Players must up their game during the NFL playoffs, and for the writers here at Inside The Pylon the same rules apply. We locked Mark Schofield in his film vault with nothing but the 2014 Baltimore Ravens game film, a notepad, a Keurig machine, and his iPhone with the Rocky IV soundtrack on repeat. Nearly two days later he emerged, shaking, bleary-eyed, and clutching his notepad, which we have translated into something coherent for Part 2 of our Patriots vs Ravens passing preview (Part 1, by Dave Archibald, can be found here).
Baltimore’s Pressure Game
The Ravens sport one of the NFL’s best pass-rushes in the NFL, tallying 49 sacks in 2014. Only the Bills, with 54, topped that number. While the Baltimore front generates most of their pressure off the edges with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens utilize a few other concepts defensively to free up their pass-rushers.
Line It Up
The Ravens are a base 3-4 team with Suggs and Dumervil the primary outside linebackers, but backups Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw see a substantial amount of playing time. However, the majority of Baltimore’s defensive snaps in 2014 came using nickel personnel, with some combination of those four players lining up as defensive ends. In personnel grouping, the OLBs set themselves in a wide-9 alignment, giving them a head-start in their race against the offensive tackles to the quarterback.
Here are the OLBs in the base 3-4 defense, with McPhee (#90) and Upshaw (#91) on the line of scrimmage. Each linebacker implements a wide-9 alignment:
This frame, from Baltimore’s Week 4 clash against Carolina, also illustrates the positioning:
In The Nickel
When Baltimore brings on its nickel package, the outside linebackers again line up as defensive ends in wide-9 alignment. This is one such instance from Week 2 against Pittsburgh:
Against the Panthers, the Ravens utilized the radar concept, keeping all defenders upright prior to the snap:
Dumervil bursts into the backfield, forcing Newton to attempt an escape but the QB runs right into the waiting arms of Suggs, closing from the other side, and the two linebackers split the sack:
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Blitzes
The Ravens do not blitz a lot, primarily because of the talent within their defensive front. They readily generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks with only four rushers. However, when Baltimore brings extra defenders, it is usually a player from the secondary. In Week 3 against Cleveland, the base 3-4 defense is on the field:
Smith evades the running back’s attempt at blocking and drags down Brian Hoyer for the sack. (Note: Smith will miss the game due to injury.)
Respect the Overload
The Ravens also love the alignment and blitz combination called the “overload”. Baltimore used this against Pittsburgh in their wild card matchup and forced an interception, covered brilliantly by Brian Filipiak in this article. Back in Week 6 the Ravens forced another interception using this creative design:
Baltimore places three defenders outside of the right tackle and two more outside of the left tackle, with a single defensive lineman head-up on the center. The idea is to disguise both the attack point and the attacker. Here, the Ravens attack the B gap between left guard and left tackle. And the attacker? Strong safety Matt Elam, who is not even in the picture. The result:
Elam forces a hurried throw from Mike Glennon, which is intercepted by Smith.
I’m Stunting and Twisting
Baltimore implements two basic stunts to create matchup advantages along the defensive line: An interior twist and an edge twist.
Here is an example of the interior twist from their meeting with New Orleans:
The Ravens have a 3-3-5 nickel alignment on the field for this play,putting all six defensive front players on the line of scrimmage. Linebacker C.J. Mosley (#57) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will cross paths at the snap:
The center and the running back both collapse on Mosley, leaving the DT a free shot at Drew Brees. Ngata’s pressure forces a quick throw that falls harmlessly to the turf.
More dangerous is Baltimore’s edge twist, which the Ravens like to implement when they start an edge rusher inside. Take this example from their Week 15 meeting with Jacksonville:
McPhee starts this play lined up over the left guard, while Suggs lines up over the left tackle. At the snap Suggs crashes inside, while McPhee delays:
This hesitation convinces Jacksonville running back Jordan Todman (#30) that it is safe to release into a pass route. But McPhee quickly rounds the corner and brings down Blake Bortles, leaving a frustrated RB with nothing to do but slap his helmet in disgust.
Under Pressure? Screen ‘em to Death
One way an offense can handle pressure from a defense is to throw screen pass after screen pass. These plays slow a pass rush in a number of ways: exploiting the aggressive nature of pass rushers by drawing them upfield and away from the play; creating fatigue in the defensive front by forcing these players to chase down plays from behind; and, giving the defensive coordinator pause when calling blitzes, for fear of increasing the number of defenders drawn out of position.
In their season-opening victory over the Ravens, the Bengals threw a host of these short tosses successfully, and other teams followed suit.
