For a team that just fired their offensive coordinator on Monday, the Baltimore offense was firing on all cylinders on the first drive of the game. The Ravens came out in power formations, lining up with two- and three-tight end sets (with Darren Waller as the third TE), and ran the ball right down the Redskins’ throats. With two and three tight ends on the field, former offensive coordinator Marc Trestman ran some overload blocking schemes to the left side to spring tailback Terrance West loose in the running game.
Trestman was actually onto something with this approach. The Redskins were certainly caught off balance. These packages not only proved to boost the running game, but the Washington linebackers struggled to match up with the Ravens’ tight ends. The problem was, after that first drive, these multi-TE sets were only used for show to get the play-action passing game going.
With Steve Smith looking doubtful for this game and Mike Wallace not at 100%, featuring the tight ends in the passing game makes perfect sense. What new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg needs to do is expand the route tree, especially for Waller, who has the size/speed combo to line up against safeties and corners. Use of pre-snap motion will enable Joe Flacco to take advantage of one-on-one matchups that Waller and Dennis Pitta should win against base defensive personnel.
Of course, these packages will be useless if there is no commitment to the run game. The Giants must account for a power running game or the TEs won’t find openings in the middle of the field.
The Return of Hard Run Action
Once the running game gets going, play-action should open up in a big way. But against the Redskins, the play-action passing game was inconsistent at best, even from the two-back, two/three-tight looks Baltimore was giving for much of the first half. Once Trestman lost patience with the power game, he turned back to the open shotgun looks, and play-action was an afterthought.
One of the staples of a Mornhinweg offense is a biting play-action passing game. Under Trestman, play-action didn’t fool anyone because the fakes were carried out so poorly. But Mornhinweg will simulate an entire run orchestra with linemen pulling and backs carrying out the false action of a handoff.
This New York defense has some serious gamblers on the back end, including cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The use of some well-timed, well-coordinated run action will go a long way in opening up the downfield passing game while creating space for the tight ends and receivers to operate on inside routes.
Under Center = Under Control
More runs from power formations and more run-action naturally means more of Flacco operating from under center. We saw Flacco under center more often against the Redskins. At this point, with the offensive line struggling to block from open shotgun sets, that’s the way to go – especially as they face the Giants’ edge rush combo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon.
To this point, the duo has been a bust. J.P.P. is also struggling with a groin injury but all indications are that he’ll play. With both Baltimore offensive tackles also in danger of missing the game, this could be the breakout opportunity for the bookends.
By keeping Flacco under center and using tighter formations, Mornhinweg has a better chance to keep J.P.P. and Vernon from teeing off. He can keep the tight ends on the line and use them to chip and provide extra blocking help on the perimeter.
Don’t Fall For the Trap
It’s remarkable to think of how far the Baltimore secondary has come since last season. Not only is the unit ranked fifth against the pass, but the bigger development is they have given up the second fewest plays covering 20 yards or more.
One of the clear factors you can point to is improved communication. Last year, the safeties were routinely out of position and struggled to collaborate on the fly. With Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb, communication across the back end has been crystal clear. But better eye discipline has been another key to the improved play. For the most part, both safeties have maintained their depth and haven’t been influenced by pump fakes and play-fakes.
That discipline will be tested against Eli Manning. The two-time Super Bowl MVP is notorious for shifting his shoulders and using his eyes to get defenders to chase away from his intended strike zone. And he’s normally targeting the deep middle part of the field.
To this point, every defense that’s faced the Giants have taken these routes away by keeping their safeties deep and not falling for those fakes. Weddle and Webb need to stick to the same script against the dangerous New York pass catchers. Don’t give up anything cheap and force Manning to methodically move the ball through the air, which he’s struggled to do all year.
Get Manning Off the Spot
Aside from defenses keeping their safeties back to take away the deep game, the Giants simply haven’t been able to keep the pocket clean for vertical strikes. Manning has been besieged behind an offensive line that can’t win their one-on-one blocking duties.
The Ravens need to find a way to pressure Manning up the middle to get him moving laterally. He’s completely ineffective when he must throw on-the-go. The last time these two teams met back in 2012, defensive coordinator Dean Pees ran an assortment of A-gap pressures to force Manning out of the pocket. Pees would also bluff out of those blitzes to keep the Giants’ QB guessing on when the inside backers were coming.
With C.J. Mosley highly questionable for this game, it’ll be interesting to see if Pees still implements this plan with Zach Orr and either Albert McClellan or Kamalei Correa manning the strong-side spot.
Another wrinkle to consider is that the Giants will rely on third-down backs Bobby Rainey (former Raven) and Paul Perkins to pick up the blitz. When they stay in to block, the ILBs should be on green dog alert to shoot the gaps and challenge the undersized backs to hold their ground.
Defending the Pass-Catching Backs
Speaking of Rainey and Perkins, their primary role will be in the passing game as third-down drive extenders. They’ve taken over for Shane Vereen, who was a fixture in the Giants’ underneath passing game.
If you look at the way the Giants use their backs, they aren’t merely dump-off options for Manning when he needs to check down (which has been happening more often this season). New York devises screens and circle routes to feature their backs in space. Perkins has ripped off chunk plays off of outside screens in back-to-back weeks against Minnesota and Green Bay.
The Baltimore backers were exposed by the Redskins’ backs in the middle of the field a week ago, especially on early downs. The Baltimore backers took deeper drops to defend the tight ends, but they gave up too much space for the backs to pick up loose change underneath.
Underneath coverage needs to be much tighter to contain the Giants’ backs. Mixing in some dime looks (with Anthony Levine playing dime backer) will help mitigate the damage. But instead of waiting to play dime as they did against Washington, these packages should be used early and often against a New York offense that presents no threat to run the ball.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Both rookies have had an immediate impact for their teams. As the Giants’ second-round pick, Shepard is the one with the star power. Running as the Giants’ slot receiver, he hasn’t disappointed. Shepard’s a slippery route runner with the leaping ability to be a factor on jump balls in the red zone. Young has been impressive as the Ravens’ slot corner. He has the change-of-direction and ball skills you need from someone handling quick inside targets. Look for Young to get the opportunity to match up with Shepard without safety help.