Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breaking Down the Unbalanced Line: A Look at Cameron's Latest Wrinkle

As anyone who was able to watch the telecast Sunday night of the Ravens-Redskins game will notice, Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron pulled out another set of plays out of his bag of tricks, but this week it was markedly less explosive. He decided to go with an unbalanced line for about 25% of the Ravens offensive snaps, pulling the near side tackle to the opposite side and exposing the guard. This was generally used as a simple run between the tackles (literally), which was not effective at all- look no further than the Ravens’ top 2 rushers from Sunday, who averaged a combined 3 yards per carry. Personally the moment I saw this type of power set in play I sighed and didn’t buy it. I will try to break down what I saw and whether this wrinkle by Cameron is/should be here to stay.

The off-tackle runs that comprised the mass majority of the plays out of the unbalanced line were clearly geared to set up the play action, but it is important to review why this may not have worked as well as the offensive staff would have hoped. First of all, it was too obvious. When the tackle moved to the other side, the defense knew exactly where the run was going to. If the entire line didn’t shift to the strong side at the snap, the Ravens might have been able to set up a misdirection with Ray Rice cutting back to the weak side, but this was never attempted. Ray Rice did cut back for some pretty runs, but they were not out of the unbalanced line. Instead, Cameron elected to put his road graters up against the Redskins- Anderson, Gaither, and McClain against London Fletcher and the Redskins defense. However, Washington was consistently able to read this play and break up the interior of the tackle combination or come around Anderson from the side he was not accustomed to protecting, creating first contact before the line of scrimmage and limiting these plays to 1-3 yard gains. It was clear that this had been implemented only in the last few weeks, as these were too slow in developing.

What seemed to be Cam’s goal in all of this power-running was the implementation of a play action bootleg to the weak side of the unbalanced line, ideally to have an open receiver or possibly an opne running lane for Flacco to pick up a few easy yards. As stated earlier however, the nature of this set creates an unfavorable mismatch for the offense. The tackle, normally responsible for taking on any stray rushers on the weak side has been moved to the strong side, with only a guard to protect the edge in support if the play breaks down (in play action, the tight end is out on a pattern). It is assumed that the play will shift to the strong side as the line moves, taking the defensive line with it. What is also assumed is that the linebackers will completely buy into the play- as we saw on Sunday night, the linebacker furthest away from the play doesn’t always do so. In this situation the guard who is left over is neither athletic enough nor experienced in how to cover the edge of the play. What we witnessed against the Redskins was a consistent exploitation of this play by the Washington linebackers who stayed home, forcing Flacco to throw into coverage or throw the football away.

There may have also been a simple problem of execution. Joe Flacco was dropping back a full 5-7 yards behind the line of scrimmage as he faked the handoff and made is way around to the other side of the play. If that wasn’t the slowest I have ever seen Flacco run, then it was close. By the time he had turned back around to the play, the defense had caught on to the play and was in his face. Yes, he lucked out with that 24 yard completion to Heap, but aside from that the defense was in no way fooled. The lack of effectiveness on the ground in that set may have helped the defense stay at home, but this was as slow a setup and delivery I have seen out of the Ravens rookie in a while.

I have seen this run in college quite a bit, and if it can work in college there is some way to get it to work in the pros (see the Wildcat formation, which no one said would ever work in the pros). The Ravens still have an offensive line that is gelling, they are not used to the man next to them or the position they are playing. Many of these linemen have shuffled positions or been pressed into service; is this the time to put them in these unusual situations? There is a great deal of potential here, but I personally don’t see the reason to pull a tackle before the snap when you don’t need it to be successful in the power running game. As you may recall, the Ravens were successful running the football for that final scoring drive when the ran the football up the middle of the field, not stringing it off the edge. Send McClain behind the guard and Lorenzo Neal. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for the unbalanced line, but not on 25% of the snaps and not before the offensive line has proven its mettle.

Photo Credit: McCatchy-Tribune Photo

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