Running Back Screens
This first play is from Baltimore’s Week 5 trip to Indianapolis. Andrew Luck is under center and the offense has 12 personnel on the field. The Ravens have their base 3-4 defense in the game showing Cover 2 in the secondary:
At the snap the QB retreats to throw while the offensive linemen quickly release their blocks and work upfield. Luck does a solid job of enticing the defenders forward before dumping the ball to Ahmad Bradshaw on the screen play:
Only a tremendous individual effort by Mosley prevents this play from gaining additional yardage.
Wide Receiver Screens
Offenses used another concept against Baltimore in 2014: the quick wide receiver screen. During Week 17, Cleveland has quarterback Connor Shaw in the pistol formation with 10 personnel on the field. The QB has a trips formation to his left, with WR Andrew Hawkins (#16) as the middle receiver. Baltimore counters with its nickel defense showing a soft Cover 2:
Shaw gets the ball quickly to Hawkins on the screen play. Wide receivers Taylor Gabriel (#18) and Travis Benjamin (#11) block their defenders, while left guard Joel Bitonio (#75) races downfield to chop down a linebacker:
Preventing this play from going for huge yardage is the failure of Benjamin to hold his block. Judging by his exasperated helmet grasp at the end of the play, the WR knows it too.
Tight End Screens
To get a sense of what might work against a defense, pay particular attention to what their division rivals throw at them. Teams most familiar with an opponent often know what works – and what doesn’t.
Both the Bengals and the Steelers implemented a third type of screen play: the tight end screen. Here is one example, from Week 2:
Pittsburgh TE Heath Miller blocks Dumervil for a split second, then releases into the flat for a screen pass. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (#77) delays for a moment, then speeds upfield to eliminate linebacker Daryl Smith (#51). Miller takes the easy throw from Ben Roethlisberger and cuts off of Gilbert’s block for a 10-yard gain.
This sequence, from Baltimore’s season-opener against Cincinnati, also illustrates the concept:
Here, the Bengals run the screen play to tight end Jermaine Gresham. The entire left side of the line peels out in front of the TE, who rips off an easy 12-yard gain on the play.
Because of the success of the plays shown above, expect the Patriots to throw a number of screen passes Saturday, including one or two to their All-Pro tight end.
Cover 2 and the Gronkowski Dilemma
Whether because of their talent up front or their injuries in the secondary, Baltimore runs a great deal of Cover 2 in the defensive backfield. By dropping a second safety deep, the defense can keep big plays in the passing game to a minimum and give their cornerbacks help from the safeties on most passing routes. The Ravens used Cover 2 in their wild card matchup against the Steelers to give their CBs help deep against Antonio Brown:
Safety Darian Stewart (#24) is in perfect position to rotate to the sideline and defend this play:
The main weakness in Cover 2 – and the reason teams moved away from the scheme with the rise of three WR sets – is the deep middle between the two safeties. A defense can try to limit the danger posed from an interior WR by using Tampa 2 coverage, but that also has its limitations:
Trying to cover Brown deep is a tough assignment for any linebacker.
Enter Rob Gronkowski. The tight end returned from last season’s ACL injury and turned in a stellar campaign, catching 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns while earning unanimous All-Pro selection. The big TE is a dangerous weapon over the middle on seam routes, which places Baltimore in a precarious position with respect to its Cover 2 scheme. If the Ravens stay with Cover 2, they will need exceptional play and discipline from their linebackers:
This response from Denver reflects anything but discipline. The linebackers both bite on the play-action fake, giving Gronkowski and Brady a big throwing window against Denver’s Cover 2.
Also, things like this can happen:
The issue for the Ravens is whether to stay in Cover 2 and risk plays like this, or roll to Cover 1 and try to cover Gronkowski one-on-one with a linebacker or safety. Cover 2 might limit damage deep, but it exposes the soft middle of the field to New England’s most dominant receiving threat.
A final word on the Gronkowski Dilemma: To Chip or Not to Chip. Teams have largely allowed the TE a free release off the line of scrimmage this season, sacrificing a jam on the TE for pass rush effectiveness. Given how well Baltimore generates pressure, the Ravens may also choose to give Gronkowski a free ride off the line. But buyer beware.
For the Patriots, the Baltimore Ravens represent a familiar foe. Saturday brings the third playoff meeting between these teams in the past four seasons. New England knows what to expect from this defense, and while there may be a wrinkle or two, the film does not lie. Baltimore will try to generate pressure on Brady with its talented front, while attempting to limit the damage in the secondary using Cover 2. If the Patriots contain the pass rush, slow it a bit with the screen game, and attack the Cover 2 using their All-Pro tight end, the AFC Championship Game will kick off in Foxboro the following Sunday.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.