by Ben Muth
There are a lot of things going on in the news and off the field surrounding the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens. But if you've ever read this column before, you probably guessed that's not what we're going to be talking about today. We're here to talk about what happened on Sunday, and more specifically, what happened with Baltimore's offensive line. The other stuff is important, but you can find plenty about that in other places. We're going to keep it on the field here.
All things considered, I thought the Ravens offensive line played pretty well. It was their first game under a new offensive coordinator. They were trying to integrate a new right tackle and center in the lineup (Ricky Wagner was on the roster but didn't start last year; Jeremy Zuttah came from Tampa Bay). The Bengals have a good front seven and, under a new defensive coordinator, were pretty aggressive with stunts and blitzes throughout the game. Considering all that, a slow start would've been understandable, and while I'm sure there are things they are disappointed in, I think the line showed enough to get me excited for their season.
Before we get into the positives, let's dispense with some negative. I thought Marshal Yanda played a below-average game. Yanda is supposed to be a rock at right guard, but he was just OK in the running game and I thought he looked indecisive picking up blitzes in the passing game. There were too many times where Yanda would bounce between two guys, blocking one rusher for a second before trying to come off onto another. As a result he would confuse his teammates (when he had help) or, instead of allowing one unblocked rusher (due to the limits of a protection scheme), he would try to get a piece of two men and effectively block zero. Baltimore has to hope this was an aberration from Yanda and not an early sign he could be on the decline.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Kelechi Osemele. I thought he looked good in the running game; he reached guys when he had to and looked very good at the second level. He didn't just block linebackers, he abused them at times. He was also almost perfect in pass protection. The only pressure I can recall him being a part of was when he stepped on Eugene Monroe's foot on a twist, which caused Monroe to fall down and led to the defensive tackle hurrying Joe Flacco.
Osemele's job was probably a little easier than Yanda's in the sense that Yanda was usually stuck on the often overmatched man side of the protection trying to decipher who the most dangerous rusher might be and taking them one on one, while Osemele was usually involved in a slide where he just had to protect a gap. Still, at the end of the day you just have to do the job they give you, and that's exactly what Osemele did.
Keeping with the positive, the Ravens' first touchdown was the result of having the perfect play for the defense that Cincinnati had called. Flacco looked like he changed the play at the line (or at least went to the second play call from the huddle, after the motion) so he gets just as much credit as Gary Kubiak does. The play itself is simple enough -- it's just toss crunch out of a bunch formation (I bet 25 of 32 NFL teams have it in the playbook somewhere) -- but when you dial it up at the right time, every play looks great.
Baltimore started in a five-wide formation with four receivers to the right. They motioned Justin Forsett (who ran well all game) into a standard single-back alignment. This left them with a trips bunch to the right and a single receiver to the left. The key to the audible is that Bengals were showing an overload blitz to the offense's left. It was easy enough to see before the snap (just look at all the bodies over there) and it allowed Flacco to get into the play. The blocking scheme has the two outside wide receivers of the bunch block down, while the inside receiver pulls and kicks out the force player, and the play-side tackle leads up through the alley. The rest of the line just blocks like it is outside zone to the right.
Here it is drawn up from the end zone camera. The Bengals really do have a funky blitz called here. They're blitzing four from the weak side, and the only rusher on the strong side is the looping nose tackle. On top of dropping the strong-side defensive end, they have popped another lineman (No. 95 Wallace Gilberry) back to linebacker. Gilberry has to break hard right at the snap to cover all that vacated space from the blitz, and as you'll see this essentially takes him out of the play.
Typically, the biggest downside of toss bunch crunch is that you end up with skill players on defensive ends and linebackers. Here that's still the case, but the defenders happen to start the play by taking a couple of steps away from the hole. As a result, Jacoby Jones gets a very good seal on Margus Hunt. Steve Smith sees that Gilberry is so far out of the play (circled in red in Frame 3, and unable to make a play despite going totally unblocked) that he decides to just blast Hunt in the ribs (yellow arrowed and doubled over in the third frame), because Steve Smith doesn't care how big you are, he will hurt you if he gets a chance. The man has already threatened to take your spork, what else does he have to do before you fear him?
[ad placeholder 3]
The star of this play, other than the call itself, is Dennis Pitta. Pitta didn't have a lot of success when Baltimore ran behind him (one of Baltimore's biggest halftime adjustments seemed to be a decision to focus on running to the weak side much more often), but he was great here. A lot of times the kick-out guy will run in a straight line, right at the force defender. That's OK but not ideal. What you want to do is attack just outside the defender to widen him. The force defender knows that he cannot let the runner outside him, so he'll widen with you (within reason of course) and create an alley on his own. If you run straight at him, he'll meet you head on, and then you will have to drive him out with brute force. Pitta does a great job of widening the defensive back before he even blocks him.
Wagner leads up through a huge hole, and there's not a safety in the league that can fill a hole that big with an offensive tackle coming at him. Once he's through the hole, Forsett just outruns everyone to the pylon. It was a perfect call, well executed.
Really though, it took till about halfway through the third quarter before Baltimore fans finally got a taste of what Gary Kubiak wants the offense to look like: running the outside zone effectively and throwing the ball off of it. We'll take a look at a few plays from a third-quarter drive that illustrate how great this type of offense can look when it's going good.
