Can the Ravens Interior O-Line Hold Up?

For the Ravens to make the play-offs, they realistically must win on Sunday in Cincinnati.  The Ravens are familiar with the Bengals as these teams faced off as recently as Week 10.  Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer-led defense puts a premium on pressuring the interior of the opposing offensive line.  This pressure can halt the run-game via penetration or confuse blocking schemes via rush/drop obfuscation.  This strategy does not bode well for the Ravens as their Guards and Center have struggled to keep the backfield clean for the majority of the year.

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The Bengals have a ton of talent in their Front-Seven.  Even after the loss of star DT Geno Atkins, the Bengals front is still a force.  The stout veteran DT Domata Peko excels at eating up space and stuffing the run while DT Brandon Thompson and DE Michael Johnson are amazingly light-footed for their size.  These penetrators align in front of linebackers Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict who can both scrape toward lateral runs while maintaining the ability to shed blocks.  In addition to an impressive collection of talent up front, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer layers confusion into most of his pre-snap looks.

Against the Pass

The Bengals have a reputation of aligning in the A-gaps on passing downs.  This alignment creates all kinds of protection issues and often forces blocking mismatches or missed assignments:

A1

Here the Bengals are "sugaring" one A-gap (to the left of the Center). As A-gap pressure is the most immediate threat Flacco, he must be accounted for in the protection scheme. The Ravens use "Man-Protection" across the board. HB Ray Rice is "dual-reading" the other potential rushing threats (Crocker and Rey). The Ravens have six blockers and can hold up in protection if the Bengals rush six or less.

A2

The Bengals only rush five (blue arrows) but with the protection call set prior to the snap, Ray Rice has the unenviable task of blocking two rushers. In addition, both C Gradkowski and RT Michael Oher (theoretically better blockers) block nobody at all. The Bengals have created pressure by scheme instead of individual execution. The onus is now on Flacco to release the ball before the blitz gets home.

A3

When C Gradkowski's match-up dropped into coverage, he was left to help his neighboring guard while LB Rey bolted through the A-gap. Rice correctly identifies the most immediate rushing threat (Crocker) and crosses Flacco's face to block him. Even with six pass protectors, the Bengals five-man rush scheme won. To add insult to injury, Burfict and Johnson are now taking away the short middle of the field which is where Flacco was planning to dump the ball as a contingency plan. Flacco made the best of this situation and threw the ball away.

Here the Bengals are "sugaring" one A-gap (to the left of the Center).  As A-gap pressure is the most immediate threat Flacco, he must be accounted for in the protection scheme.  The Ravens use "Man-Protection" across the board.  HB Ray Rice is "dual-reading" the other potential rushing threats (Crocker and Rey).  The Ravens have six blockers and can hold up in protection if the Bengals rush six or less.The Bengals only rush five (blue arrows) but with the protection call set prior to the snap, Ray Rice has the unenviable task of blocking two rushers.  In addition, both C Gradkowski and RT Michael Oher (theoretically better blockers) block nobody at all.  The Bengals have created pressure by scheme instead of individual execution. The onus is now on Flacco to release the ball before the blitz gets home.When C Gradkowski's match-up dropped into coverage, he was left to help his neighboring guard while LB Rey bolted through the A-gap.  Rice correctly identifies the most immediate rushing threat (Crocker) and crosses Flacco's face to block him.  Even with six pass protectors, the Bengals five-man rush scheme won.  To add insult to injury, Burfict and Johnson are now taking away the short middle of the field which is where Flacco was planning to dump the ball as a contingency plan.  Flacco made the best of this situation and threw the ball away.

In the above play, the Ravens experienced the down-side to using man-protection calls.  When two of your big O-Lineman are blocking no one and your 5’8 200lb Running Back is tasked with blocking two free rushers, it will always be bad news.  The Ravens used a combination protection in the next play.  Scheme was not the liability here, it was execution:

AA1

With seven potential rushers (including two in the A gaps) the Ravens use a "Half Slide" protection. In this scheme, LT Monroe and LG Shipley and responsible for one man each, without exception. The three other O-Lineman (orange) are all using "zone" protection (i.e. "area blocking"). With this protection, if Burfict blitzes up the A-gap, Rice will slide across the formation and pick him up.

AA2

After the snap, the defensive front shows their hand. Two potential rushers drop into short zones leaving five to pressure Flacco. This time the five rushers are all accounted for.

AA3

Although Ray Rice has improved in pass protection this year, he is still below average due to his stature. Burfict swims past Rice, barely stopping his momentum in the process. No quarterback excels with pressure directly in his face but the result here was worse than expected. Flacco steps up and throws an awkward interception.

