The Ravens enter a second straight non-conference primetime week, before heading into their bye, in a stretch of the season where they play very little football. They have had plenty of time to prepare for this spluttering Saints team and should come out firing.
The Ravens have a real chance to put a stranglehold on the AFC North with each addition to the win column. The division is the worst it has been for some time, and so even the loss of the Ravens’ WR1 for the season doesn’t feel like it derails their bid for 1st place.
Here’s how they keep stacking those wins in New Orleans on Monday night…
Jekyll or Hyde?
This New Orleans Saints offense is close to impossible to prepare for, because they will be so schematically different based on the personnel available to them. The Saints started the season, sans Sean Payton as their play-caller for the first time in over a decade, with the best Wide Receiver room they’ve had in years.
Michael Thomas looked to be back to his imperious best in the early season running, and he was complemented by the best rookie Wide Receiver in this year’s class, Chris Olave, as well as the inimitable Jarvis Landry, who proved that he was not a busted flush yet after a down year in Cleveland.
These weapons, combined with a Quarterback in Jameis Winston, who could push the ball down the field, and the New Orleans offense would have a very different feel to it. Pete Carmichael Jr., for so long the offensive-mind-understudy to Payton, could step out of his mentor’s shadow and innovate a new modus operandi for the Saints offense.
The Olave pick especially, signaled a changing of the guard for the Saints, no longer focused on finding hidden gem Wide Receivers for Drew Brees and Payton’s scheme to turn into high-end producers. Olave is a downfield threat and a highly-skilled receiver who would always threaten to be WR1 from this class to those who studied his tape keenly in college.
But that all went awry, mainly due to injuries. Losing Winston, Thomas and Landry was one too many blows to an offense that would look so different to the Brees-led Saints. They wanted to push the ball down the field more – and Winston’s over 10 intended air yards per pass attempt (distance the ball travels in the air on each pass) betray that – but without Winston and key weapons, they had to revert to type somewhat.
Luckily, they had Andy Dalton, who knows how to spread a defense from sideline to sideline and could operate a more limited offense with a degree of competence, if not excellence in the way prime Brees managed. I’m convinced the continued absence of Thomas and Landry have affected the decision to stay with Dalton as the starter for now.
To illustrate how different this offense is with Dalton under Center, you can point to the difference in intended air yards per attempt, the stat I just mentioned. The difference between the NFL offense with the highest intended air yards per attempt and the lowest is four yards. The difference between this offense under Winston and Dalton, is greater than that.
The Saints may get Landry back this week, while Thomas, who will require toe surgery, was placed on IR. I expect the Saints to stick with Dalton as their signal-caller, but if things don’t go well to start against this Ravens defense, then don’t be surprised to see Winston’s Mr. Hyde to replace Dalton’s Dr. Jekyll and an entirely different approach.
For now, the Ravens need to prepare for that short passing attack, led by Dalton. Happily, this is an approach they’re well suited to prepare for given the strength that the team has at Cornerback and the Ravens decorated history with exotic blitz packages.
The Saints’ short passing game is designed to get the ball out quickly on quick outs, drag routes or slants, and the Ravens will need to combat this with their excellent corners. Both Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters appear on the injury report this week but if they both go, it will be crucial for this week.
Mike Macdonald has been very adaptable week-to-week leading this defense. They have played different types of coverage depending on the opponent and have shown the ability to move off the franchise’s tried and tested blitz-heavy approach with man coverage behind it.
This version of Dalton though, is not the version that was able to carve the Ravens defense up when facing them twice a season with the Bengals. He used that familiarity to settle in against the Ravens pressure packages and found a way to consistently beat them. But he’s a lot older and far less familiar with this version of the Ravens.
The Saints with Dalton under Center, are entirely reliant on the short passing game. With Humphrey and Peters, as well as some combination of Pepe Williams, Kyle Hamilton and Brandon Stephens giving the Ravens good man coverage underneath, Macdonald should unleash some of his favorite pressure packages and send more than the Saints can handle at Dalton.
Roquan Smith won’t likely play a 100% snap count in his first week with the team, but using him and Patrick Queen in tandem, to sugar the A gap and bring one, both or none of them, will likely be too much to handle. I’d also work in plenty of stunts to the left side of the Saints Offensive Line.
Stopping Kamara and Hill
The Saints have always been a team that can efficiently run the football, and Alvin Kamara is a truly great back who, while no longer in his prime, can still run a team into submission. The Saints haven’t been consistent with their ability to run the ball this season, but a few things have happened since Dalton took over the offense.
