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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
- HB Screens
- Tunnel Screens
- Bubble Screens
- 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.