With seven potential rushers (including two in the A gaps) the Ravens use a "Half Slide" protection.  In this scheme, LT Monroe and LG Shipley and responsible for one man each, without exception.  The three other O-Lineman (orange) are all using "zone" protection (i.e. "area blocking").  With this protection, if Burfict blitzes up the A-gap, Rice will slide across the formation and pick him up.After the snap, the defensive front shows their hand.  Two potential rushers drop into short zones leaving five to pressure Flacco.  This time the five rushers are all accounted for.Although Ray Rice has improved in pass protection this year, he is still below average due to his stature.  Burfict swims past Rice, barely stopping his momentum in the process.  No quarterback excels with pressure directly in his face but the result here was worse than expected.  Flacco steps up and throws an awkward interception.

According to Football Outsider’s metrics, the Ravens offensive line is ranked 18th in the league in pass protection this year.  Against the Bengals in Week 10, the Ravens line allowed 3 sacks, 2 hits, and 11 hurries (as measured by PFF).  This means that Flacco was pressured on 40% of his drop-backs.  That’s a tough way to win.

Against the Run

Our own Chris Worthington dug into the Ravens run struggles against the Bengals in a previously published piece, so I will simply re-post some images since they are applicable here:

On this particular zone-blocking play, linebacker Vincent Rey diagnoses the run play and screams through the B-gap to take down Ray Rice from the backside.  If they Ravens plan to lean on their zone-blocking scheme on Sunday, containing the backside is a must against these aggressive linebackers.

In a separate running play, DE Michael Johnson penetrates into the backfield to take down Ray Rice:

#60 LT  Eugene Monroe has barely gotten out of his stance by the time Michael Johnson (circled) slants into the B-gap.  Johnson has used this strategy on run-downs all year.  Since the Bengal defense usually assigns a second player to maintain Johnson’s original gap, this is a schematically sound tactic.

How Should the Ravens Minimize this Back-Side Pressure?

One strategy that I have supported is the continued use of the zone-run game specifically to counter with the Bootleg element.  The Bengals crash the backside of zone run plays so well that Flacco can roll out unmolested:

Sail

The “Sail” concept that we’ve seen so many times this year.

This play went for a long gain to Torrey Smith.

Another strategy to minimize interior pressure is the quick passing game.  One quick-hitting concept that is successful across the league is the back-side slant.

BSSlant

The Ravens use “Trips Bunch” to the wide side of the field while Torrey Smith is isolated on the backside. Interior pressure is inconsequential when the ball can come out fast.

The Ravens have shown a number of other conventional strategies for reducing pressure:

  1. HB Screens
  2. Tunnel Screens
  3. Bubble Screens
  4. Tare
  5. Lead Draw

Film Notes and Strategy

  • The Bengals can be unpredictable in their blitz fronts but their coverage schemes on the back-end tend to be standard zone-based coverages (Cover-3, Quarters, Cover-6).  These can be exploited with proven coverages beaters.
  • Bengals Nickel personnel uses three safeties (Iloka, Nelson, Crocker) instead of three cornerbacks.  Crocker, the de facto slot defender, is average (at best) in pass coverage.  Pitta could have a big day from the slot.
  • When the Bengals use their cornerbacks in deep zones (Cover-3, Quarters), they struggle with zone technique.  CB Dre Kirkpatrick was beat on a hitch-and-go versus Minnesota and successfully exhibited how every young corner should not play zone coverage.
  • Run game replacements (screens, quick hitters) will be huge in this game.  The Ravens will not be able to line up and rush against this Bengals defense.  Run game replacements will help spread out the Front Seven a bit particularly since the Bengals trust their linebackers in slot coverage more than the average team.
  • The Bengals showed both horizontal (In/Out) and vertical (High/Low) brackets against Torrey Smith in Week 10.  Flacco threw into this double coverage many times regardless.  The Ravens offense should take advantage of these double-teams and move the ball elsewhere.
  • Power runs will work better against the Bengals defensive front but I don’t expect much rushing success regardless.
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About the author


Dan Bryden   

Dan played high school football at Wilde Lake and graduated from McDaniel College with a degree in Psychology. Dan is currently a Maryland Terp working on his PhD degree in Neuroscience. He has experience writing published scientific material as well as blogging for SBNation via Baltimore Beatdown. Beginning in the 2012 season, Dan has been writing about the Ravens focusing on the X’s and O’s of the game of football with heavy use of overhead (All-22) film analysis. The Columbia, MD native currently lives in Silver Spring.


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