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Battle Plans: Taming Cats in Back-to-Back Weeks

Lamar Jaguars Battle Plans
original photo: Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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It’s hard to tell if the close nature of the Ravens’ victory over the Panthers last weekend was due mainly to the elements or to the Ravens playing down to the level of their opponents. They fly down to Florida this week to take on another opponent with an underwhelming record in their journey through the mediocre AFC middle.

The Jaguars are an enigma of a team; a hot start in terms of their play was not reflected in their record but they have cooled significantly since those first few weeks. Despite Jacksonville’s solid losing effort against the Chiefs before their bye week, the Ravens should come out on top of this one.

Here’s how they do just that…

Defensive Keys

Yankee is not dandy

Thankfully the Jaguars jettisoned Urban Meyer last season in one of the biggest misadventures ever seen in the NFL. An ignominious reign threatened to derail a potential runaway train of a quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. The promising prospect out of Clemson was reduced to a shadow of the player Jacksonville made the number one overall pick, providing only tantalizing glimpses of potential.

There’s an adult in the room now.

Doug Pederson has clearly brought a professionalism to this team that was most certainly lacking in 2021, but he’s also brought the Jacksonville offense quickly into the modern era and put the cornerstone of their franchise in a position to succeed.

It’s no surprise that Pederson has managed to do this, from his first steps as a coordinator, in Kansas City, leading Alex Smith to the best season of his career, to the remarkable run as Eagles Head Coach marshalling a backup Quarterback to a Super Bowl victory. He’s also added the impressive Press Taylor as OC – Bengals’ Head Man Zac’s brother – the man who masterminded the Philly special call in the big game.

But it’s early days, and while there were green shoots in the opening weeks of this season, the optimism around the Jags has waned recently, with only a win over the hapless Raiders since their dismantling of the Chargers in Week 3. Still, the offense, and the team, are better than their record suggests, and the Ravens defense will still need to be at its best to move to an impressive 8-3 mark on the season.

The Jags offense, like previous incarnations of Pederson units, is a smoke-and-mirrors type offense that runs a mostly West Coast system, with plenty of wrinkles designed to build Lawrence’s confidence and aimed at getting their main man to fulfil his potential.

Make no mistake: Lawrence has the potential to turn around the fortunes of this franchise. And Pederson has the offense to get him there.

The first thing to be wary of, is their now more normal use of motion to help Lawrence out with his pre-snap reads. The most dangerous weapon in their armory, which they certainly don’t overuse, is Lawrence under Center, running play action, and hitting a hi-lo concept that has put opposition defenders in a bind.

The best example of this is the Yankee concept that has plenty of window dressing to scheme receivers open for Lawrence. Last season, he was throwing into tight windows for his mediocre receiving corps who couldn’t decisively beat man coverage. This year is different, as his receiving corps is marginally improved – you can count Christian Kirk in the net positive column there – and Pederson is getting him more opportunities for open throwing windows.

Yankee as a concept calls for a seven-man protection, and pre-snap motion across the formation, with the Quarterback under Center, running play action before hitting the deep over route behind a defense that is likely to have bit hard on the run. Lawrence can execute this to perfection and in Kirk, he has a guy who can run that deep over route as a matchup problem for many defensive personnel.

The Ravens have a simple solution to this: they can run with some of their two-high shell that they’ve been periodically working out of so far this season.

Against inferior opponents, the Ravens have generally shown less respect to passing offenses in recent weeks. Facing a struggling Tom Brady, Andy Dalton and Baker Mayfield is a far cry from trying to shut down the Dolphins passing offense or Josh Allen and the Bills. It’s meant that some of the two-high shell deception they were running early in the season has taken a back-seat.

There’s no doubt some of that is down to their own personnel, as Marcus Williams is a big loss, but Geno Stone has filled in more than admirably and appears quite capable of running this system. One of the most difficult things for a young quarterback to deal with, particularly when he’s being aided by a smoke-and-mirrors offense, is a smoke-and-mirrors defense. Turning your back on the defense to fake the hand-off to the running back, seeing one thing from the coverage before you turn your back, then seeing another after you turn back, can be disorienting.

The Jaguars are helping their quarterback out and giving him fewer decisions to make in quick succession. The Ravens should stay disciplined in their pre-snap two-high shell, before rolling in and out of Cover 2 post-snap, to confuse Lawrence.

This is something I’ve called for before and normally it’s against the very best passing offenses in the league – this is not one of those. And if you were writing a gameplan to win a Super Bowl against this Jags team, then you probably wouldn’t start here. That’s because the non-Shotgun part of the Jags offense is a relatively limited section of Pederson’s playbook.

However, it is their best weapon, so it’s a good bet. And the general philosophy of not tipping your hand from a coverage perspective is a solid strategy for the majority of this game for reasons already explained. But there’s another reason I would start here this week…

The Ravens expect to roll through the rest of this schedule, with few genuine tests of their mettle before January rolls around. When the new year does come, and the Ravens enter the playoffs, they will face passing offense behemoths, without many recent tune-up games that get even remotely close to the standard they will face.