In the first half, Baltimore's rushing offense was alright, but they had some trouble with the Bengals' slanting defensive linemen. Cincy's stunting caused too much penetration and stopped a couple of plays before they could really get going. I'm not sure if Baltimore's line was just more alert for stunts in the second half or if the coaches told them to alter their line calls to reach further play side to make it easier to pass off any slanters, but I thought the Ravens handled movement much better as the game wore on.
The biggest misconception of zone blocking is that everyone just sets out on a path and takes whatever comes to them. You can do that, but everything will end up soft and mushy up front, making it difficult to make any real yards. What zone blocking is closer to, is a series of combination blocks decided upon by the offensive line before the snap.
In the shot above, the left guard has essentially two options. He can help the center with the defensive tackle on his inside shoulder before moving up to the play-side linebacker, or he can work with the left tackle from the defensive end to the linebacker. Essentially what the front side has to get accomplished is blocking the two down linemen and the linebacker; how they do it is up to them.
Most teams would have the center and guard work together because of the defensive tackle's alignment and let the offensive tackle handle the outside-shaded defensive end by himself. In fact, that's the way the Ravens handled this type of alignment early in the game. That's because it's a hard block for a center to reach a defensive tackle playing a 2I (inside shade of the guard) without any help and you don't want to allow too much penetration in the play-side A gap. But Baltimore instead goes with the tackle and guard working together, leaving the center with a helluva block, if the Bengals play it straight up.
But the Bengals don't play it straight up, they slant, and the Ravens fall right into it. Monroe gives a little hand help to the guard before climbing to the second level (notice how he keeps his outside hand free, allowing him to keep his shoulders square so he can climb to the second level easily), Osemele hooks the slanting defensive end with ease, and Zuttah is able to reach the defenst who seemed to play heavier inside than is typical for a defensive tackle reading outside zone, but that can probably be explained by the fact that the defensive tackle knows there's someone slanting inside.
Again, I'm not sure if the coaching staff made an adjustment at the half and told their guys to err on the side of pushing all combos towards the play side, or if Monroe sniffed out the slant before the snap and called the guard to come with him. But how they got into the combinations is irrelevant really; all that counts is that they were effective and led to a 10-yard gain.
The very next play the Ravens went to the outside zone again. This time it was from the I-formation, but again they went to the weak side.
The key block here is that the fullback has to hold his own with a player that is on the line of scrimmage at the snap and can see the play develop easily. If the fullback can hold his own at the point of attack, the offensive line has some great angles on their blocks.
On the two combination blocks on this play, both of the O-linemen trying to climb to the second level again do a great job of helping the trail linemen with just a single hand. They're able to stop the defensive line's momentum without getting so involved in the block that they won't be able to come off on the linebackers.
Unfortunately, the fullback doesn't really even get a stalemate. The outside linebacker attacks him in the backfield and stuffs them when they meet. That forces Forsett to make his cutback too soon. Because Forsett has to throttle down almost immediately after he gets the ball, the defense doesn't flow nearly as much as you would hope.
But luckily for the Ravens, Monroe gets a hell of a cut block. He was helped by Osemele holding the defensive lineman up for a time, but Monroe does a great job firing through the defender's play side leg and taking him off his feet. That allows Forsett to squirt thought a little crease for a solid gain of five.
And that's the great thing about the zone stretch scheme when you get it going good. You don't have to be perfect everywhere, and you can even afford to have a blocker or two get it handed to them a little bit, as long as you're good on the backside. If you can consistently cut people down, there's always going be yards in the outside zone play (and money in the banana stand).
Once you get the stretch going it's only a matter of time before you can start bootlegging off of it. After a few passing plays following the two runs above, the Ravens were left with a fourth-and-1. They called a naked boot and had the misfortune of running it against the worst possible defense.
You can see that the Bengals have a walked up blitzer outside the tight end. That means he's going to be completely unblocked, and if he doesn't bite on the fake, Flacco will have essentially no chance to get a decent pass off.
But because the Ravens had been running the ball effectively on this drive (and the fact that it was fourth-and-1), the blitzer bites hard on the play fake and Flacco is able to get outside with ease.
Considering they need just one yard, Flacco has three options here. He can throw it down the field to the wide-open crossing route. He can dump it off to the fullback. Or he can just take it himself. He ends up taking it himself (the safest option, though the one that will yield the fewest yards) for a gain of three.
[ad placeholder 4]
With the way things ended in Texas, it became easy to rag on Gary Kubiak's offense as uncreative and maybe a bit old-fashioned. And while I think the play-calling got a little stale in Houston, I still love watching this offense when it is rolling on all cylinders. It's a great running scheme, and other than some stuff that Chip Kelly is doing in Philadelphia, I'm still not sure there's a better offense to get guys open deep off of play action. It just looks great when it works, and I think Baltimore has a chance to run it successfully this year.
I guess I should address that the game ended with two straight sacks by the Bengals. To that I say, one coverage sack and one where they brought more than the Ravens could block (though it was another incident of Yanda blocking none instead of one). There isn't really much to say. It happens. See you next week.