The Baltimore Ravens enter the “cupcake” portion of their schedule coming out of the bye week. A solid stretch will see the Ravens take control of the AFC North and their own destiny.
It’s likely that not much will be gleaned from the coming weeks on the subject of the Ravens’ chances that this team bags a Lombardi when it’s all said and done, but they do need to prove their credentials as a contender by rolling through these also-rans.
It starts with a post-bye week contest with Carolina that should see a routine victory. Here’s how they keep it routine…
Timing is everything
The Panthers are one of the most chaotic teams in the NFL. According to many, they were seemingly perpetually on the cusp of a breakout under Matt Rhule – a universally heralded appointment back in 2020 that eventually ended in an ignominious exit from the team just over a month ago.
The Ravens are getting the Panthers at a very good time.
When they brought in Baker Mayfield, to go with last season’s acquisition of Sam Darnold, they were throwing mediocre Quarterbacks at a far larger problem that was exposed in its most thorough way during Rhule’s tenure, through the first few weeks of the year. After jettisoning Rhule and indeed Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers in a trade deadline move, the Panthers have had something of a rebound.
Wins over the Falcons and the Buccaneers have sandwiched a close overtime defeat at the hands of those same Falcons, and a more true-to-form loss to the Bengals. Steve Wilks, as interim coach, has the Panthers playing more physical football and they are more competitive as a result, though the Ravens should present a very different level of challenge.
One way the Ravens can live up to that billing is through timing in their passing game. They provided an excellent blueprint for how this offense can work through the rest of the season on that Monday night in New Orleans. Lamar Jackson spread the ball around and took what the defense gave him early, and while the passing game faltered as the game progressed, it had done its job in setting up the running game for success.
The Ravens should rinse and repeat for this game against a team that likes to blitz a fair amount – top ten rate in the league – but also likes to play man coverage behind it. They will likely go with this strategy against the Ravens – Jackson forces you to play less man coverage, but Defensive Coordinators usually build their gameplan against modern NFL offenses by picking their poison, choosing which part of the offense to disrespect the most. For the Ravens, that has to be their depleted receiving options – the Panthers will think they can hold up well in coverage.
That means getting pressure on Jackson likely goes hand-in-glove with this strategy, so the Ravens need to be deliberate in their passing game early on – matriculating the ball down the field on shorter passing routes that come open quickly and passes delivered to those options with timing by Jackson.
The Ravens have very few options but to use their Tight Ends extensively in this game, even if they are without Mark Andrews, but it happily lines up with a relative weakness in this Panthers pass defense. Throwing over the middle to short hitch routes or getting Tight Ends out in the flats is certainly in order this week.
I’ve written about the Stick concept before and the many variations of it, but it will be a good weapon to deploy this week. The Stick route, which is played, usually by the Tight End, differently depending on the coverage, is combined with a vertical and horizontal stretch. This is how the Ravens should be using DeSean Jackson, not as a guy who regularly catches balls but who allows them to operate underneath through running vertical routes that stretch the defense.
Moving DeSean in motion at the snap will get him the space he needs to get away from any press coverage with a jam and allow him to get vertical so he can work as a decoy for options in shorter areas.
The many variations of the Stick concept, including slants from the opposite side of the formation and/or a drag type underneath route from the slot receiver when Linebackers cheat on the Stick route (something tailor-made for Devin Duvernay’s skill-set) should be queued up in Greg Roman’s play-sheet for this game.
Getting the Carolina Linebackers moving in different directions and completing balls behind them or outside them is a key for this week, and as such the Ravens need to manipulate them with their passing concepts as well as play-action. Shaq Thompson is a very good run defender, and Frankie Luvu is a solid run defender, but the Ravens can get after them in the passing game and shouldn’t be overly worried about the Panthers Safeties in coverage either.
The middle of the field will be key for them this week.
Wait before you start Greg Roman-bashing
Ravens’ fans favorite sport is undoubtedly rushing to their potentially soon to be defunct Twitter accounts to bemoan yet another Roman problematic play-calling series. The most common fish in this particular sea is, without question, Roman’s use of the passing game too frequently.
