Importance of Shotgun with Ravens Rookies Protecting the Blind Side
Opposing defensive fronts have to be licking their chops when preparing for the Ravens and seeing two rookies lined up on the offensive line. First round draft pick Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. Fourth round pick Alex Lewis beside him at left guard. Neither of them on draft day were anointed starters when their name was called. Eugene Monroe was still employed by the Ravens. As he enters year three, John Urschel seemed to be in line to take over the guard spot vacated by Kelechi Osemele.
That isn’t the case through two weeks of the regular season, as Stanley and Lewis have earned their spots in the starting lineup and now look to keep them.
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As we dig inside the numbers, lets start with their PFF grades. A snapshot of how well the players look thus far. Good points for good plays, bad points for bad plays, but the margin for error comes in when what’s graded as “bad” was actually the player following his assignment.
On a scale of 0-99, where Marshal Yanda is perennially in the 90s, Ronnie Stanley has received a 77.2. In the average range. His run blocking and pass blocking grades are near identical at 76.1 and 77.2 respectively.
Alex Lewis has not been so fortunate grading out at 50.4. That is 55th out of call it 64 starting guards in the NFL. 50.4 is in the very poor range, but there is a larger disparity in his run and pass block grade. A dreadful 38.6 in run blocking to go along with a 78.2 in pass blocking.
These numbers seem to reflect the two rookies scouting reports from the draft. Stanley was heralded as a special talent in all aspects. With only two games under him he has room to grow. I’d say well rounded is accurate. As a tackle in college, Lewis dropped to round four as a result of his tackle skills likely not to translating to the pro game. Back-up tackle, or guard play in his future. He would possess a great pass block, but lacks the quickness in getting out in front in run blocking in zone stretch type running games. That also appears to be quite accurate through two games. Or does it? We’ll take a look at one dangerous instance here shortly.
Side note: Marshal Yanda is PFF’s highest graded guard, currently at 86.9. Despite what we saw in week 1 as an underwhelming performance from the All-Pro. Second highest graded guard through two games is former Raven, Kelechi Osemele at 84.6. Living up to the large contract the Raiders offered him.
The Ravens are aware of the rookies and with that have adjusted their game plans accordingly. When running the ball, 29 such rushes have to the right, behind the All-Pro Yanda, and fourth year veteran in a contract year, Rick Wagner (81.8 from PFF, 48.5 from run block, 86.8 from pass block). Conversely, they only ran the ball 21 times to the rookie’s side on the left. It was very noticeable in the week one game against Buffalo that the Ravens tried to go to the right more often in the first few drives. Maybe to calm the nerves of the rookies in the first real test.
But I want to get to something that had Ravens fans holding their breath for a brief moment on Sunday. When Joe Flacco took the kind of hit that ended many a season for many players. Why the shotgun setup might have saved him? Or at least, allowed the Ravens to execute the play they did and go on to score a game changing touchdown.
In 2015, the Ravens placed quarterbacks in the shotgun on 39% of their snaps. That number is up to 51% through two games to start 2016. The reason is likely two fold. Two rookies are tasked with protecting the blind side of Joe Flacco for one. The viewpoint from the shotgun gives Joe Flacco more time to react to a blitz as he’s already made most of his drop back. Second, it puts less stress on Joe Flacco and his surgically repaired knee. He only has to drop back a step or two if need be, allowing him to get a quicker release and take less hits.
In theory that sounds great. But accidents can still happen and one almost did. Flacco took a low hit after the pass when Alex Lewis couldn’t hold his block.
Cleveland was flagged on the play. Flacco did an excellent job stepping into the throw and releasing the ball in about 2.13 seconds. But he took the hit after 2.4 seconds. Lewis didn’t engage his blocker long enough. If this wasn’t a shotgun set, it’s a sack or broken play at best. Worst case scenario Flacco is going through his progression and doesn’t brace for the hit leading to possible serious injury.
Let’s break it down. Here is the setup just after the snap of the ball. You can’t even see Marshal Yanda. Know why? Because he’s showing proper technique in his blocking of Danny Shelton (#55). He has leverage on his man as he gets up under him becoming an anchor. Compare Yanda to Alex Lewis at left guard. Just to the right of the upright in the picture (#72). Lewis is standing up tall leaving him susceptible to being knocked off balance by Stephen Paea (#99) who eventually reaches Flacco. On the right you see Ronnie Stanley in good position to fend off edge rusher and fellow rookie, Emmanual Ogbah (#90). Stanley has his arms cocked ready to deliver that initial punch, squared up to his man, and knees bent to aid in balance.
As we move ahead a couple frames, Yanda passes his block off to center, Jeremy Zuttah. With Crockett Gillmore (#80) running the route, Yanda needs to account for lurking LB, Demario Davis (#56). This is the beginning of a bad play for Lewis as he begins to lose balance, not facing up with his man. Stanley has engaged with Ogbah.
A few more frames ahead and now Lewis is completely beat. Paea conducts a swim move that throws the off balance Lewis all kinds of out of whack. All he sees is a wide open shot at the quarterback. Yanda’s job was done for now once Davis took coverage of Gillmore. Stanley actually gets beat on this play here as he doesn’t get a clean punch in on Ogbah to disrupt his flow. Ogbah is no slouch himself going #32 overall in the draft. He was active with the arms and hands as he rushed the edge, in blocking Stanley’s attempt to gain any force against him. Ogbah is able to run right past Stanley with Flacco in his sights. However, Stanley recovered in time to shove Ogbah off his line at the last second, forcing him to miss Flacco. Good form by Stanley throughout, he didn’t give up on the play. Sometimes you just tip your cap to the opposition.
We see the end result above. Not a position you want to put Joe Flacco in. This could have been a negative play or worse if Marc Trestman didn’t call for the shotgun here. Instead Flacco fires the ball off in plenty of time for a 22 yard gain to put the Ravens into the red zone. Two plays later, from the shotgun, Flacco to Mike Wallace for the touchdown. A huge turning point in this game.
People might not like how often the Ravens are going shotgun. But if it keeps Joe Flacco safe until you can fully count on a pair of rookies to protect his blind side, I’m okay wit it. From the looks of it with Alex Lewis, we better get used to it as he needs more improvement than Ronnie Stanley. Making the transition from college tackle to NFL guard can take time. It looked like he played this one like a tackle, getting a little taller than he should. Old habits are hard to kick. Good thing Lewis has the best in the business in Yanda on his side to learn from.