A Q&A with BSL’s Ravens Writers
With Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore Ravens how head into their bye week at 3-4. We’ve asked each of our Ravens writers here at Baltimore Sports and Life, for their thoughts on a number of subjects.
(You can discuss this Q&A on the BSL Board here.)
Question 1: After the loss to Green Bay, Ravens players went to Coach Harbaugh and complained about the zone-blocking scheme that run game Coordinator Juan Castillo had installed. Will a return to last year’s scheme, and some rest over the bye; lead to a more productive run game over the remaining 9 games?
Matt Jergensen: I’d like to think so, it can’t much worse, can it? I’m still unsure why it was necessary to change in an area where the Ravens have traditionally had sucess over the years in running the football. Unfortunately I feel that the lack of a run game has had a huge ripple effect on offensive production. Play-action has suffered as well as the Ravens ability to control the clock with a lead (not that they’ve had many this season). A more confident and productive line, especially in run blocking would do wonders for the Baltimore offense in the second half.
Mike Randall: It should. Yanda, Leach, Rice are veterans. Oher has a few years under him now. If the consensus from the guys that know best is that zone blocking isn’t their forte, I would trust them. I find it hard to believe that Marshall Yanda goes from best guard in football two years running, to average at best without scheme being a problem.
Chris Worthington: Well, I’ll answer this in two parts. Will the bye help the team? Absolutely. Neither Rice nor Pierce appears 100% healthy, though I think Rice is on the mend. Additionally, the bye will give Monroe much-needed time to work with the rest of the offensive line and learn the playbook.
Will a return to last year’s scheme help the running game? Well, I’m skeptical about whether the team actually makes a complete transition back to last year’s blocking scheme. They brought Castillo in for a reason, and they also went after Monroe for a reason. I think the team still wants to incorporate the ZBS and try to use some stretch zone plays, especially because of Monroe’s athleticism. I imagine they will continue to try a variety of running plays, as they have been, until they find some traction with something.
But until the offensive line improves, I don’t know if anything will be wildly successful. Gradkowski is playing really poorly at center and looks both undersized and overmatched at times. Osemele apparently has a disk problem that requires surgery – which won’t happen until the offseason. So it seems likely he’ll be playing at less than 100% for the rest of the year. Finally, the tight ends are a mess when it comes to run blocking. Scheme can only do so much to hide players’ ineptitude.
Dan Bryden: Right now I don’t think that a change in scheme is the lone answer. The Ravens used Power/Man blocking on 33% of plays against Pittsburgh and came out with 2YPC. That is relative to the zone blocking scheme that yielded 3.5 YPC. Rewatching the tape, it seems like there is a single culprit who can be blamed for each play. Technique needs to be stressed. The offensive lineman need to communicate better after the snap. They generally have the correct blocking calls in the run game but they have difficulty coming off double-teams and getting to the second level (i.e. “zone scooping”).
Rest will certainly help. Osemele is playing with extremely high posture presumably due to a back injury. Osemele has regressed substantially since last season.
Question 2: Regarding the general lack of burst shown by Rice this year – do you mostly attribute that to him losing a step, dealing with injuries, or just poor blocking in-front of him (not providing holes for him to run through)?
Matt Jergensen: I’d go with all three. The lifespan of an NFL running back is notoriously short and who knows just when a player’s time may come. It is clear to me that Rice has lost a step. He hasn’t been able to make players miss in space or break nearly as many tackles as in the past. I think the hip flexor has been an issue in his ability to help carry the offense. But I do think that this past weekend he did show some burst that has been lacking over the past weeks so I’d like to take him at his word when he says that physically he feels fresh. Lastly the running scheme hasn’t yeilded many clear lanes for him to find room to push upfield. He also hasn’t gotten the ball nearly enough in the passing game on designed screens or even the dreaded dump off (whihc isn’t as bad as it sounds). Rice is only 26 so it’s still seems early to worry that this is a long-term concern.
