You won’t find a Ravens fan out there who is satisfied with the run game. Traditional statistics rank the Ravens at 28th in Rushing Yards Per Game at a measly 74.0. This number is down from 118.8 rushing YPG last year (ranking 11th). Football Outsiders Advanced DVOA metric ranks the Ravens rushing attack at 30th in the league in efficiency (down from 7th last year). Who is to blame? Playcalling? Personnel? Technique? I looked at the Endzone view of the Ravens loss to Pittsburgh to find the answers.
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Zone Blocking Scheme
This past off-season, the Ravens brought in Juan Castillo to act as the “Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach.” Although the Ravens have used both man and zone blocking in the past, Juan Castillo’s influence has increased the usage of the zone blocking dramatically. Many question why the Ravens would consider changing their run-game approach in the first place. This is a valid criticism. I am assuming the Ravens staff would say that zone blocking is best fit for their lineman/running backs. I don’t think this is the case, but let’s look at what exactly has been implemented before we further castigate the team.
Beautiful Inside Zone Execution
The Ravens are aligned in the shotgun with their 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE) package on the field. The call is Inside Zone Weak. Rice will read C Gino Grankowski’s block and determine whether to follow his original leftward path or cut back toward the backside.
The Steelers are playing the Ravens in their “Dime” package (6 DBs) and only playing with six defenders in the box. With six Ravens blockers, the simple math says this play will succeed.
Blocking in the zone scheme follows simple rules:
- If your play-side gap is covered (occupied by a defender), reach to block the lineman in that gap (e.g. Gradkowski is covered).
- If your play-side gap is uncovered, double-team backside and swiftly get to the second level (RG Yanda in the above play).
At the snap, LT Eugene Monroe cuts off OLB Jason Worilds, LG Osemele works to the second level to block Polamalu, and C Gino Gradkowski attempts to Reach-Block (get his shoulders play-side) Brett Keisel. On the back-side of the play, RG Yanda and RT Oher are double-teaming their first-level defender. This double-team is meant to gain leverage on a down-lineman so that one O-lineman can eventually block the defender alone. Once the immediate defender can be handled by a single lineman, Yanda and Oher need to communicate to determine which one of them will “zone scoop” (combination block to the second level) toward the LB Lawrence Timmons (#94). TE Dallas Clark has good leverage to cut off OLB Lamarr Woodley.
LT Monroe and LG Osemele have done a great job of sealing off their assignments. Gradkowski struggled (due to high posture) to Reach-Block Keisel, but Rice is able to cut off of Gino’s butt after Gino walled off Keisel to the play-side.
Marshal Yanda reached the second level after his combination block. His block, along with Oher’s backside wall, gives Rice a small but manageable opening through the backside A gap.
Rice plows ahead behind some of the best blocking he’s had this season.
This gain was due to running the ball against small personnel (in numbers and size), and by sound blocking technique from each lineman. Gradkowski’s inability to Reach Brett Keisel did not hurt the Ravens on this instance. But this inability has derailed the run game many times this year.
Oher and Gino miss their blocks
The playcall is Inside Zone Weak. The formation (single-back) and personnel (Pierce/Dickson) have changed but the same blocking rules still apply. The Ravens are forced to deal with seven in the box on this play-call. For this play to be successful, the LG/C combination need to account for #99 Brett Keisel and #98 Vince Williams. The RG/RT combination have to account for #97 Cameron Heyward and #94 Lawrence Timmons.
A closer look at the defensive formation shows that Heyward (#97) is almost completely covering RG Yanda. This subtle alignment shift is what makes predictable play-calling so dangerous. Coaches will tell you that RT Oher will have a hell of a time trying to Reach-Block Heyward (#97).
On the snap, the O-lineman are taught to step laterally before they can engage their assignment. This is necessary to get in front of defenders in an attempt to wall them off from the play-side. Heyward (#97) sees Yanda step laterally and he crashes toward him (defender has “Block-down-step-down” rules). Oher is in no position to make his block.
Additionally, Gradkowski does not step to his left enough before engaging Keisel (#99). Grad has put himself (and his back) in a vulnerable position.
LG Osemele and RG Yanda have reached the second level. But the first level defenders were not taken care of and both Keisel (#99) and Heyward (#97) are crashing toward the playside to make a tackle. Gino and Oher’s leverage/technique are to blame here. That said, they both should have both had more help from their neighboring guards (Osemele never double-teams with Gino and Yanda barely touches Heyward on the way to the second level).
A shifty move from Pierce allowed him to evade the two crashing defenders.