The Ravens have an outstanding rushing offense; they are, yet again, number one in DVOA rushing efficiency as we enter the second half of the season. There is legitimate cause to be concerned when Roman moves away from that strength too much. But Defensive Coordinators know that the Ravens strength is in their rushing attack, and they also know that their receiving options are limited. The Ravens very often see a huge lack of respect towards their ability to pass the ball.
Defenses want Lamar Jackson to throw the football. They know they can be beaten that way too, but they’re willing to take their chances with that devil than face the full force of the Ravens complex and dangerous rushing attack. It is often the reason for Roman’s sometimes seemingly unhealthy obsession with throwing the ball. I’m not saying by any stretch that frustration with the play-calling isn’t often warranted, but I would urge people to just watch the way the defense is consistently lining up before criticizing.
A criticism I certainly would level at Roman is that he could build off established concepts more frequently. Some of the best offenses in the NFL will make wildly different plays with different aims look remarkably similar for the first split seconds of the play design. I don’t mind the early passing focus when the defense forces the Ravens’ hand; it softens up the ground for the running game and will likely be the approach in this game. But I’d like to see the Ravens build off some of those successful Gap running plays later in the game with run action before dropping back to throw the ball.
In running the football there are some things to watch out for this week that could set up some of those pass plays later in the game. The simple Counter as well as Counter Bash will be go-to plays this week. The best way to attack the Panthers more formidable rush offense is through utilizing the staple Gap blocking scheme with multiple pullers.
This approach should actually help the Ravens passing offense as well. The Panthers’ most dangerous defender in terms of getting after the Quarterback is Brian Burns, so targeting him with kick-out blocks or optioning him through a heavy dosage of Counter will cause some hesitancy for him in getting after Lamar as well. The Ravens should also run some screens to his side, even if they aren’t successful (as they usually aren’t for the Ravens).
Heavy sets with an extra linemen and multiple Tight Ends with plenty of movement both pre-snap and from pullers would also be something to watch out for. The Ravens should be able to out-match the Panthers on the physicality front – Daniel Faalele as an extra lineman can’t hurt in that department.
Add a sprinkling of Outside Zone
This column has regularly called for the implementation of more Zone blocking into the gameplan, especially given some of the personnel the Ravens have along the Offensive Line. This week I’m banging the drum again but very specifically for some Outside Zone targeting the back-side of the Panthers run defense.
Outside Zone usually asks the Running Back to read the defense and hit the bounce, bang or bend (bounce being breaking the ball to the outside, bang meaning running the ball directly towards the B gap, and bend asking the Running Back to cut back against the grain).
Different schemes ask different things of the Running Back, and which path to take can be a read the Back makes mid-play, but it can also be pre-determined. The Panthers defense can be vulnerable to the bend and the Ravens would do well to implement just one or two versions of this to work into the gameplan for this week.
This one will be popular with Ravens fans who still don’t like the former Browns Quarterback, but a healthy disrespect for Baker Mayfield is important for the Ravens chances at coming away with the victory this week.
It has been a remarkable fall from grace for the former number one overall pick. His trade to the Panthers seemed like it might provide a new lease on football life for him. The proverbial chip on his shoulder that the former walk-on seemed to lose somewhat in his waning years in Cleveland, looked like it might revitalize that underdog fighting spirit.
The Panthers have the least efficient passing offense in the league.
That has only improved somewhat since P.J. Walker took over at Quarterback. He also had significant challenges throwing the football and regularly missed on easy throws. Mayfield is back under Center on Sunday, and it may bring a return to the same putrid offense these Panthers had in Weeks 1 through 5.
The Panthers have the worst mark for completed air yards per pass attempt. They don’t throw the ball downfield a whole lot but when they do, it is not successful. They’re one of the worst teams in the league on 3rd down and they have the very least efficient passing offense in the league according to DVOA.
The Ravens should be able to drop back in coverage and let the Panthers beat themselves. Mike Macdonald doesn’t need to empty the vault on pressure packages – quite the opposite: more defenders in coverage has caused more problems for Panthers Quarterbacks.
Letting Mayfield make mistakes might be the path of least resistance against the Panthers.
