Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
01 Nov 2006
by Michael David Smith
New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush was held to just 16 rushing yards on five carries in Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but that's no surprise. Bush has struggled to run all season -- in fact, his average Sunday of 3.2 yards a carry was actually a little better than his average for the season as a whole.
What is surprising is the way Baltimore dominated the rest of the New Orleans offense. Bush's backfield mate, Deuce McAllister, was averaging nearly five yards a carry this year, but the Ravens shut him down to the tune of just 11 yards on five carries. Quarterback Drew Brees was a league MVP candidate with just four interceptions in six games, but the Ravens picked him off three times. The Ravens swarmed the Saints from the very beginning, jumping out to an early lead as the Saints' first four drives consisted of two interceptions, a fumble, and a three-and-out.
The key to the game was the Saints' complete inability to account for the Ravens' linebackers. An examination of those linebackers on every play against the Saints shows two young and versatile players on the outside in Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas, and a middle linebacker in Ray Lewis who is playing at a higher level than he has in the past couple of years, though still not in the same class as he was when he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2000.
Thomas is like a chameleon. Lines him up on the line of scrimmage and he attacks the quarterback like a defensive end. Line him up as much 10 yards off the line and he covers wide receivers like a safety. He's very tough against the run but quick enough to keep up if he's called on to defend downfield passes. He's also the gunner on the Ravens' punt team. Sometimes it just seems unfair for a 270-pounder to move like Thomas does.
On New Orleans' second play from scrimmage, Thomas lined up at left outside linebacker, and the Saints called a swing pass. That call required receiver Joe Horn to pick Thomas and keep him on the inside so Bush could take the pass and go to the outside. For future reference, I have a message for any NFL offensive coordinators reading this: Your wide receivers can't block Adalius Thomas. Horn never had a chance of stopping Thomas, and Thomas burst into the backfield to tackle Bush for a loss of five.
As a pass rusher, Thomas sacked Brees once and hit him as he was throwing four times. The Saints usually assigned McAllister to blitz pickup, but he struggled with Thomas. On the first play of New Orleans' second drive, Thomas came on a blitz and McAllister tried to pick it up. Although McAllister did impede Thomas enough for Brees to throw, Thomas hit Brees just as he released the ball and brought him to the ground. On a later play, Thomas blitzed to the outside, pushed through McAllister, and hit Brees as he passed, forcing a bad throw that rookie safety Dawan Landry (who looks like one of the steals of this year's draft) intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
On a second-and-11 in the third quarter, Brees dropped back to pass, couldn't find anyone open, and took off running, gaining seven yards. Brees looked in the direction of wide receiver Marques Colston, but Thomas had Colston covered. Linebackers rarely drop into man coverage on wide receivers, but Thomas did a fine job of it. On the next play Thomas was back to his typical outside linebacker position, and he covered tight end Mark Campbell like a blanket, allowing Campbell to catch the pass but tackling him immediately for three yards on third-and-4, leading to a New Orleans punt.
Thomas frustrated the Saints' passing game, so New Orleans tried to get Thomas out of position with some misdirection plays. On one such play, all the action went to the left, but Campbell slipped out to the right and was wide open in the flat. Thomas showed good closing speed in leaving the player he had been covering, fullback Mike Karney, and getting to Campbell after a gain of only eight yards. I can't say for sure whether Thomas was out of position in allowing Campbell to make the catch or whether Campbell was someone else's responsibility, but I can say he limited Campbell to eight yards on a play that could have gone for a lot more.
Unlike most teams, who move one outside linebacker to the strong side on every play and the other outside linebacker to the weak side, the Ravens keep Scott on the right and Thomas on the left because they think having Scott, who has a very quick first step, on the blind side of a right-handed quarterback makes a big impact on their pass rush.
Scott got off to a furious start this season, with five sacks in the Ravens' first three games. Since then teams have begun adjusting to him, putting a tight end on Scott's side of the field to force him to line up farther to the outside and have a tougher angle when to rushes. When the Saints did that, Scott often dropped into coverage instead of blitzing. Scott isn't as effective in coverage as he is rushing the passer, so I think teams will continue to line up tight ends on their left against the Ravens.
Overall, Scott wasn't as effective as Thomas as a pass rusher on Sunday, but he did play the run extremely well. On New Orleans' first play, Scott shoved aside the lead-blocking fullback, Karney, to tackle McAllister for a gain of just a yard. On a fourth-and-2 run up the middle by Aaron Stecker, Scott made a quick move into New Orleans' backfield, and center Jeff Faine had to hold him to keep him from stuffing Stecker. The holding penalty on Faine negated what would have been a first down.
Lewis is still the biggest name on the Ravens' defense, but at age 31 he's clearly past his prime. Still, he played an active role Sunday, especially in pass coverage. When New Orleans tried a trick play with Bush throwing a pass, Lewis lined up about five yards off the line of scrimmage. He initially pursued to his left when it looked like Bush would run, but he read the pass and ran back to the end zone to get into position to make the interception.
On one Bush run around the right end, Ed Reed forced Bush out of bounds for a loss of three before Bush could turn the corner. Lewis was following Reed in pursuit, but Bush would have run past Lewis if Reed hadn't been there. I don't know if there was ever a time that Lewis was fast enough to keep up with Bush, but if there was, that time has passed. Still, Lewis makes his share of tackles in pursuit. On a second-and-4 in the second quarter, Lewis lined up over the right guard. He seemed to recognize something just before the snap, because he started on a run blitz before the snap and made a beeline for the left tackle, which is exactly where Bush was going when he took the handoff. Lewis stopped Bush for no gain.
Bush's best play of the day was a five-yard run on first-and-10 in the second quarter. On that play, Lewis and Scott were lined up as inside linebackers, and Bush ran directly up the middle. New Orleans guard Jahri Evans blocked Scott, and center Jeff Faine blocked Lewis. Although Lewis did shed Faine's block to tackle Bush, he did it after a five-yard gain, and Lewis didn't show the kind of speed in filling the hole that he would have a few years ago. If you want to beat the Ravens on the ground, running directly at Lewis is the way to do it.
But running isn't the best way to attack the Ravens' defense. From watching Sunday's game, it seems to me that offenses that line up in a max-protect alignment, perhaps keeping as many as eight players in to block, could have success against Baltimore by giving the quarterback time to set up in the pocket and throw to the receiver deep. I think both of Baltimore's cornerbacks, Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, have their best days behind them, and while Reed is a very good player, he's at his best when he's playing aggressively, rather than when he's forced to stay back to try to stop the deep pass. The Saints did manage several long completions against Baltimore, and not all in garbage time, either. I also think short passes over the middle to tight ends can exploit the fact that Lewis is a step slow. Finding flaws in the Ravens' defense isn't easy, but the best strategies are the ones that neutralize the stars, and on the Ravens' defense, that means Thomas and Scott.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
41 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2006, 11:12pm by Anthony