyond, ripping off huge chunk gains.
The Ravens have one of the most potent running weapons at Quarterback that the league has ever seen, in addition to a returning Gus Edwards who looked surprisingly back to his rumbling, sight-for-sore-eyes-after-Dobbins’-injury self. He was a force to be reckoned with as part of the Ravens running game monster in 2019 and looked particularly good on read option plays when he got downhill in a hurry.
Edwards’ vision and footwork, as well as his power, makes him look perfectly set to take advantage of this defense. Edwards would certainly be on the list of backs in the league I’d choose to punish a team that can’t get out of its own way in terms of defending the run. And of course, if Lamar keeps it, he can do severe damage.
The other key in the running game, to pair with the read option, is to run less of the Ravens staple running scheme. Pulling Guards and Tackles against Tampa is unnecessary. The Ravens don’t need to overwhelm this defense with numbers through utilizing pullers – the Buccaneers will hurt themselves with the way they are currently defending the run.
The type of running play I’d like to see the Ravens use more this week would be Duo, which gets two double teams going inside and allows Offensive Linemen to combine and then climb to the second level. Devin White and Lavonte David can be targeted in the running game and Duo doesn’t involve much complex movement from the Offensive Line to get to the second level.
Duo also allows the Ravens to attack the real weakness of this defense as its currently constructed – up the middle. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Shaq Barrett provide competent edge play; it’s between the Tackles where the Ravens can make the most hay, and I’m convinced that Edwards can then shift that hay into the barn so that Gerry Sandusky can break out his favorite call come Thursday night.
The Ravens Offensive Line is a big key to this game in general, not just in the running game, where they will be tasked with going mano-a-mano with box defenders that should get bulldozed given the way they are playing. More than that, this line will need to continue its improving play in pass protection, especially in terms of dealing with stunts and blitzes.
The Buccaneers are of course strong on the edges, but the Ravens should be able to match up outside, though Morgan Moses vs Barrett will be a key battle in terms of winning this game. But they also blitz at a top five rate in the league. The Ravens line getting into the right protection has been an improving picture throughout the season and is a big reason why the team is dealing with the blitz far better than they did last year. It’s crucial this week.
Attack the middle
Surprisingly, the Bucs offense has regressed and does not look itself. Some of this is on Tom Brady but he remains an efficient quarterback, only he is hampered by the injuries to his main receiving weapons, the absence of Gronk and Antonio Brown, the hapless state of the running game, and Byron Leftwich’s play-calling.
There is a lot of noise around Leftwich’s job security, and there are specific questions raised every week about his play-calling on first down – under pressure to abandon the run, in favor of a passing game that is working far better in terms of EPA per play. He did adjust this pretty significantly against the Panthers, and while it wasn’t successful getting the win or even putting points on the board, it only seems like he is heading for more predictability in play-calling on first down.
I think the Ravens can gamble often on the Buccaneers throwing the ball in neutral situations, as it’s their best weapon and they’re a wounded animal, likely to use their most effective weapon to get themselves out of a corner. The Ravens have had some trouble stopping the run and should certainly not let Tampa’s running game get a hold early and build some momentum, but their focus should be on stopping Brady et al this week.
Speaking of which, getting pressure on Brady is key. Attacking the middle of this team is a theme for this week. The Buccaneers are no longer a dominant offensive team because their Offensive Line, especially at the Center and Guard positions, is no longer dominant.
Ryan Jensen is injured, Ali Marpet has retired, and Alex Cappa is in Cincinnati. You could argue that Shaq Mason is an upgrade, but he isn’t playing like it yet. Robert Hainsey is an Offensive Linemen I liked coming out of the Draft but he’s inexperienced and Luke Goedeke is a rookie who has been struggling and has been ruled out of this week’s contest.
You wouldn’t normally blitz Touchdown Tom with too much regularity, and it should still be used sparingly, but the Ravens should continue to use Patrick Queen and other second level defenders in an aggressive capacity this week to get quick pressure on Brady. With Goedeke’s absence the interior of this line gets a new combination, to go with their underperformance, it should be attacked early and often. Twists inside between Justin Madubuike and whoever is filling in the most for the ill Calais Campbell should also be worked in regularly to test their communication.
For the first time in three weeks, the Ravens shouldn’t need to sell out to stop the run, and can drop plenty of players into coverage. Doubling Mike Evans is a must as the other main weapon on this defense is Russell Gage, who has also been ruled out. Chris Godwin is back but is still a shadow of his former self and Julio Jones is the least dangerous he’s ever been in his Hall of Fame career. The Ravens should easily have the pieces in the secondary to matchup with the Bucs.
Matchup of the Week
Jamel Dean vs Rashod Bateman
The Ravens had to be happy to have Rashod Bateman back for Browns week – even though his number wasn’t called often, and the passing game in general wasn’t what powered the Ravens win on Sunday, the presence of this offense’s number one Wide Receiver opens up possibilities for everyone else.
This week could similarly see the Ravens run all over Tampa Bay and not need a great deal out of the passing game, but there is always the chance that the Buccaneers offense will find the light switch and get back into a groove. If that is the case, then Bateman’s matchup with Jamel Dean, who has played like a top tier CB since he entered the league unheralded from Auburn, a 3rd round pick in the 2019 draft, will be crucial. It’s a very good test for how far Bateman has come, with him now further removed from his injury and having only just now played enough games to constitute a full season in the NFL.