Word of Muth: Banged-Up Ravens Beat Steelers
by Ben Muth
The Ravens beat the Steelers last Saturday night to advance to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. The game won't be remembered as well as some of their past conflicts, but it was probably the second best game of an ugly weekend of wild-card football.
A big story going into the game was how banged up the Baltimore offensive line was. With both tackles (Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner) out with injuries, it was only natural to worry about Baltimore holding up on the edge of the line of scrimmage.
First, I want to tip my hat to Gary Kubiak. He had two rookies starting up front (including an undrafted kid at left tackle) and a right guard playing offensive tackle (with Marshal Yanda sliding outside a spot from his typical right guard spot). That's not a scenario in which any offensive coordinator wants to find himself, particularly in the postseason. Kubiak did a nice job of changing up protection schemes to help his offensive tackles in the passing game. The Ravens kept tight ends in, chipped with backs, and moved the pocket, all in an effort to make sure their tackles weren't exposed too much on the edge.
In particular, he asked a lot from his tight ends in pass protection. It seemed like either Owen Daniels or Crockett Gilmore (great name, by the way) stayed in to pass protect every play. They used a couple of different protection schemes that utilized the extra man on the line of scrimmage to keep Pittsburgh off balance (full slide, half-slide away from the tight end, half-slide towards the tight end, straight man protection) but more important than the schemes themselves was just keeping a constant additional presence at the end of the line of scrimmage.
This is from Baltimore's first third-and-long of the game. They leave Owen Daniels on an island (they send a back over there, but his first responsibility is to pick up blitzers, only looking to help if no one comes) and slide the rest of the line away. The tight end is the only player without any help and Daniels handles himself well. It is a good sign of things to come.
It may seem unsound to leave your tight end on an island a lot; after all, James Hurst (the undrafted rookie playing for Eugene Monroe at left tackle) and Marshal Yanda (playing out of position at right tackle) are almost certainly better pass blockers than Owen Daniels. But tight ends have a built-in advantage in that they usually don't block edge rushers -- or, to put it a better way, pass rushers don't usually rush against tight ends.
Pass rushing is as much about timing as anything else: timing the snap for a good get-off, then timing your move to avoid a blocker's hands or knock them down. Edge guys get tons of reps working moves and rushes against offensive tackles (particularly on offensive tackles trying to protect a spot 7 to 10 yards directly behind the center); they get far fewer reps working against tight ends who are aligned right over the top of them. As a resul,t their timing is all thrown off when they get blocked immediately by a tight end. Now, they're still professional pass rushers so they can still counter and get to the quarterback (plus, the more you block with your tight ends in a game, the more edge rushers are prepared to rush against them), but it's a great change-up to use, particularly if you're unsure of your tackles. I'm not sure Baltimore will be able to lean on the tight ends by themselves in New England on Saturday, but they'll have to be ready to play a key role in the passing game again.
Before moving on, I want to give one last tip of the hat to Baltimore's tight ends. Kubiak deserves a lot of credit for using them in protection, but at the same time, it was Daniels and Gilmore who actually had to block guys out there. They weren't perfect, but they fought like hell and allowed the offense to make plays. It wasn't just the passing game either; I thought Baltimore got a lot of their tight ends (and fullback) in the run game as well.
Owen Daniels at tight end on the play side does a great job to get the edge here. He gets a good release and makes sure to bang James Harrison (92) onto left tackle James Hurst before climbing to the second level and picking up the linebacker. Exactly what you're looking for from a tight end on the outside zone.
Also, notice the right guard John Urschel (the other rookie starting this game) cutting off the backside. It turned out not to matter much, because Daniels and Hurst were so good on the edge, but he does his job well and gives Justin Forsett another place to go. I thought Urschel played well throughout the game, actually.
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The other rookie starting up front for Baltimore did not fare as well. James Hurst struggled at left tackle, particularly in pass protection. If you go back up to the first GIF in this column you'll get a decent indication of the type of night he had. Hurst was constantly bull rushed by James Harrison into Joe Flacco's lap. I'm not sure Baltimore will be able to survive another performance like Saturday's from Hurst in Foxboro.
The other offensive lineman that had kind of a rough go of it on Sunday was the center, Jeremy Zuttah. On the first drive of the game he got knocked back by the nose tackle into Joe Flacco and tripped up the quarterback for a loss of 6. Zuttah had a couple of plays where a defensive tackle would get way too much penetration on an outside zone play. It's not ideal but it happens sometimes. Zuttah's game looked a little worse than it was. The center did some good things as well. I thought he held up in pass protection and had a lot of success blocking at the second level. The negative plays are worrisome, but the center certainly did more good than bad this weekend; it's just that the bad looked really bad.
Player of the game up front for Baltimore was probably Kelechi Osemele. He played well throughout the game, in both phases, but what stands out is that he made the key blocks on two different Ravens touchdowns. On Bernard Pierce's scoring run, Osemele did a great job completely covering up the backside defensive tackle on an outside zone, allowing Pierce to cut off right his block for the score (also kudos to Steve Smith for his cut block on this play).
The other play was on Torrey Smith's 11-yard touchdown catch. Hurst got beat around the edge on the play, but at the last second Osemele did his best Han Solo impersonation and blasted the edge rusher just before he got to Flacco. It was the type of block that was so important that even the announcers noticed it and gave credit to the Iowa State grad during the broadcast.
With Eugene Monroe out, Yanda playing out of position, and Zuttah having some struggles, Baltimore needed someone to consistently win up front for them, and Osemele gave them that. It wasn't just big blocks on touchdowns either; it seemed like Osemele was always the blocker who moved his man just enough, or reached his man, to give Forsett a bit of running room. Take this outside zone play from the second quarter.
A lot of people are doing their job for Baltimore in this play. On the edge to the offense's right, the linebacker is not going to be reached, so Daniels does a good job of widening him. At right guard Urschel does a decent job of covering up his man; he doesn't reach him, which would have been ideal, but this was certainly good enough. At center, Jeremy Zuttah helps out Urschel before climbing and getting a block at the second level. He doesn't make it look easy -- he didn't make anything look easy all night, in fact -- but he gets the block.
But the hole is there because Osemele gets his guy on the ground. At left guard he takes a poor first step (he doesn't gain any ground with it; look at Hurst at left tackle for a good first step on the backside of a zone), but from there he gets low and explodes through the defender's back leg. Ideally, he would get to the defender's front leg, but he can't (probably because of the shitty first step), so he has to make up for it with athleticism. This isn't a cut block where you get in front of the guy, fall over, and hope the defender trips over you (known as the coffee table cut). Osemele runs right through the defender's leg and kicks it out from under him like a well struck bowling pin. Pretty to watch.
Before we go, I just want to point out what getting guys on the ground (like the play above) early in the game can do.
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Another outside zone play, but this time both players on the backside miss their cut blocks. Still, the play gained 8 yards, hitting in the same spot from the previous play. Why is that? Well, look at the defensive tackle.
As the play develops he recognizes he's about to get cut again. So he starts subtly retreating to protect his legs. He starts reaching for Osemele before the guard goes for the cut, or before he even gets there. All this slows down the nose tackle just enough so that he can't make a play. Even the threat of the cut block can slow down a defense enough to open up a crease and lead to a nice gain.
Obviously the real key block on this play is Urschel and Zuttah really handling the 3-technique on the play side. But because Osemele had success earlier in the game cutting people, he put in their minds to watch out for it, and made them play a step slow. He made it so -- to paraphrase Baltimore legend Omar Little -- even if he missed, he couldn't miss.