2015 NFL Playoffs: Patriots vs Ravens Rushing Preview ‒ Part 1

The Ravens stumbled into one of the most productive rushing games this season, thanks to Justin Forsett. In Part 1 of the Patriots vs Ravens rushing preview, Brian Filipiak looks at how the Ravens ground attack starts with the line, which allows Gary Kubiak to pound the rock early with varied running plays. Part 2 flips the equation to analyze how the Patriots run the ball.

Part 1: When the Ravens Run

As the New England Patriots prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will need to devise a strategy to limit the effectiveness of one of the league’s most productive running games.

Behind offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-running system, the Ravens finished the regular season tied for sixth in the league in yards per carry with a 4.5 average ‒ a dramatic improvement over their dead-last standing with a 3.1 average just a year ago.

Leading the way has been an unlikely candidate in running back Justin Forsett ‒ a former seventh-round draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2008 who had been cut five times by four teams before landing in Baltimore this past offseason as Ray Rice insurance.

With Rice suspended to begin the year before being released by the team because of off-field issues, Forsett ‒ who played under Kubiak in 2012 ‒ quickly climbed atop the depth chart in Week 1 when head coach John Harbaugh put Bernard Pierce in the doghouse against the Cincinnati Bengals. The journeyman running back carried 11 times for a game-high 70 yards and a touchdown and soon established himself as the team’s lead back.

Thriving within Kubiak’s zone-and-cut blocking system that relies heavily on stretch runs, Forsett ‒ a slenderly built tailback who uses speed and elusiveness over brute strength ‒ accumulated 1,266 yards on the ground with a league-best average of 5.4 yards per carry, and had the most 20+ yard gains (17) of any running back in the NFL.

Shuffling The Line

While Kubiak’s scheme and Forsett’s emergence in the backfield receives most of the credit for the Ravens improved running game, none of their success would be possible without sound execution up front. Again possessing one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the league, Baltimore is led by All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda, who switched positions in replacing injured right tackle Ricky Wagner (Lisfranc surgery) the last two games. John Urschel, a rookie fifth rounder, has assumed Yanda’s old position at right guard and has only four pro starts under his belt.

Aside from Yanda ‒ one of the best guards in all of football ‒ the Ravens also have one of the best kept secrets at the position at left guard. Kelechi Osemele, an absolute mauler in the run game, is also surprisingly quick and athletic even with his 6’5”, 335-pound frame. Anchoring the line is center Jeremy Zuttah, acquired in the offseason via trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to replace incumbent center Gino Gradkowski (ranked last at the position in 2013, according to the Pro Football Focus position grading metric).

Rounding out the Baltimore offensive line is starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, who missed the last two games because of an ankle injury, but returned to practice this week. His fill-in, rookie undrafted free-agent James Hurst, has struggled throughout the season in spot-duty and had a disastrous showing against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card game.

After inking a big contract in the offseason, Monroe has had a disappointing and injury-plagued season. But his availability for the game would remove the one glaring weak-spot (Hurst) along the line. It would also open up the less likely possibility of sliding Hurst to right tackle in order to move Yanda back to right guard.

To augment the blocking in the run game, the Ravens also deploy a large amount of power sets utilizing fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who will also line up at tight end on occasion and has played in 42% of the team’s offensive snaps.

What They Do and How They Do It

To no one’s surprise, the stretch run, or similar zone concepts, are the bread and butter of Kubiak’s offense. His zone-blocking system as head coach of the Houston Texans aided running back Arian Foster to a rushing title in 2010.

By influencing the defense to become overly aggressive against the hard flow of the stretch run action, the play-action pass becomes a deadly weapon for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and his receivers.

Outside Zone / Stretch Run

While it’s easy to identify the stretch run based off the blocking techniques ‒ which typically calls for each blocker to slide laterally in unison (zone concept) toward the play-side ‒ stopping it can be a difficult task for a defense.

The stretch play applies a tremendous amount of pressure on the defensive front to stay disciplined and fill gaps newly created by blockers that have moved the holes outside of their original locales. In reaction to the blocking action, cut-back lanes often emerge because of defenders flowing too aggressively to stop the perimeter run. Although the term “outside” is used to describe the stretch run, a pre-determined crease for the running back to exploit does not truly exist in the same way it does in a man-blocking run play. Depending on the success of the blocks, reaction of the defense and the read made by the ball carrier, the run direction is just as likely to go up the middle as it is to continue wide.