Mike Randall: Poor blocking. Patience on the part of the RB is a role in zone blocking. Arian Foster is the most patient when it comes to letting his blockers climb the levels in front of him. It may look like Rice and Pierce are running in quicksand, when maybe they are just waiting a second for the blockers to do their thing. Unfortunately the blockers are getting beat, then there is no where to go. Rice showed quick bursts late in the GB game when he stopped stutter stepping and just ran hard, downhill. So I’m less likely to think he’s injured.
Chris Worthington: Some combination of all three, maybe… 60% blocking, 25% injury, and 15% losing a step.
Dan Bryden: This is a tough question to answer. Before the Pittsburgh game, I would have argued that Rice is wearing down and/or he’s still suffering from his previous hip injury. After reviewing each of Rice’s runs in Pittsburgh, it looks like Rice is back to 100%. He showed extremely good vision and was agile at the line of scrimmage. That said, his YPC (3.0) did not reflect this at all. He had some very poor blocking in front of him. The Ravens run game collectively “failed” (short-no gain or lost yards) on 58% (14/24) runs.
Question 3: Among the group of Brandon Williams, Arthur Brown, and Matt Elam; which member of that Rookie trio will make the largest impact the rest of the year?
Matt Jergensen: Matt Elam. He’s had a pretty typical rookie season far with it’s share of mistakes. However he has shown flashes as a hard hitter and could develop into the big play type player the Ravens could use on the back end. Elam has started every game so far except one which means that he’ll be the long term solution at the position due to the free agent flop that Michael Huff has turned out to be.
Mike Randall: Matt Elam. He’s shown flashes of being a heavy hitter. Bernard Pollard’s physical play was one of the reasons the Ravens defense was successful in the playoff run last year. The Steven Ridley hit practically sealed the deal in the AFC title game. I don’t root for guys to get injured. But I think he’ll sideline a couple more guys before the season is done, and hopefully create a few game changing turnovers with his physicality that lead to some much needed wins .
Chris Worthington: Matt Elam. He sees the most snaps and plays a vital role on the back end of the defense. Williams’ impact will be minimized because of the depth along the line, and the return of Jameel McClain will eat into Art Brown’s snaps.
Dan Bryden: Another tough question. I believe Arthur Brown will have the greatest impact from now until the end of the season. But this impact will be hidden to an extent. Brown can stand up in coverage (Ravens LBs have stuck to mostly zone this year) and he is good in pursuit. At this point in Brown’s career, he is a reactionary player. Because of this, he likely won’t make huge hits in the backfield or lay out tight-ends, which may obscure how good he can be.
Question 4: I think ideally you want an offense which can be versatile and provide multiple looks to opposing defenses. That said, I’d like to see the ‘base’ offense be the Ravens running no-huddle, Flacco out of the shot-gun, spreading the field with 3 & 4 WR sets. I think that would consistently pull defenders from the box, open up running lanes, and take advantage of the of the speed of the Ravens WR’s outside. Do you think the Ravens can consistently use that offense, with their pass blocking limitations? What adjustments would you make to the Ravens offense?
Matt Jergensen: I think we saw some of the adjustments against Pittsburgh with some of the concepts that you just listed. As a result of No-Huddle Flacco seemed engaged and probably had his best game overall of the season. The short passing game returned and it needs to be mixed in with the run to make third downs more workable. Getting the ball out quickly will also help the line in pass protection. A level of unpredictablity is always helpful and should be used in play calling to help diguise tendencies. Even though the Ravens didn’t score as much as you’d like to see I was encouraged by some things last Sunday.
Mike Randall: Quick slants and bubble screens would be one way to beat some pass blocking shortcomings. We also saw some delayed handoffs and draw plays in the Steelers game that seemed to work out fine with the defense not stuffing the LOS. In 3 or 4 wide sets we could see some “bunch” formations, which you can run pick plays and crossing routes out of. Routes like that against man coverage generate spacing from the DBs and allow the receivers to gain some YAC. In speedy guys like Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, it could lead to a lot of yard after catch. Yards after catch is something I think they need to improve on. So many times the receiver is hit right where he catches the ball.
