A Closer Look at the Vertical Passing Offense
In recent weeks, the Ravens deep passing attack has found some success. In his last two games, Joe Flacco has thrown for well above his average yards per attempt, including an outing against New York where he threw for 10.5 YPA – his highest average of the season.
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We know the Ravens always like to make the deep pass a focal point of their offense. So far this season, 36% of Flacco’s passes have traveled >10 yards and 15% of all passes have traveled >20 yards. Compare that to, say, Alex Smith, who has thrown just 20% of his passes between 10 and 20 yards and only 8% of his passes >20 yards. (Thanks, http://www.profootballfocus.com/).
Unfortunately, Joe’s completion percentage has been abysmal – just 15% for passes that travel 20 or more yards down field.
Against New York and Pittsburgh, though, that number jumped to 50% and 33% respectively (not including pass interference plays). What suddenly clicked for the Ravens?
I looked back at the Steelers game to see what the team was doing on its shot plays and to see what strategies Baltimore might take into the final four games of the season to keep the offense on track.
The Good News…
Plenty of things were working for the Ravens on Thanksgiving, and I think we’re beginning to see the Caldwell offense really coming around. Now, not all of Cam Cameron’s tendencies are gone, and the reality is that Caldwell’s philosophy is just not that different from Cam’s (see “The Bad News…” below). But it’s important to look at the wrinkles Caldwell has installed in this offense. They’re truly a breath of fresh air compared to last year’s philosophy.
I’ve been arguing for several weeks that the team can’t completely abandon the zone blocking scheme. One of the reasons is that boot action has been very successful for this offense, and it doesn’t work if you don’t use zone running enough for it to be believable.
Boot action works because Flacco really likes to roll out to his right and throw on the move. It also works because it gets the defense flowing away from the primary receiver, hopefully keeping the safeties at their pre-snap depth and allowing a speedster like Jacoby Jones or Torrey Smith to get behind the defense.
Against the Steelers, the Ravens used boot action on their very first offensive snap. I loved the call when I saw it live and my feelings haven’t changed after watching the film. Let’s take a look.
The play here is inside zone left with boot action and a “Sail” concept to the right. Sail is a very popular cover-3/zone blitz beater, and the Steelers are the pinnacle of Cover-3/zone blitzing defenses. The outside receiver runs a fade route (Jones, in this instance) and the rest of the receivers run either a deep cross (Torrey), dig, corner, or flat (Leach). In this instance, Leach is going to block for Flacco then release into the flat.
The defensive play call is Cover-3 Buzz, but the Steelers love to disguise it pre-snap. The CB at the bottom of the image looks like he is in press-man but is going to bail all the way into a deep zone post-snap.
The ball is snapped, and the defense is flowing toward Ray Rice.
Here you can see how much space Joe has, and you can see Torrey crossing at the top of the image.
Here you can see it from another angle. Torrey’s crosser is going to get the attention of the deep middle safety and, more importantly, the far side corner (at the top of the image). While bailing into his deep zone, the far side corner sees Torrey and turns his hips inside for just a step – enough time for Jones to get behind him.
At the top of the screen, you see Jacoby behind the whole defense. Unfortunately, the throw comes up a little short. However, it doesn’t take away from the idea. Boot action plays to Joe’s strengths and the “Sail” concept is a proven Cover-3 beater. In fact, we’re about to see it again…
This play looks very similar to the one above, with just a few changes. Joe is in the pistol this time, rather than under center, and there’s no play action. Jacoby is going to run the deep crossing route, only it looks more arc-shaped. Marlon Brown is going to chip the WILL and then release into the flat. Finally, Torrey Smith is running a “Sting” or “Dino” route.
Like I said, the Steelers love to disguise their defense. Pre-snap, this looks like Cover-2. However – and this is something the Steelers do a lot – the defense is going to rotate into Cover 3 just before the snap.