Using 12 personnel in an unbalanced formation with strength to the right, Baltimore executes the stretch play to the strong side with near perfection against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17:

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Forsett receives the handoff and presses wide at not-quite full speed in order to allow his blocks to develop while also looking for a potential cut-back lane.

Like with most outside zone-blocking runs, the execution of combination blocks is critical to the play. Tight ends Owen Daniels (#81) and Crockett Gillmore (#80) successfully double-team outside linebacker Paul Kruger (#99), allowing Forsett to hit the accelerator and turn the corner. Peeling off the double-team, Daniels completes the combination block on nearby defensive back Donte Whitner (#31) and leads the way for Forsett on the 27-yard gain against the Browns eight-in-the-box front.

The Ravens ran a similar stretch play with a slight wrinkle against the Steelers in their Wild Card round win. Operating out of a singleback set with three tight ends, the Ravens run the stretch to the weak side of the formation:

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The lone wide receiver involved in the play, Kamar Aiken (#11), motions from right to left to deliver a kick out block on the secondary force defender. With the other Steelers failing to set the edge and contain a perimeter run ‒ largely because of the excellent work by Daniels (#81), Hurst (#74), Osemele (#72) and Zuttah (#53) ‒ Forsett is once again able to turn the corner and pick up a nine-yard gain despite facing a loaded box.

As noted above, the Ravens will use the same blocking and handoff action but swap the stretch run with a bootleg or rollout for a play-action pass ‒ a potentially lethal combination to a defense selling out against the run.

Weak i-Formation Split Flow / Stretch

Another staple of the Baltimore offense is the split zone (or flow) run, which uses similar blocking action to the stretch on the play-side but incorporates an H-back or fullback as a backside blocker. The Ravens often use the versatile Juszczyk as a fullback out of the weak i-formation or as a pulling H-back across the formation to run the split zone.

In Week 17, the split flow run concept by Baltimore left the Cleveland defense confused. Similar to the stretch, the handoff action and initial press toward the line of scrimmage by Forsett goes wide in concert with the blockers left of center:

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But on the backside, the blocking action is an almost separate scheme altogether, as the right guard and tackle seal off their defenders. Juszczyk (#44) looks for the isolation block on the backside inside linebacker. However that linebacker, John Hughes (#93, normally a defensive lineman), chooses to flow outside, perhaps incorrectly reading play-action. With Hughes out of the picture, Juszczyk resets his target toward the nearby safety atop the loaded box.

Forsett presses wide toward the perimeter, but cuts back behind his left guard and slips in between impressive one-on-one blocks executed by Osemele (#72) and Zuttah (#53). With Juszczyk eliminating the safety with a cut block, Forsett is able to go untouched for a 32-yard gain.

By successfully running the split zone early, the Ravens are then able to pick up easy completions off play-action using the same blocking scheme, swapping the run with a QB bootleg. As Hughes can attest, it can be a difficult play for opposing defenses to read.

Patriots Must Be Ready For Ravens Run-Early Approach

While Forsett’s production dipped in December ‒ possibly a by-product of a workload that doubled his career-high in carries ‒ he and the Ravens ground game will be instrumental in the success or failure of an offense that uses a well-balanced attack (554 pass plays and 448 running plays this season).

If the Ravens manage to establish the run and work off it with play-action for gains down the field, the Patriots defense could be in for a long evening. As seen in the breakdowns above, using eight defenders in the box is not a clear-cut answer to the problem. Penetration into the backfield by the interior defensive line and patience from the linebackers corps – both on the perimeter and in the middle – will be required to smother Kubiak’s stretch run tactics.

The Patriots defense finished the regular season tied for eighth in the league in average rush allowed (4.0 yards per carry) and, according to Football Outsiders, ranked 14th in run defense efficiency. The mid-season signing of defensive lineman Alan Branch and return of defensive lineman Sealver Siliga from short-term injured reserve ‒ along with improved linebacker play ‒ has steadily improved a run defense that appeared to be a weakness through the first half of the season.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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