Chris Worthington: I do think that the Ravens can probably sustain this offense as long as everyone is healthy. The return of Jacoby Jones is already helping the passing game, for instance. If Torrey, Jacoby, and Marlon can stay healthy, along with either Dickson or Clark, I think Flacco is good enough to run a spread offense from the no-huddle.
With that said, I’d like to see the Ravens use more screens…let the speedy receivers do some damage in the open field. This would also help with the offense’s protection issues. I also wouldn’t mind seeing them hand the ball to Leach a little more, especially when they’re intent on running between the tackles. Leach looked productive on a few carries against Pittsburgh. On a similar note, I think the team should utilize more sweeps. Get Yanda and Leach out in space ahead of the RB and see what they can do. Running between the tackles has been futile so far this season.
Dan Bryden: I don’t think its reasonable to assume the Ravens can consistently use any one offense. They do not have receivers who can consistently beat man coverage and stretch the field. They also do not have the run-game to line up and push teams around. This offense will have to use deception and formation confusion to dictate how defenses will react. Running from tight-bunch formations, play-action out of 22 personnel, and using motion-backs to lead runs through the middle.
The pass-blocking has been inconsistent. Because of this, “shot” plays downfield cannot be called when teams expect them. The protection for a 7-step drop simply isn’t there. This combined with WRs who lack the start/stop agility to use multi-cut double-moves makes deep passing on third-down a struggle.
Question 5: At this point in his career, is there any reason why Flacco should not be calling his own plays?
Matt Jergensen: He should have major input in how the offense is run at this stage of his career. Given his recent comments about how the offense could “mix it up more on the early downs” and “I’m just a player. I do what I’m told” indicate to me that his influence is still limited concerning decision making. Why that’s the case is anyone’s guess but the question should be answered by the Head Coach.
Mike Randall: I’m probably in the minority here, but no, I don’t think he should be right now. He came from Delaware where he operated out of the shotgun, and played against slower defenses. Coming into the NFL he had to make that transition to playing under center, doing the fundamental things like setting his feet after a seven step drop, etc… He’s made those adjustments, and then was given more freedom in Cam Cameron’s offense. We saw this as they made the no huddle a staple last year. Flacco was making a lot of the calls. Then Cam got shown the door. This year, Jim Caldwell put in his playbook, Castillo with the zone blocking, Flacco has to learn a whole new system with a lot of new faces. A big reason why Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have had success running their offenses is chemistry. Flacco had built that over the years with Mason, Boldin, Pitta. Pieces not at his disposal anymore. We have seen Flacco not quite be in sync with his receivers. Limited practice time with all of the safety rules in the CBA could be a part of it. Who knows?
Chris Worthington: Calling his offense is a stretch, but having total autonomy to change plays on the fly isn’t. Flacco should be able to audible at will and run a hurry-up, for sure. I also don’t think there’s any reason to assume Flacco has hit his ceiling just because it’s his sixth year. Drew Brees had five decent years under his belt with SD then went to NO, and his sixth year, threw for 4,400 yards and 26TD/11 int. Last year, in the regular season, Joe finished with 3,800 yards, 22 TDs / 10 int – and the 2012 Ravens were no New Orleans on offense.
Dan Bryden: There is no reason Flacco should be calling his own plays. Despite what some want to believe, Flacco still leans on half-field reads and doesn’t go through progressions with efficiency (some of this is not his fault, you can’t reach your third read when pressured heavily). Watching Flacco’s tape, you notice that he uses “grass reads,” a technique where you look at one player (often a safety) and throw to the route away from that player’s leverage. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with doing this, but without reading the entire defense first, you can’t expect the QB to know the situational defenses that opponents are running. This is why booth coordinators have Tendency Sheets.