Pierce has made it past the first level and has open field to his left. However, another poor block killed his chances to break to the third level. TE Dickson was pushed into the middle of the field by Woodley with ease. Dickson never got his head on Woodley’s playside and the result was a tackle by his assigned defender.
Why not cut the back-side?
This specific play brings up a question I’ve been asked recently. Why don’t the Ravens cut-block (shoulder below the knee) on the back-side like many successful zone blocking teams. Looking back at the previous play, both Oher and Dickson could have legally cut their men and taken them out of the play completely. The only explanation for not cutting the back-side is that this O-line has been poor at executing these blocks. There are several examples in the Pittsburgh game where Ravens O-lineman missed in embarrassing fashion when they attempted cut-blocks.
Good Scheme, Decent Blocking, Great Running
This is another Inside Zone call. This one is to the Strong side with End Around action. Rice will search for the play-side (left) B or A gap while WR Jacoby Jones executes an End Around fake.
The Ravens bunch formation has attracted 8 defenders into the box. Inside Zone Strong is not a play-call I would have stuck with. The Steelers linebackers are threatening both A-gaps and the strong-side blockers consist of Dallas Clark and Marlon Brown (both very poor blockers).
The image above is a split second post-snap. RG Marshal Yanda is the only one out of his stance at this point. Were the Ravens using a silent count? Maybe. But why wouldn’t C Gradkowski be the first one out of his stance? This lack of explosion has been a problem all year, including in the Green Bay game.
With the A gaps threatened, the Ravens line could not afford to double-team up front. This left Oher with another difficult Reach-block to attempt. The rest of the blocking is very good.
This is a loaded image. First, the backside OLB (Lamarr Woodley) is forced to play contain rather than crash down and tackle Rice. This was due to Jones’ End Around action. This is an encouraging wrinkle as the Ravens struggled with backside Ends earlier this season.
Secondly, RT Oher allows his assignment to penetrate but Rice makes an impressive cut to evade this defender in the backfield and still has the vision to cut behind Oher’s butt and avoid the backside OLB. Rice had some very impressive carries in this game and he showed signs of full health for the first time this season.
Despite Oher’s struggles in this play, the rest of the line blocked very well. LG Osemele and RG Yanda’s assigned defenders cannot be seen because they are being driven into the turf.
On the way to a new approach?
The lack of rushing success before the Steelers match-up had fans calling for a new running scheme. The Ravens did change their approach, but only slightly, for the Pittsburgh game:
- 50% (12/24) of designed runs were from shotgun
- They used boot-action and End Around action to account for back-side defenders
- They gave Leach direct handoffs from the shotgun
- 33% (8/24) of designed runs used Man/Power blocking (2.0 YPC)*
- 67% (16/24) of designed runs used Zone blocking (3.25 YPC)* *man/zone distinctions are my own.
The Ravens didn’t change their scheme much. They mostly used the same run plays from different formations (window dressing).
Lastly, I studied the Ravens “failed” runs (short-no gain or loss) against Pittsburgh. I considered 58% (14/24) of designed runs “failures” and assigned blame for each one. The breakdown is as follows:
- Ed Dickson: 0.5
- Marlon Brown: 1.5
- Gino Gradkowski: 4
- Marshal Yanda: 1.5
- Kelechi Osemele: 2.5
- Bernard Pierce: 1
- Dallas Clark: 1
- Offensive Scheme: 2
The run game can’t be fixed by changing one simple thing. This will be a work-in-progress all season. Utilizing more Power blocking schemes will help as this line is better suited to down-block and kick-out the End Man on the Line of Scrimmage (EMLOS). Man blocking schemes have rules about who to block before the snap rather than relying as much on communication after the snap. Additionally, Power/Man scheme runs provide Pierce and Rice designated holes to run through. This will mostly help Pierce as lateral quickness isn’t his strength but he can use downhill force to his advantage.
If the Ravens stick to a high percentage of zone blocking, combination blocks need to get better. There are far too many missed assignments when decisions need to be made flexibly in the post-snap phase.
The tight-ends and wide receivers on this team are awful blockers. Bunch formations can be a nice asset in the passing game, but running out of Bunch allows extra defenders to maneuver past dreadful blocking from the skill positions.
I’d like to see Jet and Divide motion utilized more. The Ravens had success using a tight-end as an unexpected lead blocker in Houston. Even if the Lead-block is a cut-block, the element of surprise is there.
Poor posture and leverage have substantially impacted Gradkowski’s and Osemele’s effectiveness. Osemele’s struggles presumably stem from his back issue but Gradkowski’s strength should be leverage as his frame is stockier than average (6’3, 300lbs).