They need to use this game (and the Bengals game), as one of the few remotely competent passing offenses they face, to continue to hone the gameplan they will need to deploy against the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Allen and Tua Tagavailoa in the playoffs.

It has the added benefit of being a useful tactic against the Jags and likely to help them contain Lawrence.

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Hit the hole hard

It always seemed like an odd pick when the Jaguars went back to the Clemson well in the first round of the 2021 Draft, taking Travis Etienne to pair with his college quarterback. It seemed even more ill-advised when he suffered a season-ending injury before he had even taken a snap as a rookie in the NFL. But, for me, Etienne’s talent has never been in question. As this season rolled on, it was plain to see how Etienne could thrive in this offense. So much so, that the impressive James Robinson was deemed surplus to requirements.

Etienne is now the featured back and has been the Jaguars’ most consistently excellent performer on both sides of the ball. Kirk has been a good addition, while Lawrence’s ability is detailed in the first section of this piece, but Etienne has been the standout.

There is a clear strength to this Jacksonville running game though, at the second level and into open space, where they outrun most other teams in the NFL. However, they are liable to get stuffed at the line of scrimmage. They get stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage more than any other team in the league.

Normally, shooting gaps hard and playing downhill attacking defense can be a gamble when paired with facing a potent play-action offense. But in this case, it’s absolutely a gamble worth taking given the rewards on offer for getting to Etienne in traffic, before he passes the line of scrimmage. The Kansas City Chiefs were effective in doing this before the bye week and the lack of a running game restricted Lawrence’s ability too.

Happily, the Ravens have shown a real propensity in recent weeks for doing this. Patrick Queen has been a revelation this season but even more so since he has been partnered with Roquan Smith. The two of them have the potential to be a nightmare for offensive coordinators who want to run the football. They can be allowed to let loose this week, going after Etienne in the backfield at will.

The Jags will be more ready for this than they were when they faced down the Chiefs. They pivoted to some more Inside Zone runs, albeit a bit late, to try and get some vertical movement from their Offensive Line to disrupt some of the pursuit angles the Chiefs LBs were taking.

They will pivot more quickly against the Ravens, but this Jags offensive line is not good enough to have sustained success running plays they aren’t used to running, working in tandem on double teams more than normal. The Ravens defensive line has been playing well in recent weeks and will need to take up the mantle from Smith and Queen if the Jags turn their running game full-tilt Zone.

No mugging

The final defensive key is focused back on defending the strength of this Jags offense. The passing game is what allows this team to score points and Etienne, while impressive in the run game, is even more dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield.

Getting pressure on Lawrence is as important as it is in overcoming any quarterback, but there may be a specific way to get it done this week. Lawrence was not good against the blitz a year ago, struggling to get anything going when teams brought pressure against him. He has been much improved this year and much of it comes down to his ability to get his line into the right protection.

Mike Macdonald should dial down the blitz packages this week and put this game on the back of his players in coverage, as mentioned earlier, but also the edge defenders like Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Houston who appear to be rolling back the years.

If he does bring pressure this week and rushes more than four, which he certainly must do, testing Lawrence’s improved recognition with the Ravens’ particular brand of pass rush is certainly worth a try, and they may want to specifically work in a wrinkle we don’t often see from them.

The Ravens LBs often mug the line of scrimmage and either blitz or drop out into coverage. Lawrence is particularly proficient at identifying where pressure is coming from when teams have tried this approach. Where he has been less good is dealing with the delayed blitz.

The Ravens could use Queen or Smith’s athleticism to bring pressure late from the second level when they want to bring extra guys.

Lamar Jackson throws to Mark Andrews
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens

Offensive Keys

Stop the other Josh Allen

This week will be a tough one to come up with a specific game plan. As I write this piece more and more, I find myself ever increasingly sympathetic to the coordinators charged with coming up with a game plan each week. I suggest things that I think they should try, and then I sometimes see our play-callers try the exact thing I thought they should on Sundays. Then I see that tactic fail spectacularly and realize something: this is far harder than it looks.

What’s tough about this week is that this Jacksonville defense is non-descript. There is not a lot to write home about and therefore not a lot to specifically attack.

It reminds me of a story told by former Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan about his time in the same job in Washington. He called a game that was devoid of his usual pressure packages, as the game situation called for a more reserved version of his usually attacking defense. When he arrived into his office the next morning, he found a tub of vanilla ice cream with a note from the owner Dan Snyder that read “I don’t like vanilla”.

This Jags defense, at least schematically, rings true to that anecdote. They are quite vanilla. They add a little caramel sauce, mixing up their coverages, but they are middle of the NFL-road in most other ways in their make-up, albeit with decidedly below average outcomes.

Former Raven Assistant Coach Joe Cullen led this defense last year under the most difficult circumstances. It was not a good unit. He was replaced by Mike Caldwell this off-season, a long-time linebackers coach in the league but first-time play-caller. Turns out Caldwell would be trying evolution not revolution, and while this Jags defense is better than last year, it is only marginally so, and from a very low baseline.

Those decidedly below average outcomes are undoubtedly led by the Jaguars inability to sack the quarterback. They are not terrible at getting pressure, but getting home and finishing is proving mighty difficult for them. With 16 sacks on the season, they have the lowest adjusted sack rate in the league.