Flacco should certainly be able to audible out of poor play-calls given the pre-snap read. Every QB needs to do this. But running an entire offense with minimal input from coordinators is not feasible for Flacco at the moment.
Question 6: Suggs has had a strong year. New acquisition Daryl Smith has made plays weekly. Dumervil has provided pass rush, and aside from a horrible sequence Sunday in Pittsburgh, has played well. Upshaw is a steady player, who has improved in his 2nd year. Arthur Jones is having a breakout year.
Thoughts on Canty, Spears, Ngata & the Front 7 as a whole? Were you as disturbed as I was, by Pittsburgh being able to run between the tackles?
Matt Jergensen: It’s not just Pittsburgh, both Green Bay and Buffalo had great success running the ball. I see this as great cause for concern. The front office made a point to address those issues in the off-season to be able to stop the run and make teams one dimensional. People will point to Ngata’s production and health as one reason why they are not a successful which is fair to a degree. But the rest of the front seven should be held accountable as well. It is interesting to note that while they;ve given up big yardage they have stiffened in the Red Zone where they’ve only given up one rushing touchdown.
Mike Randall: I wouldn’t say disturbed, but disappointed because the Steelers O-Line is about as bad as the Ravens and it was the second week in a row that a rookie RB carved them up. They have allowed just one TD on the ground all year. I think the potential is there for these guys up front. Spears had been solid in the run game. Canty and Ngata are not 100% right now and that’s going to hurt them. However Ngata was in on the sack that was negated by the face mask penatly on Dumervil. Canty is a big physical player who is in great shape. I’m hoping following the bye, what ever has ailed them has healed. When they are 100% they will be stout once again.
Chris Worthington: Well, giving up over 100 yards on the ground in back-to-back games isn’t a great sign. But Bynes was out, Jameel was playing for the first time in a year, and Canty and Cody have been banged up. Plus Pittsburgh is a better team than their record indicates, and they appear to have finally figured something out on offense after shuffling their OL around for weeks.
However, according to Miller, Pees is really displeased with the DLine’s play in general. I’m curious who really deserves the blame for our run-stopping struggles. As far as Canty and Spears, Canty was always more of an interior pass rusher than a gap-filling run stopper, and Spears looked average at best when I reviewed his tape after we signed him. I have a feeling Ngata is invisible largely because of scheme, as he’s undoubtedly the biggest threat on the DLine and everyone knows it. On the bright side, Suggs is continuing to play at a ridiculous level, and remains a hugely underrated run stopper. He gets all the attention for his pass rushing skills, but the guy is one of the most efficient run stoppers in the league, too.
Dan Bryden: Pittsburgh has been criticized for its playcalling this season. But they had a very good plan on Sunday and executed well against the Ravens. Deception/gadget plays were used early to force the Ravens to account for non-traditional runs. This paired with their Power/Counter scheme in front of a patient Le’Veon Bell provided some big gains.
Defensively, Canty has looked good to me on film. He often stunts with Ngata or Suggs to cause hesitation in the offensive line’s blocks. Canty is usually the slanting defender (think Justin Smith) that occupies two lineman to allow an End or Tackle to scoop behind him. This doesn’t get him on the stat sheet but helps his team win up front.
I was skeptical about the addition of Marcus Spears in the off-season. He seemed to be a pure 3-4 tackle with minimal lateral quickness who doesn’t use brute force to exert his will. They have used Spears intelligently though. He has been asked to eat space and hold lineman rather than penetrate. Spears has exceeded my admittedly low expectations.
Ngata seems like he is still suffering from injuries. Ngata explodes into the backfield periodically but he isn’t showing his explosive side that Ravens fans as accustomed to. At one point, Ngata showed signs of being a Warren Sapp type 3-tech who got upfield in a hurry. Ngata has been stuck in the trenches this year and has not been able to generate much power doing it.
Question 7: How do you grade Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell, and Defensive Coordinator Dean Peas?
