Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ravens-Steelers Preview, Part 3: Ravens Offense vs. Steelers Defense

Programming note: This is ATH's 250th post! Hoorah!

Much attention has been paid so far to the dominance of the Ravens’ defense during these playoffs, and it is much-deserved. Despite the yardage given up, they have only allowed 9.5 points per game in their two contests this season. While the Steelers weren’t quite so stingy last weekend, allowing 24 points on 3 Chargers passing touchdowns, this defense is still arguably the best in the NFL. Remember, this team has had almost the exact same schedule as the Ravens, yet their defense leads in all significant statistical categories over the Ravens. This may be partially aided by a better offense than the Ravens, but nevertheless it is impressive. They have not forced as many turnovers, but that is about it. It will take a very innovative attack to neutralize this pressure and allow Flacco the time he needs to deliver the deep balls that have become the staple of the Ravens scoring offense.

However, I do not like the over-reliance on the deep pass that Cam Cameron has instilled in his young quarterback. At the risk of being repetitive, it bothers me a great deal that Flacco has very few short routes to take advantage of on passing plays aside from a delayed dump-off to the running back for minimal gain. About midway through the season, Mark Clayton began hitting his stride and taking the short slants he was accustomed to catching to the house, burning secondaries along the way. Cameron took that and began to have Clayton go deep more often. Granted, this has been effective and has allowed the Ravens to get some big plays, but it has also made them unable to convert critical first downs. When the shortest route is a 15 yard out pattern to the sideline by Mason, that leaves the quarterback in the pocket for far too long and forces him to throw it away. Even Todd Heap is being used on deep routes over the middle of the field- he is good at it, but it is overworked to the point of taking away the types of throws that keep drives alive. As a result, the Ravens have gotten away somewhat from their ball-control offense and have limited their passing game to the point of predictability.

As anyone who watched the Dolphins and Titans game can attest to, the short passing game can complement a running attack that goes south to the point of extending time of possession and getting key first downs. Sometimes, on 3rd and 5 it is okay to run a 7 yard route. Unfortunately for the Ravens, Cameron has been calling 15 or 20 yard routes on those plays and exposing his quarterback to undue pressure. Some would counter that by citing Flacco’s relative inaccuracy with the football on shorter routes as the reason why Cameron has stuck with the deep throws he can make. Flacco’s problem is that he throws it too high on short routes, he puts a little too much on it and lays his receivers out. This is not too much that it should be taken out of the playbook. The Steelers defense will be watching the deep routes, and Troy Palomalu will be looking for an interception. Throwing in some short slants or out routes will play keep-away with the better DBs on the Steelers and extend time of possession for the Ravens. The Ravens won’t get past this contest with 9 first downs like they did against the Titans.

Keeping the Steelers defense on the field will be critical. As has been generously documented, the Ravens D is exhausted and if it is put in a normal contest between these two teams, they will break first. That is no slight to Baltimore, but they have fewer bodies to go around and have been playing for 18 straight weeks. Moreover, with Le’Ron McClain banged up and Willis McGahee struggling this season, the Ravens will need another option to come through big, possibly in the form of a rejuvenated Ray Rice. Rice has not played since Week 14 against the Redskins, and apparently could have carried the football for the last two weeks but the coaching staff elected not to. Prior to the Steelers taking the football and not giving it back to the Chargers, Darren Sproles had a surprising level of success against the Steelers through the air, with 5 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. However, on the ground the entire Chargers team only managed 15 yards on 12 carries. The Ravens must establish a presence in the middle of that Steelers defensive line, and if Le’Ron McClain is not 100% that will be incredibly difficult. Assuming he can run with his normal level of power, he should be able to duplicate his success from the last time these two teams met, when he ran for 87 yards on 23 carries. After he establishes himself with a couple solid runs, the Ravens would be wise to swing Rice out or run a screen to draw the defense in and spread them out. Pittsburgh will be putting 8 in the box and daring Joe Flacco to throw. That doesn’t mean he has to throw deep or has to do anything miraculous. Sometimes the easy throw is the right one. If Rice is successful on one or two screen passes, the defense will be forced to check for it on every play, and it may add just an instant of hesitation, which will be all McClain needs to find the hole and make a play.

Unfortunately, the Ravens signal caller had a career-low 22.2 passer rating during the Ravens 13-9 loss to the Steelers in their second matchup of the season, in which Flacco threw 2 interceptions and completed only 11 passes for 115 yards, the second-lowest number of completions and the lowest yards this season. All this despite his being sacked only twice all game. “Joe Cool” will have to bounce back, as Pittsburgh clearly saw something that they could exploit. Going into the game, the Ravens had scored 36, 34, and 24 points in their previous 3 games. Against the Steelers, they mustered only 9 points and while they came painfully close to the endzone 3 times, each time they had to settle for chip-shot field goals. If any of those field goals is converted into a touchdown, they have a whole other ball game. The Ravens will not win this game on field goals alone, as the Steelers know how to put the ball in the end zone when they have to. Baltimore runs the ball an astonishing 80% of the time in goal-to-go situations (that is, 1st and Goal, 2nd and Goal, etc.). This week they will have to put some faith in their quarterback to make the throw at the goalline, because I doubt the Steelers will be relaxing on the run game. Play action passing has been very good to the Ravens in completing deep passes downfield, why not at the goalline?

The Steelers defense is menacing. They will apply pressure at any opportunity (the team is 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 51 on the season) and stack up against the run. They don’t care what people have said about Joe Flacco’s calm demeanor and easygoing state of mind, they want to rattle him and make him realize the gravity of the game he is playing in. They won’t rattle him, but they could force him into throwing the ball away or not having enough time to recognize the coverage. Flacco has been incredibly diligent these playoffs in holding onto the football and not throwing interceptions- but unless he has time in the pocket, he may not spot that trailing safety before he lets go of the ball. Moreover, unless the Ravens have a legitimate threat of a rush, the Steelers will ignore a gimpy McClain and go after Flacco. The Ravens offensive line has been adequate this year, but they won’t be able to stop a pass rush with reckless abandon for the run. The key for the Ravens will be to establish a variety of offensive approaches- short routes, screen passes, etc. that avoid the biggest threats of the Pittsburgh defense and can neutralize their ability to react quickly to the play. Then, only then, can Flacco air it out and hit big.

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