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Keeping Burrow Confused the Key to Bouncing Back vs Bengals

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By: RSR Staff

RSR’s Dev Panchwagh & Nikhil Mehta are tag-teaming Battle Plans in 2023.

Play action and Boot Action from Under Center

When the Ravens offense struggles, some of the issues can be attributed to inconsistency and lack of continuity in play calling and design. Take for instance last week against the Cleveland Browns. It seemed like the offense was clicking early, in particular with a continuous attack approach from under center. They lined up in run-heavy looks and used play action and boot action to get Lamar Jackson on the move. One play, a back side screen to running back Keaton Mitchell, was maybe the best play of the day. It was so beautifully designed and executed, it left everyone wondering A. where were these screens before and B. where did it go after?

In general, it was an odd shift to see offensive coordinator Todd Monken abandon the play-action game that was so effective early for more shotgun. It seemed to make the offense more predictable and static for a Cleveland defense that was already so formidable.

Against the Bengals, a team that is giving up the eighth most EPA/play against single back formations, it makes sense to get back to this line of attack. Mixing in the play fakes, forcing Cincinnati to navigate the noise, is also a way to keep them from dictating the terms from their sub packages (more on this later). It’s also a way to give linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson more to think about instead of enabling them to fly off the ball, when they are at their best and most instinctive.

Protect the Blind Side

Employing a mix of play action and boot action from run-based formations and looks, even from 11, can also help protect a depleted left side of the offensive line. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is missing this game and starting left guard John Simpson is listed as questionable. Meanwhile, the Bengals got good news with the always dangerous Trey Hendrickson ready to plan after hyperextending his knee against the Texans. He has been a force this year, leading the Bengals with 50 pressures, a top-5 mark leaguewide along with his 22.2% pass-rush win rate and 12.3 pass rush productivity.

Patrick Mekari started at left tackle and held Hendrickson to just one pressure in Week 2 with Stanley sidelined, and he’ll look to do the same on Thursday. The Bengals are close to league average in both blitz rate and pressure rate, but they have been extremely opportunistic. Their defense forces a turnover rate on 17.8% of opponent drives, the second-highest turnover rate in the league.

Thus, protecting Jackson’s blindside will be vital to limiting the turnovers that have throttled the Ravens’ otherwise explosive offense. Sure, Monken can use Patrick Ricard or RB help to bolster the left side of the line, but those protection adjustments are best saved when Jackson recognizes pressure at the line.

Again, keeping the offense from being static will force the Bengals to track moving targets, which is ultimately also a way to take some pressure off the line. The Ravens did this effectively in their first matchup with the Browns, using motion and pullers to slow down the DL and give the OL time to hit their blocks. That opened up huge creases in the ground game and allowed Jackson to find targets downfield. 

Countering Big Lou’s Post Snap Tricks

Bengals DC Lou Anarumo is one of the premier defensive game planners in the NFL, with disguised coverages that consistently give opposing quarterbacks fits. As a result, avoiding obvious passing situations will limit the havoc Anarumo is able to wreak with his post-snap rotations.

The Bengals defense surrenders the second-most yards per play (6.1) and yards per carry (5.0), as well as the third-highest success rate (46.6%) and the fifth-highest EPA/rush (-0.02). Bengals LB Logan Wilson has been particularly porous vs. the run this year, with a 6.2-yard average depth of tackle that’s the third-highest of any defender.

The Ravens should consistently attack downhill to stay ahead of the sticks and limit their third-and-long exposure. That will help them take advantage of Cincy’s third down defense that ranks seventh-worst in the league, allowing conversions on 43.1% of opponent third downs. In what will likely be a tight game against a division rival, John Harbaugh may also want to channel some of his signature aggressiveness if Baltimore is able to grind out yardage against Cincy’s front. Don’t be afraid to call a run on 3rd-and-5 with another run dialed up if you get a 4th-and-short!

Wearing down the Bengals front will bring their biggest weakness into play: explosive plays.

Cincy allows the highest explosive play rate (12.1%) and average depth of target (9.76 yards) in the league, so forcing them to commit to run defense will open up some downfield throws – in particular, the deep overs that Jackson hit against the Lions.

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Coverage Disguise

The Ravens are uniquely one of the few defenses that have had success against quarterback Joe Burrow. And by success, it’s still more of a matter of making him look mortal over the last four games. What is the common denominator in those games? Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. Since Macdonald took over as defensive coordinator, he has devised some mind-bending game plans to keep Burrow guessing, something predecessor Wink Martindale simply was not able to do.

