My film study of the Baltimore Ravens reveals a static, inert, predictable offense that is not difficult to defend tactically. From a personnel standpoint, it is predominantly “2 back,” with fullback Vonta Leach a key component in the running game. Take it one step further: it’s primarily a follow-the-fullback run game. Where Leach goes, Ray Rice is sure to be close behind. That simplifies the game planning for the defense. Leach almost always takes you to the point of attack.
The Ravens have shown a strong tendency to run the ball on first and 10. In their last 3 games, including their playoff win, the Ravens have had 59 first and 10 plays. They have run the ball on 45 of them, or 76%. While predictability and constancy in play calling is not necessarily a negative, that percentage is far too high.
On the Ravens’ 14 pass attempts on 1st and 10, Joe Flacco has completed 7 for 54 yards. 54 yards passing on 1st and 10 in 3 games. Overall, the Ravens passing game has not been productive in that stretch. Flacco has averaged less than 25 throws per game, and fewer than 150 yards. He’s been a complementary player in a run-first offense.
The film tells you why. The Ravens wide receivers struggle to create separation versus man-to-man coverage. It was particularly noticeable in the Divisional Playoff game against Houston. The Texans played press man coverage on the outside, and Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith could not get open. Boldin’s 2 longest catches were the result of Flacco making great throws into very small windows.
A number of things have jumped out watching the Ravens on tape over the last month. One is how few 3-wide receiver personnel groupings they utilize. Lee Evans was the third receiver against Houston; he played less than 10 snaps. In the final regular season game, the Ravens played a high percentage of what we call “22” personnel: 2 backs and 2 tight ends. Tight end Dennis Pitta was a featured player in the offense. He aligned all over the formation.
Pitta and the other tight end, Ed Dickson also played significant snaps together against the Texans. The problem for the Ravens, as opposed to the Patriots with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, is that Pitta and Dickson have not shown the necessary receiving ability that validates such extensive use of 2 TE personnel.
Another feature that stands out watching the Ravens passing game is how little they do conceptually to attack and break down man coverage. When your receivers cannot consistently win, you have to help them with specific tactics. Wide receiver motion, bunch concepts, stack release principles, rub elements – all help loosen and defeat man coverage. I don’t see that watching the Ravens. The result, of course, is Flacco looks indecisive and uncertain in the pocket. At times, he holds the ball too long and takes too many sacks.
The reality in the NFL is this: If your receivers can’t win versus man coverage you need new receivers not a new quarterback. In addition, Flacco threw 9 go routes. Either those were play calls or it was the Ravens automatic route adjustment versus press man. The bottom line is that go routes have about a 25% chance of being completed. That’s basically a “hope and a prayer” percentage.
It’s been easy to place the blame for the Ravens’ passing struggles on Joe Flacco. That’s misguided.