The Saints have re-integrated Taysom Hill as an all-purpose weapon on this offense, running the ball from the Quarterback position. They have also stuck with what works in terms of scheme, running Hill behind a mostly Gap-based attack and getting Kamara plenty of opportunities on Inside Zone runs and as a receiver out of the backfield.
Stopping Kamara catching the ball out of the backfield, or at least limiting his YAC, in this game will be a big key for the Ravens, but he has in recent weeks re-emerged as a threat to run the ball for chunk gains. This Ravens defense has been better in recent weeks against the run, but this multiple running offense is a challenge that requires special attention.
When facing down the Saints regular base offense, being ready for Inside Zone is the key. That means responding with personnel and keeping their linemen who are better at occupying double teams on the field. The Ravens have added a new Linebacker, and already have a Linebacker in Queen, who operates best when kept clean and attacking downhill towards the football.
The Inside Zone run is predicated on Offensive Linemen being able to move vertically and get to the second level. If New Orleans is successful getting up to Queen and Smith, that will be a problem for the Ravens, so they must stop this movement at the source: the line of scrimmage. This can be done by occupying the double team or by getting quick penetration into the backfield. The Ravens have been more successful with the latter this season, in contrast to their approach in years gone by.
They have normally focused on their bigger bodies up front two-gapping by using the technique where they corkscrew their inside leg to reduce the surface area that blockers are able to hit when they come across as part of a double team. They may need to return to the old faithful a little more this week as Kamara can be so elusive in the backfield and penetration from Defensive Linemen against the Saints is less favorable than penetration by more athletic Linebackers.
The Saints Inside Zone game is slowed when Linebackers have a clean path inside to clobber Kamara. The Ravens should also load the box a fair amount against this team. With Michael Thomas out for the year and Landry still questionable, the Ravens should feel good about their ability to match up in coverage as mentioned in section one.
That brings us to the other main tenet of the Saints running game. Hill has been running the ball with intermittent success from the Quarterback position. This has been mostly on Gap running plays with pullers moving across the formation to grade the road for him or to kick out edge defenders.
He has most success when he manages to get outside, and so setting a hard, physical edge is crucial in this game, as is anticipating a puller coming across to kick out the edge defenders and beating him inside to the ball carrier. Hill can be dangerous when allowed to gallop into the open field; shutting him down early is important.
No Counter-punch Bunch
A quick final defensive key this week, focuses on what to do when the Saints come out in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). They are, with Dalton under Center, still looking to get short completions, but they will also run man-beating concepts out of bunch formations. This becomes more prevalent against teams who overly run Man coverage against them, as I’ve suggested the Ravens do in section one.
As well as getting their Banjo coverage right while sticking in Man, the Ravens also need to be able to switch to Zone coverage when facing this type of alignment from the Saints, but still be able to stop the run if the Saints decide to run the ball from this formation.
When teams respond with Zone coverage against those bunch formations, the Saints test whether you can defend the run against a numbers disadvantage. That means the Ravens Defensive Backs need to be quick on the trigger, ready to get physical and play the run with toughness and physicality.
Run the dang ball
I’ve started with this key on many occasions, channeling my inner Sandra-Bullock-playing-Leigh-Anne-Tuohy in The Blind Side. And I actually didn’t have as visceral reaction as many to Greg Roman’s pass-happy approach last week against the Buccaneers. I think it did set up the running game to be so successful in the second half and was a bit of a necessary evil.
I don’t think it’s the best approach to take this week. The Saints still have a very good defense, even if it has been a little decimated by their all-in approach to the salary cap, meaning they have lost a good deal of talent.
They showed just how dominant they can be in their victory over the Raiders in Week 8, in a shutout of a potentially potent offense. The Raiders strength this year has undoubtedly been running the football, and the Saints were able to bring that to a sudden arboreal stop, limiting Josh Jacobs to just 43 yards.
The Saints sold out to stop the run on many occasions, loading the box and getting some different rotation into their Defensive Line. David Onyemata and Malcolm Roach have struggled to stop the inside run all season. But Kentavious Street was rotated in and did a good job clogging up running lanes as well as getting penetration, and the Saints ran plenty of run blitzes while bringing Tyrann Mathieu down into the box to add to their numbers.
Marcus Davenport and Cam Jordan on the edges are competent run defenders, so finding some consistency up the middle was a big key to the Saints defending the run last week. But this shouldn’t scare the Ravens, who are a formidable running team with more ways to run the ball up the middle and more threats to account for.