For instance, with Macdonald, he is constantly challenging Burrow at the line of scrimmage between pre snap and post snap movement. It’s a marriage between the front and the back end. On the back end is where Macdonald has really fooled one of the best QBs in the game at times, by having his corners and safeties morph between press man, split safety, Cover 1, Cover 3, quarters. It is a truly remarkable, flexible approach in which Macdonald has incredible trust in his defensive backs and backers (mostly) to get to their landmarks on the fly.

The reason for so much deception? Burrow is forced out of his big-play element. He’s also forced to hold the ball for an extra few ticks, and he normally has one of the fastest releases in the game. And if he’s holding the ball, that offensive line isn’t good enough to hold up – former Ravens Orlando Brown Jr. has allowed the second most pressures in the league for instance.

It’s important that Macdonald keeps pressing these buttons, even with the likelihood of star cornerback Marlon Humphrey likely missing this game. In particular, without receiver Tee Higgins, this might be the right game to show Burrow softer coverages and off coverage before the snap, only to jam and mug the receivers after the snap, again forcing the QB to hold the ball longer than he might want.

Clamping Down on the Middle of the Field

After what seems to be a bit of an exposed moment for a defense that was being talked up as all-time good, the question is, did the Browns really unveil a soft coverage underbelly that can be exploited? What Cleveland did wasn’t anything special. They simply and surgically attacked zone coverage time and time again, relying on their pass catchers to break tackles in the open field. And it worked when these pass plays largely went nowhere all season.

The Bengals’ approach is slightly different. They tend to like to attack the perimeter, outside the numbers, and rely on Burrow to hit deep with Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase. They also operate a ton from 11 with the third highest frequency, at a little over 80% of their offensive snaps. It makes sense given their receivers, including Tyler Boyd. In that sense, they only operate from 12 personnel (two tight ends) only 7.8% of the time.

Might that all change drastically against the Ravens? The sense is, it’ll be at least a mix and perhaps more of a pivot to getting their intermediate passing game going. Boyd in particular is pretty dangerous and has had his moments against Baltimore in the past. With Higgins out, it’s no doubt he will be a focus for Burrow.

This is a major litmus test for the Baltimore backers, safeties and underneath defenders to tighten up and take that part of the field away. And the tackling for sure needs to be much sharper. Less hero ball overall to try and force fumbles against an offense they have bullied in the past. They need to get back to simply wrapping up and rallying to the ball.

Chasing Chase

With Tee Higgins out, Burrow is going to have one thought consistently flashing in his brain like a stock ticker: feed Ja’Marr Chase.

The Ravens held Chase to five catches for just 31 yards in Week 2 without Marlon Humphrey, but he’s still capable of taking over games for his offense.

Especially after Baltimore’s rough tackling performance against the Browns, Burrow will try to get the ball to Chase quickly so he can pick up yards after the catch on screens and quick in-breakers. That may even include moving him into the slot to use his size to work the middle of the field.

It’s dangerous to press Chase, but the Ravens CBs should challenge him at the line of scrimmage to limit the Bengals’ quick game with safety help over the top. That will disrupt Burrow’s timing and force him to sort out the rest of the Ravens defense instead of just going to his first read in Chase.

Chase is also deadly in the red zone, leading the Bengals with five touchdowns on the year. He wins jump balls, makes catches in traffic and reels in back shoulder throws with ease. With the field condensed in the red zone, inside-outside double coverage on Chase will force the Bengals to find another way to get in the end zone. That’s especially important without Higgins, a contested catch specialist in his own right, on the field. Holding Cincy to field goals in the red zone could make the difference in the game (if the Ravens are able to convert their own opportunities).  

One on One Matchup

D.J. Reader versus Tyler Linderbaum

One of the more interesting subplots of a game filled with many major plot points is the battle in the trenches. Namely, for the Ravens, it’s a matter of getting their mojo back after getting punked against the Cleveland lines on both sides of the ball.

In D.J. Reader, they don’t exactly get a break. He remains one of the most imposing defensive tackles in the game and he’s someone capable of getting quick, inside penetration to disrupt the Baltimore pass protection.

With the Ravens wanting to control the line of scrimmage and re-establish their run game, it will be up to center Tyler Linderbaum to win the battle against Reader. It won’t be easy, as Linderbaum has sometimes struggled with bigger DTs who challenge his lack of size and raw brute strength. However, between the two players, Linderbaum has frankly been the better player and this is a matchup he really needs to win.

The post Keeping Burrow Confused the Key to Bouncing Back vs Bengals appeared first on Russell Street Report.

Originally posted on Russell Street Report

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