Matt Jergensen: Jim Caldwell felt like a breath of fresh air last season and was on eof the reasons why Baltimore won a championship. This season is a different story. Play-calling this season seems limited and predictable. Poor execution makes any play look bad but using quick, short passes, screens, no-huddle, Shotgun should always be on the offensive menu. Moving the pocket would also be a good idea to help a struggling line to give the quarterback a clean field of vision. I started to see some positive signs last game in Week Seven (Why did it take that long?) and hope that it continues. For now Caldwell gets a D.
Pees has done a fairly solid job incorporating so many new faces into the defensive scheme. The Ravens pass rush is the fiercest that it’s been in years. The defense countinues to play well when opponents are Red Zone which helps keep the score manageable. However they are still prone to the big play and allow teams to run the ball too well which hurts time of possession. I’d like to think that this group can only improve as they move forward. Right now Pees gets a C+.
Mike Randall: Caldwell: D. Too many slow starts to games and then they have to play catch up. Not using Torrey Smith enough. Over 1/3 of his targets are low percentage passes. Haven’t been designing many plays to get Ray Rice the ball in open space.
Pees: B. A lot of new pieces this year. No Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, possibly facing situations where three rookies would be starting. James Ihedigbo is having a probowl type season. Throw out the Denver game and the defense has kept the Ravens in every game, allowing just one second half TD in the last six games. He’s making the proper in game adjustments to keep the opposing team out of the endzone. What else can you ask for?
Chris Worthington: I think Jim Caldwell deserves a B-. His playcalling is more diverse and creative than Cameron’s was, but the offense is struggling largely because of personnel. That being said, there have been some questionable calls (running four times in a row with 1st and goal against GB comes to mind). I think the abysmal play of the offensive line has mostly negated any of the positives that Caldwell brings as a playcaller.
Pees gets a B+ or maybe even an A- from me. Other than struggling to stop the run the last two weeks, the Baltimore defense has solidified quickly. After losing Lewis, Reed, Kruger, Ellerbe, C Williams, etc., most defenses would’ve tanked the following season. Pees took a ton of new parts and built something successful very quickly. Our pass rush is strong, we held the Packers to 19 points, and I think the defense still has room to grow.
Dan Bryden: I give Jim Caldwell a C+. His team in front of him is making his job difficult. The Ravens don’t have a single receiver that I would consider “versatile.” This becomes a problem because tendencies of each receiving threat can be exploited in coverage. The lack of a run game hurts too. I give Caldwell a demerit for being vanilla with his run calls, but running in the NFL shouldn’t need to be all about deception. Teams need to be able to line up, telegraph the playcall, and still execute. The Ravens are very poor in this area.
Pees gets a B+ from me. Based on last years’ complex defense, I’m sure Pees would love to add some overload zone blitzes and trust the back-end to recover into coverage duties swiftly. The defensive playcalls have been of the basic variety. The defensive personnel is very good (although young) so sometimes “basic” is a perfectly fine strategy (think Tampa-2 teams).
Question 8: The X-Factor for the Ravens in the 2nd half is?
Matt Jergensen: Ray Rice. Could anyone have imagined a Ravens offense without a productive Rice? His targets in the passing game are down to rookie levels while his ability to gain yards on the ground has been almost cut in half. Earlier I was aksed if it’s scheme, injury or simply Rice himself that is the cause for his struggles. He claims now to be fully recovered and I saw bits of the speed that we haven’t seen much this season. Over the past few seasons he’s always been the answer to the Ravens offensive woes it’s time to see if he’s still the answer to the question.
Mike Randall: Getting the run game going. Get that going, and maybe they extend some drives and score an extra TD, which will come in handy when Harbaugh wants to give away three points. (I’m kidding. Not really though).
Chris Worthington: The offensive line. Communication needs to improve. Monroe needs to be fully integrated as fast as possible. Gradkowski needs to improve or be benched for Shipley. The running game is doomed to fail unless the line can block better, and the passing game will always be hamstrung if pass protection stays stagnant.
