The Baltimore Ravens captured their first win of 2015 in Week 4, overcoming a 13-point deficit before squeaking it out in overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Twice, the Ravens defense delivered key fourth down stops in their own territory during the extra quarter. Brian Filipiak looks at how the Ravens defense cracks down on the QB sweep.
The first of those crucial fourth down defensive stands occurred on the opening series of overtime after the Pittsburgh offense moved the ball down to the Baltimore 39. Following an incomplete pass on 3rd and 2, the Steelers elected to go for it after a timeout, once again putting the ball in the hands of backup quarterback Michael Vick – not All-Pro running back Leveon Bell, who had accumulated over 120 yards on the ground.
Empty Crack Sweep
Out of an empty shotgun, the Steelers deploy an oddball 31 personnel grouping consisting of two fullbacks aligned as tight ends, plus an eligible offensive lineman split wide right. Bell (#26) lines up in the left slot with tight end Heath Miller (#83) split wide on the same side.
The Ravens counter the semi-spread formation by using a 4-4 defensive front and have both corners playing off-coverage with a single-high safety behind them. Defensive end / outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (#58) walks out to cover the slot receiver.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley calls the empty crack sweep to the left / weak side. Here’s a look at the design concept of this QB keeper:
The key to this play is the crack-back block by Miller, who will come in motion just prior to the snap and seal off the unsuspecting DE (Kapron Lewis-Moore, #95) on the line of scrimmage. With Lewis-Moore accounted for by the crack block, left tackle Kelvin Beachum (#68) can pull frontside to lead the way on the QB sweep. The motion toward center by Miller should also cause cornerback Jimmy Smith (#22) to follow, potentially eliminating a defender in the target area of the run before the play even starts.
Furthermore, the heavy alignment on the right side of the formation complete with backup tackle Alejandro Villanueva (#78) lined up at wide receiver, should, in theory, make the Ravens concerned with a sweep to the strong and wide side of the field.
Cracking Down On The Empty Crack Sweep
But even good offensive theories can look really bad when a defense plays it right:
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Well-disciplined on the play, the Ravens defense sniffs out the QB sweep, with several defenders swarming to Vick for the takedown. Very little works well here for the Steelers as Vick can barely even make it back to the line of scrimmage. There are a few reasons why the plays fails so miserably, but it starts upfront:
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Off the snap, the left side of the offensive line all step laterally toward the sideline, like they would on a stretch play. Vick, too, receives the ball and immediately sweeps left – presenting no counter step to possibly false step the defenders. In turn, the Ravens, particularly at the second level, key off this movement and begin to flow to the play side in a controlled manner.
The motioning Miller does position himself for the crack block on Lewis-Moore, but, in doing so, he also contacts the pull-blocking Beachum on the way by – delaying the left tackle’s ability to get out and upfield.
But it is the strong performance by Lewis-Moore that truly allows the Ravens defense to succeed. Despite facing both the oncoming backside block from Miller and a reach block from left guard Ramon Foster (#73), the defensive end manages to bull his way into the backfield, resetting the line of scrimmage and forcing Vick to step back before turning the corner. These extra inches are precious as they equate to that much-needed extra split-second for the flowing linebackers to enhance their positioning.
With the defensive line winning at the point of attack, the second level defenders finish the job. First, Dumervil takes on the block from Bell and moves laterally toward the run action while engaged for about three steps. Behind him, Jimmy Smith, who did not overreact to Miller’s pre-snap motion and quickly pivoted back into position, shuffles toward the sideline to fill the outside running lane, using Dumervil as a shield. At the same time, ILB C.J. Mosley (#57) scrapes over to fill the inside running lane and shoots through the opening.
Bell peels off the his block on Dumervil to deliver a hard shoulder to Mosley, knocking him to the ground. But the Ravens still have the numbers in their favor. The pull-blocking Beachum – Vick’s last hope to clear some room – is unable to account for the flock of Ravens heading his way.
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First, the 49ers have a significant alignment advantage over the Saints overloaded defense to the right of QB Alex Smith, who runs the sweep left for a 28-yard TD. The crack block on the DE is much more efficient on the play, and the left tackle is much quicker getting out and up on the pull. In fact, the textbook crack block also allows the left guard to sprint into the second level to join the blocking convoy in front of Smith. For a little more on this particular play, check out the breakdown by James Light Football.
Back To The Action
After the 4th and 2 stop, the Baltimore offense proceeded to go three and out, placing their defense back onto the field. Faced with another fourth and short on the series, the Ravens defense once again held strong, forcing a second straight turnover on downs. Afterwards, their offense finally broke through with a game-winning field goal. The Baltimore defense, which has undergone major changes in personnel over recent years and lost OLB Terrell Suggs to injury for the season, delivered two critical defensive stands in overtime against their heated rival, evading the dreaded, often insurmountable, 0-4 start and keeping playoff hopes alive.
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 NFL Game Pass.