Where the Raiders did have some success and where the Ravens can certainly look to replicate that success was in their Counter running game, particularly when using their Tight End and Fullback in motion.
What I’d like to see the Ravens do is utilize their Tight Ends and Pat Ricard as the pullers in the Counter running game this week. Counter is a staple of their running offense, but usually by pulling their Offensive Linemen for the Running Back to follow. Pete Werner and Demario Davis are excellent and disciplined Linebackers and the priority for the Ravens running game must be to confuse them.
This can be achieved by pulling a Tight End and Ricard on Counter plays, one to kick out and one to lead block. If they can establish this concept, then there are a multitude of things they can run off this to get Davis and Werner on their heels.
This includes – but is not limited to – using motion at the snap to make the play seem like a Counter but then running something different. The Ravens could turn the down blocks from the Offensive Line on a Counter play into Inside Zone Blocking, which requires the same first step from the Offensive Linemen, something that Davis and Werner will be reading to get a jump on the play. This makes everyone’s first steps look like Counter when actually they are running Inside Zone.
They could also turn Ricard’s pull into a Rail route, run play action and get the ball to Project Pat for a big rumbling gain down the sideline that all Ravens fans love to see. Not to mention getting whichever Tight End is pulling out into the flat, instead of kicking out, as a receiver ready to turn up field for a big gain.
Run at Mathieu
The other thing the Ravens must consider doing in the running game is getting blockers to the second level on Tyrann Mathieu. The Saints are using him as an extra defender in the box and the Ravens power running game, if adjusted at the line when Mathieu’s alignment becomes apparent, could get a Tyler Linderbaum up to him at the second level, driving him into oblivion.
In fact, Linderbaum’s movement to the second level is certainly a weapon to be deployed in this game. Getting him to Werner and Davis will be crucial for springing big runs up the middle.
Throw outside the numbers
I mentioned at the beginning of the offensive keys that the Ravens will need to run the ball to set up any chance of success throwing the ball this week. That’s because Davis and Werner, already mentioned, are as disciplined as the day is long. It takes a lot to get them flowing in the wrong direction, either vertically or horizontally. The Saints will surely look to take away the middle of the field when defending the pass.
The other challenge for the Ravens to overcome is the potential lack of legitimate weapons on the outside. The game plan needs to be designed with a huge emphasis on running the ball to give the Ravens any chance of success but they do need to have some kind of threat to the outside when dropping back to pass, if only to soften up the middle a little to get some completions.
Alontae Taylor, the Saints’ rookie Cornerback, is improving week to week, and Paulson Adebo looks like he will be back this week, but they are without Bradley Roby and could be without Marshon Lattimore. That means throwing outside the numbers could be easier. Of course, the Ravens don’t match up well there given their own issues with injuries.
Devin Duvernay continues to impress, but I’ve written before about how he has been used well in tandem with Bateman and won’t likely be able to step up as a number one receiver on his own.
After his success last week, it might be time to start giving Isaiah Likely more of the role they envisioned for him when he was drafted. It may end up that this team has two Tight Ends as the primary targets for Lamar Jackson. Likely can be a mismatch outside and the Ravens might need to manufacture ways for him to be matched up on Corners this week.
But someone will need to step up and be somewhat of a threat on the outside. It is time to give Tylan Wallace and James Proche a real chance, if only out of necessity. Jackson will need to give them the opportunity to make a play on the outside, showcasing his vastly improved accuracy outside the numbers.
Some completions outside, and the work done running the football, might just soften up the excellent middle of this defense for some completions to Likely and others, where the Ravens usually thrive in the passing game. If they don’t get some success outside, then it could be a long day for Jackson in the pocket and this will be an excellent litmus test for how this offense is able to move the chains the rest of the year.
Matchup of the Week
Ravens Punt Return Unit vs Saints Punt Unit
It is not often that I get to show Special Teams some love, but it certainly warrants a place in matchup of the week this time out. The Saints Special Teams are not good, and it’s a big reason why a solid team, counting itself in the top half of the league in terms of most of the important categories, finds itself with such a paltry win total in Week 9. Only the Packers and the Dolphins run out worse Special Teams units.
The main area of weakness is the punt unit that doesn’t show up as anything to write home about in terms of yards allowed, but watching the film and seeing it’s DVOA efficiency metric as the worst unit on a bottom three team, does make you sit up and take notice.
Chris Horton will be ready to take advantage with his league-leading special teams unit in DVOA, and particularly with Duvernay and the punt return unit, to put the Ravens offense in advantageous field position.