As there isn’t anything distinctive about the way in which they rush the passer, this column must resort to talking about personnel for this first key.

Through the first few weeks of the season, (the other) Josh Allen was proving a difficult assignment on the edge for offensive tackles. In the very early days of the season, Travon Walker was also proving a handful as a pass-rusher and was keeping attention not solely focused on Allen.

In recent times though, Walker, while still a good run defender, has been less disruptive against the pass and the Jags in general have found less joy getting to the quarterback. This has coincided with teams focusing much of their resources on keeping Allen quiet. The Ravens absolutely must do this on Sunday, especially given the likely absence of Ronnie Stanley.

The Ravens were very threatened by Brian Burns this past Sunday and they gave plenty of help to their offensive tackles to deal with him. In fact, at times the chip blocks hurt Stanley who you couldn’t help but feel could handle Burns on his own. Sans Stanley, the Ravens must look to help Pat Mekari who is more used to working with a chip.

I’d like to see the Ravens do it with their Tight Ends more though – Pat Ricard was a bit too rough with his chip blocks on Sunday and with the way Mekari wins in pass protection, negating his lack of length by using an inside strike to steer the defender opposite him, a chip block that has too much force behind it can put Mekari in a compromising position.

There are others on this Defensive Line that require attention in pass protection – Arden Key and Dawuane Smoot come in as part of sub-packages on obvious passing downs – but the Ravens interior offensive line should be able to handle them given the level that the three interior linemen are playing at.

The Turkey Sub

There is a new pitch that was created on the Oakland Athletics pitching staff a couple of years ago. It was when pitchers with extreme velocity threw a surprisingly low velocity pitch that might be more at home in the vastly lower levels of the baseball hierarchy. It was known affectionately as the Turkey Sub.

I’d like to propose the Ravens own Turkey Sub package in homage to this American holiday that I rather oddly celebrate too. Not because it was my English ancestors that landed on your shores, only for their descendants to have a can of whoop-a$ opened on them at Yorktown some 160 years later, but because it is when I too sit down and eat Turkey while watching football.

I think calling it the Turkey Sub might be doing the personnel involved a disservice, and it probably already has a name as it’s not especially ground-breaking, I’m just calling it the Turkey Sub because of this fan base’s obsession with the wide receiver position (I include myself in this obsession).

So, the Turkey Sub package is the “genuinely-try-to-feed-two-Tight-Ends-the-ball package.”

The Ravens have an embarrassment of riches at the tight end position. Mark Andrews is, of course, one of the best in the league, but Isaiah Likely has shown that he may be able to provide that Hayden Hurst-2019 level of threat in the passing game. This matchup is the time to try and get both on the field frequently and both with a genuine chance of catching the ball.

This is because the Jags defense is dead last in terms of efficiency in defending tight ends, and they are bottom three in defending the middle of the field.

Tyson Campbell is an improving young CB who has had some good outings against some of the game’s best, but the strength of this defense does not match well with the strength of this offense. The Ravens should eat this week in the passing game if they can find a way to get both Likely and Andrews involved.

You know what you’re getting from Andrews, but including Likely more in the game plan has an added bonus. No defense has missed more tackles in the NFL than Jacksonville’s – Likely is a YAC-bomb waiting to go off.

There are plenty of concepts that can make this work, but I’d specifically like to see some tight end drag routes from play action and getting Lamar out in space on a boot. Another concept that can work with two tight ends and from play action is the Smash concept, which sees one tight end running a post route and one running a corner route.

When the Ravens are at their most potent in the passing game, they are usually peppering the middle of the field. That should work a treat this week against a weak Jacksonville defense in the middle of the field.

Let Lamar Loose

One final thing we haven’t seen as much of this season is Lamar making things happen on scrambles. It’s when he most frequently looks like a superhero, and I doubt they’ll need it through this stretch of games to the end of the season.

But this Battle Plan has followed something of a theme: the Ravens getting in some live practice on some things they might need come January.

A Lamar scramble is the biggest momentum swinger the Ravens have in their arsenal, and one thing you can see on film is that the Jags, even against QBs who are a threat to run, can be a little undisciplined with their rush lanes.

This ill-discipline has increased with each passing week that they struggle to pick up sacks and get more desperate to get home. That can be a recipe for disaster against Jackson, and it might be a good time for him to test his decision-making on when to leave the pocket, as well as reminding the league that his legs still need to be accounted for.

Matchup of the week

Foyesade Oluokun/Rayshawn Jenkins vs Mark Andrews

I think I’ve been cheating a lot this season by hedging my bets on who is going to be matching up with Ravens week to week. Foyesade Oluokun and Rayshawn Jenkins are the guys mist likely to be covering tight ends for the Jags and they will both need to find a way to limit Andrews.

I’ve already mentioned that this is a particular area of weakness for the Jags and Andrews is clearly an area of particular strength for the Ravens. Neither Oluokun nor Jenkins has fared well in coverage this year and Andrews should feast this week. If he doesn’t, it could be a long day for this depleted Ravens offense.

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