The high safety toward the bottom of the image is going to charge toward the LOS then drop into the blue zone at the bottom (Sky-force). Meanwhile, both CBs are going to bail into deep third zones. This is okay, because, as I pointed out above, the Sail concept is a great Cover-3 beater. The middle deep safety will end up taking the crossing route and Torrey’s dino route will run into the space vacated in the deep middle.
The result of this play was a 55-yard completion to Torrey Smith, which was about a half yard short of a touchdown.
This is a fun play call from Caldwell. By now you’ve probably picked up on the “Sail” theme. This version looks a little different, and Caldwell adds a bunch of pre-snap motion, something else that was missing from Cam Cameron’s offense.
At first, the offense is aligned in trips bunch on the left. However, as you can see in image two, Torrey Smith is going to split out just past the numbers. Then, Marlon Brown is going to go in motion (yo-yo), as you can see in image 3. All of this movement is nice because it’s going to spread out the defense and give Joe a lot of clues about the defensive play call.
This doesn’t look quite the same as the other Sail plays. Instead, it’s using a Post/Texas combo. Jacoby Jones, Marlon Brown, and Ray Rice are going to flood the right side of the defense at three different levels while Torrey runs a fade route on the left. Jacoby’s route is the post.
Stick with me here, I know this looks a little crazy. This image is captured as each receiver has pretty much reached the top of his route. On the bright side, Flacco is given a ton of time by the line (you can see in this image that the pocket is strong and Flacco is still standing tall).
But no one has gotten open. Torrey may look like he has a step at the top of the image, but the CB is in good position, directly on his inside hip, using the sideline as a second defender.
So the receivers are all about to start freelancing. The solid colored lines are where they each decide to break off their routes. Jones shows good vision by splitting the CB and S and finding a soft spot at the numbers and hauls in a nice catch.
The “Levels” concept is a favorite of Manning’s from his days in Indianapolis. You can see the tight end and the slot receiver on the offensive right with matching in-breaking routes being run at two different levels (hence the name). At the top of the screen, Torrey Smith is going to run a fade route while Marlon Brown runs a Speed-Out at the bottom.
The Shallow and Dig routes should occupy the middle defenders, hopefully leaving Marlon and Torrey in single coverage. On this particular play, Torrey was in single coverage against Ike Taylor, who got called for pass interference.
The Bad News…
Unfortunately, not everything on film looked great. The Ravens are showing some creativity in the passing game, as you see above, but they’re also still using far too many isolation routes. And, though this won’t come as a surprise, pass blocking has been an issue that’s kept a number of deep passing plays from working.
Now this looks a lot like a Cam Cameron play call. The Ravens are in “Posse” personnel (3 WR 1 TE 1 RB). Marlon Brown is in the slot and is going to run a seam route, which should hopefully give Joe some space to throw the curl route at the top of the image.
Unfortunately, the blocking is going to go south pretty quickly. The Steelers bring six pass rushers, and the overload blitz on the defensive right, with #43 Troy Polamalu shooting the B gap and LB Lawrence Timmons following close behind, is going to fool the offensive line.
LG A.Q. Shipley is coming off of a double-team on #97, and his responsibility is LB Lawrence Timmons. Unfortunately, he hasn’t even turned his hips yet, and Timmons is in full stride going right toward Flacco. You can also see #43 Troy Polamalu completing a spin move that completely owns HB Bernard Pierce. With #60 Eugene Monroe helping block the edge rusher on the right, Flacco now faces two unblocked rushers.
Flacco tries to get the pass off to the corner route, but he’s hit hard by Timmons as he throws and the pass is incomplete. This is a well-timed blitz, and combined with an unimaginative play call by the offense, the result is not surprising.
Of course, the Ravens can’t run the Sail concept on every deep pass. However, I still think that Baltimore is relying too heavily on Torrey and Jacoby getting open on isolation routes, and it’s contributing to Joe’s awful deep ball completion percentage. When Caldwell actually schemes them open, rather than relying on their speed alone, we see some successful shot plays.