Stopping the Ravens' Offense
It'll be very interesting to see how the Redskins line up against Baltimore's passing game. It's hardly their forte, with few weapons, yet Baltimore is putting up strong point totals and rookie Joe Flacco is thriving in the system developed by offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Flacco has been as good as almost any quarterback over the past seven weeks, with Cameron continuing to emphasize the run to a degree well beyond any other NFL club. That keeps Flacco pretty well insulated, and when the kid has to make plays - particularly to wide receiver Derek Mason on third downs - he is shining. (Mason has 21 catches on third down, fourth-best in the NFL).
Flacco's start was pretty rough, a little rougher than most since he was trying to make the jump to the NFL from the University of Delaware. He had thrown just one touchdown and seven interceptions in his first five starts, but Cameron eventually implemented more gadget plays like the Wildcat - including a 43-yard pass to Flacco - double-reverses, and wide-receiver options (more on that throughout the week). And the running game has continued to churn the clock better than any other NFL team (33:50 per game).
As a result, Flacco has attempted more than 30 passes only three times this season (all losses to three of the NFL's elite - Pittsburgh, Indy and the Giants) and the Ravens are 7-1 when he passes 29 times or less.
That's their formula and it has proven difficult to derail. It's particularly tough when Flacco puts up numbers like these over his last seven games: 112 for 187 for 1,535 yards with 11 TDs and 2 INTs, for a 101.1 passer rating. That's outstanding for a veteran QB, much less a rookie, and a complete departure from the first weeks, when Flacco was at the bottom of the NFL quarterback stats.
If you sell out to stop the run, as Skins defensive coordinator Greg Blache did last week against the Giants, Flacco can hurt you. Again, he's been very big on third down (eighth-best rating in the NFL). If he sees a steady diet of eight-man boxes, it could result in a few big plays. I would expect Blache to blitz him in the way he attacked Seattle a few weeks back, and trust that his corners can handle Mason.
Tight end Todd Heap has had to do a lot more blocking this season and has been largely a nonfactor downfield. (His size and strength make him an impossible matchup if the Skins even think about putting strong-side linebacker H.B. Blades on him, and I imagine Cameron would like to make him the primary if Rock McIntosh tries to man up on him as well). Wide receiver Mark Clayton was considered a draft bust before breaking out with some big games the last few weeks. Still, I'm thinking the Skins' coaches will figure they can get by with a single high safety, shaded on Mason.
To me, this is a week where you vary your coverages in the secondary - something we didn't see enough of against the Giants - play more Cover-2 to give the corners a chance to read Flacco and try to jump on some routes. I wouldn't worry so much about manning up on a particular receiver and matching up, even on Mason, though I would not be surprised if the Skins stuck with that tactic.
It seems like Carlos Rogers thrives when he is given a particular assignment and gets to focus on one individual. He studies, learns that receiver's nuances and routes, rather than playing a side and getting a look at various receivers and matchups. So if they go that route I get it, but regardless they need to throw more zone and zone blitzing in there.
The key will be whether they can contain the run while playing some Cover-2. For while the Ravens are productive in the run game, they are anything but explosive. They average 3.8 per carry - below the NFL average - and rely on pure brawn and commitment to the run rather than any individual ("feature" back Willis McGahee has been oft-injured and ineffective). They love to pound tailback/fullback Laron McClain in the fourth quarter and grind opponents and while rookie running back Ray Rice excels on draws and is very fleet, they do not have the kind of burst you really fear.
Better balance between defending the run and the pass is in order. Against Seattle, it was all about blitzing and coverage, and against the Giants it was all about stopping the run. Finding a happy medium might be the best way to bottle up a Ravens team that has scored 27 points or more in six of the last seven games, and scored 34 points or more in four of the past five games.
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