Dan Bryden: Defensive back seven. If the linebackers and safeties can handle a deception-based playbook, turnovers will come. Right now the secondary is in “tackle-the-catch” mode which makes it tough to take the ball away.
Question 9: Baltimore goes into the bye 3-4 overall. Denver, KC, Indianapolis, New England, and Cincinnati currently look like good bets to be 5 of the AFC’s 6 Playoff teams. Will the Ravens finish 9-7 or better, and grab a spot in the Playoffs? What % chance do you give the Ravens of winning the AFC North?
Matt Jergensen: It’s still very possible. The Bengals sit at 5-2, a full two games in front of the Ravens but there is time for ground to be gained. A victory in Cleveland sets up a home battle with Cincinnati in November. After that Baltimore gets a three-game homestand later in the month against the Vikings, Jets, and a re-match with the Steelers. All winnable games in front of the purple faithful. While a playoff spot is still within grasp the franchise enters uncharted territory with John Harbaugh as they’ve never had a losing record this late into the season. Adversity will reveal much about this team over the next few weeks.
Mike Randall: @CLE, CIN, @CHI, NYJ, PIT, MIN, @DET, NE, @CIN. To go 9-7, they need to finish 6-3. If they don’t convincingly beat Cleveland coming off the bye, then it tells me they are still suspect on the road and they will play some other teams too close for comfort like the Jets and Lions. I think today they finish 7-9, and fall short. I can see the Bengals winning 10 games. For the Ravens it means 7-2 finish where they likely need to win remainder of their division games to earn the tiebreakers. Should the Ravens split with Cincy, tie breakers could come down to record against common opponents, and Cincy has beaten GB, and Buffalo unlike the Ravens. I don’t see the Steelers or Browns making it to 10 wins. I’ll say 10% chance that the Ravens win 10 games and beat the Bengals twice.
Chris Worthington: At this point, 9-7 may be the ceiling for the Ravens. There are a bunch of tough games in the second half, including both contests against Cincinnati, a rematch against Pittsburgh, the Patriots, and a tough game against a plucky Jets team. In fact, I think that game against the Jets could have huge playoff implications. Playoffs seem like a possibility, but not a very likely one. At this point I like the Jets or even the Steelers to edge us out for that final seed. Our second game against Pittsburgh will be very important. As far as winning the division, let’s just say I wouldn’t bet on it.
Dan Bryden: The AFC wildcard isn’t coming out of the North. The Ravens will need to take the division to make the playoffs. This will be a tough road especially since Cincinnati has beaten some of their best opponents (Packers, Patriots, Lions) and they will be favored against the Ravens in Cincinnati. I give the Ravens a 40% shot to make the playoffs.
Question 10: What is something Ravens related that you are thinking about, or that you would ask other Ravens fans?
Matt Jergensen: Did you enjoy the Super Bowl victory? Did savor every moment,, and buy as much championship swag that you could get your hands on to hold on to those memories for a lifetime? The Ravens have had a tremendous run of success over the past five years and have been a winner more times than not in it’s franchise history. It’s not every year that a team wins a trophy. So try not to complain too much as the team goes through an adjustment period from a huge roster turnover. The long range plan is to be consistent but it may take some time to get there.
Mike Randall: How much of a window of patience have the Ravens bought by winning the Super Bowl? Are they allowed to have a down year as they reload? Or every year, is anything but a deep playoff run a failure considering the head coach’s record and the players (Flacco, Rice, Suggs, Ngata, Webb)?
Chris Worthington: What do you want to know more about when it comes to the Ravens? Position groups? Scheme? Play calling? How can we make the All-22 articles better?
Dan Bryden: How should the Ravens change their strategy. There is a lot of criticism about certain groups that aren’t performing as expected. But there is a lack of suggestions within the fanbase about improvements. I’d love to know other’s thoughts.