by Andy Benoit
The Ravens wouldn’t be here without Joe Flacco, the fifth-year pro who has caught fire down the stretch. Flacco is not quite having a playoff run for the ages, but he’s responding to the challenge of spearheading this Ravens offense. And, as we’ve reviewed many times this season, running this Ravens offense is no small task.
1. Facing San Francisco’s D
It’s no secret that the 49ers will play man coverage with two deep safeties for most of this game. That’s what they’ve done all season. Man coverage is also what teams have played against the Ravens all season. It was very telling that, even after Aqib Talib left the AFC Championship with a hamstring injury, Bill Belichick elected to stay in two-man. Yes, the Ravens wound up torching New England’s degenerated secondary, but the fact that Belichick was willing to stick with that coverage tells you how he felt about the Ravens receivers.
Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are not good against tight man coverage. Neither of them is physically strong, and both have trouble maintaining efficiency in their breaks. Smith showed in the first half against Denver that he’s capable of rising up and disproving this, but he also showed in the second half of that game, and both halves of the AFC title game, that he can be completely eliminated by an underneath man defender who has safety help over the top. That’s how the Niners will play him this Sunday.
The big question is whether Anquan Boldin can win his one-on-one matchup against Carlos Rogers -- both outside and from the slot. Boldin doesn’t necessarily need to get a lot of separation in order to make catches, but he does need a little extra time to execute his routes. That was problematic at times earlier in the year when Flacco was clearly uncomfortable throwing with bodies around him. Lately, however, the strong-armed Flacco has been calmer in the pocket, which has allowed him to make plays late in the down, when Boldin thrives.
One concern with two-man is that it can open up scrambling lanes for the quarterback. Flacco isn’t a mobile guy, per se, but he’s a better mover in space than people might realize. And it’s likely that he’ll have to move often. Right tackle Michael Oher could struggle with the explosive Ahmad Brooks in pass protection. On the left side, tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Kelechi Osemele will have their hands full with the stunts and twists of Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
2. "Man Beaters"
An ongoing complaint about Cam Cameron’s (and now Jim Caldwell’s) offense is that it doesn’t do enough to help its players against man coverage. Part of that is because the Ravens have a lot of faith in Flacco’s ability to make tough throws into small windows, both outside the numbers and downfield. But another part of it is, frankly, just bad offensive design.
Hopefully the Ravens used the extra week of preparation for this game to install more man-beating concepts in their offense. Simple pre-snap motion can be a good man-beater. So can intertwined crossing patterns, due to the pick effect. A lot of times, an offense can beat man coverage by simply aligning in the right kind of bunch formation. The Ravens did this a few times (but not many) at New England.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
3. The X-factors
There are two X-factors in Baltimore’s passing game: Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta. In man coverage, the Niners almost always put NaVorro Bowman on the running back and Patrick Willis on the tight end. Athletically, Willis should be able to hang with the lithe Pitta. If he can be physical with Pitta early in the route, he’ll win. (All the more reason for Baltimore to help Pitta in ways like they did in the graphic above.)
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Baltimore's focal point needs to be Rice. He’s a very good route runner out of the backfield. It makes sense to use him that way because if you keep him in as a help-blocker (an area in which he’s struggled a lot this year), you’re inviting Bowman to come on a green dog blitz, which is something he's quite good at. By sending him out, you’re forcing Bowman to react to your most dynamic ball-handler.
A great way to feed Rice would be with screen passes. Screens are easy to run against man coverage because blockers only have to identify one player in the box: the running back’s man defender. With Osemele and Marshal Yanda, the Ravens have guards who are athletic enough to get out in front and locate the safety.
4. The run game
Rice’s touches can’t come strictly through the air. Even though the 49ers are tough to run against, it’s important that the Ravens stay committed to the ground. They have an excellent zone-blocking scheme; they have the game’s best lead-blocker in Vonta Leach, and they have an elite cutback runner in Rice along with a surprisingly effective off-tackle ballcarrier in Bernard Pierce. That’s simply too many assets to overlook.
What’s more, a viable run game would make play-action more effective. It’s totally untrue that an offense must establish the run in order to set up play-action. Iif the play-action motion is well-executed up front, the defenders will react; in a lot of schemes, the defenders are obligated to react. A potent run game can makes play-action all the more dynamic though. The Ravens are a big-play offense predicated on vertical routes. Many of their shot plays come off long play-action rollouts from base personnel. In fact, expect a heavy dose of play-action bombs in the first half. That’s how the Ravens can establish an early lead, which might be their best chance at stopping San Francisco’s ground game on the other side.