Load the box
Of course, if the Ravens were most worried about the Panthers passing game, then I wouldn’t be advocating a laissez-faire approach to defending Mayfield. I’m proposing a lack of focus on defending the pass because the Ravens need to put most of their eggs in the defending-the-run-basket.
Something curious happened to this rushing offense when Christian McCaffrey got traded to the 49ers. It took off without one of the best Running Backs in the league.
Some of the rise can be attributed to D’Onta Foreman finally becoming the Running Back he has threatened to become since he entered the league, but something else changed around the same time. A familiar face to Ravens fans entered the lineup for the Panthers.
Bradley Bozeman at Center has helped raise the physicality level for this Offensive Line and he has been somewhat of a catalyst for the improvement in this running game. When you watch the game film, the Panthers are most effective running behind him and Austin Corbett. The Ravens must match their physicality but also, simply dedicate more resources to stopping the run.
They can do this in a few ways – the disrespect of the passing game should manifest itself mostly through Middle of the Field Closed coverages which the Ravens would only deploy against a lesser passing offense, but doing this does change the gap responsibilities and allows them to play differently up front, building their defensive approach this week from front to back rather than vice versa, as they have to do against the AFC juggernauts.
This change allows for the Ravens to better defend the Zone blocking scheme that the Panthers use the majority of the time and specifically allows their Defensive Line to prevent the vertical movement onto their Linebackers that is crucial for the success of ZBS. This way they can keep Patrick Queen and Roquan Smith clean to knife into the backfield and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Keeping the Panthers behind the 8-ball on down and distance will force this offense into the situations that they struggle with the most.
And while the Ravens could attack the back-side of the Panthers defense, they also need to keep their own back door closed and stay disciplined on the backside to account for the cutback that can be a dangerous weapon for this offense.
Tackle in the open field
I never enjoy writing about more obvious keys to the game but this one is too important to ignore. The Panthers do not successfully throw the ball downfield, but they are one of the better teams in the league in gaining yards after the catch.
The Ravens should be able to match up on the outside despite the presence of undisputed number one option D.J. Moore and the slight emergence of Terrace Marshall Jr. Where this Panthers team can gain some joy, if you aren’t disciplined, is in utilizing their Tight Ends or Laviska Shenault on shorter routes, allowing them to get their hands on the ball in space.
Of course, Moore is their best playmaker and Shenault, while having some recent good weeks, is not the consistent weapon so many thought he might be when he entered the league. Those Tight Ends also aren’t setting the world alight. But given Mayfield’s inability to get the ball to Moore, the Ravens do need to be wary of Shenault, Tommy Tremble, Ian Thomas and Gio Ricci. The Panthers gameplan likely focuses on them this week.
The Ravens have so many different types of tool for the job now that they should be up to the task, with tackling in open space the key. Kyle Hamilton improves each week, especially on plays in front of him where he can use his processing and explosive ability. Brandon Stephens brings the necessary length to the table, Pepe Williams excels in short areas, and the return of Tyus Bowser helps the Ravens in coverage without sacrificing in their run defense.
They should be up to the task.
Matchup of the Week
Tyler Linderbaum vs Derrick Brown
Derrick Brown has turned into one of the very best Defensive Linemen in the game and is surely a center-piece of the Panthers rebuild. Tyler Linderbaum is an impressive rookie that has taken some licks but has also shown plenty to be excited about in the early going. Facing Brown will be an excellent test of his progression, but it will also be an important battle in this game. Brown having a disruptive game feels like the cornerstone to the Panthers even standing a remote chance of winning this game – nullify him and the Ravens go a long way to 7-3.
Brown can be a disruptive interior force as a pass-rusher and Linderbaum must continue to demonstrate that he can handle bullies in pass protection. Lamar Jackson is disadvantaged more so than others with pressure up the middle – if the defense is disciplined and keeps contain, it can be hard for him to escape interior pressure and use his legs to neutralize the pass rush. Linderbaum will also be asked to down-block Brown in the running game and will need to win those reps, in addition to the ones when the Ravens weaponize him and get him into space. Two tough tasks that Linderbaum has shown the potential to be up to.