Previewing Week 4: Baltimore Ravens vs. Oakland Raiders
The last time the Ravens squared off with the Oakland Raiders was a game Baltimore fans would soon like to forget. Week 2 of 2015 became a shootout when the Ravens found themselves quickly behind, down 10-0 before even getting comfortable in the “Black Hole”.
Despite Joe Flacco having one of his best games of the year, the Ravens defense was no match for the up and coming Raiders, anxious to put years of forgettable football behind them. The Ravens were out gunned 37-33 while Flacco was 32 of 45 on the day (71.1%) for 382 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. A foolish personal foul by Timmy Jernigan and holding called on the would be game sealing interception by Will Davis, extended the Raiders winning drive in the final seconds.
Both teams look much different over a year later. Namely the secondary’s each quarterback lit up that day have new personnel and for good reason.
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The Raiders enter play with a 2-1 record and both wins coming on the road. They are in the same boat as the Ravens as far as drawing conclusions from their previous matchups. They love to be off to a good start, but their two wins have come against the 0-3 Saints and 1-2 Titans. Of the Ravens three opponents, only the Bills have won a single game through three weeks. This has the makings of a good measuring stick game for both teams. The Raiders have to be at a slight disadvantage going on the road for the third time in four weeks. Trap game could be a possibility for them as well with the Raiders looking forward to returning home for two divisional games in weeks 5 and 6.
The Ravens defense has been improved ten-fold through three games this year. They are on pace for 48 sacks which would be 11 more than last season. All the while without Elvis Dumervil whom we hope returns for this tilt. They have also secured five interceptions. With one more pick, they will tie the number that they hauled in all of last season. Baltimore is second in the league in yards allowed per game at 254.3 (Seattle – 250.3) and fourth in scoring defense allowing 14.7 PPG (Minnesota – 13.3, Seattle – 12.3, Philadelphia – 9.0).
Given the improved Ravens defense, I want to focus on what the Raiders offense brings to the table in this matchup. Their offense is going to have to show up if Oakland wants to leave Baltimore 3-1. The Raiders come into this one ranked dead last in yards allowed per game with a whopping 476. Scoring wise they are in the bottom tier at 26.3 PPG allowed. Joe Flacco seems to have his better games in the comfort of home. He also became a father for the fourth time, welcoming a baby girl into the world to go along with his three boys. So you wonder if there is a little extra something there. Kid wise, Flacco is getting close to Melvin Mora status.
Onto the Raiders offense and what sticks out to me the most. As I watched their recent tape from the 17-10 win at Tennessee, they often play “in reverse”. I don’t mean like they move backwards, but more in the sense of how baseball pitcher will pitch in reverse. Some pitchers will get ahead with a fastball early if a guy is likely to take on the first pitch. They save the junk pitches for when they have two strikes and a pitch to waste. Great pitchers will drop a 12-6 curve ball in there for a strike to start the sequence, then the batter doesn’t know what to expect next. If you look junk, the fastball becomes “faster”. If you look fastball, the junk makes you look foolish.
The Raiders offense on the first play of last week’s game drew up a deep pass to Amari Cooper for 25 yards, quickly moving into Titans territory. They didn’t establish a running game, or some short completions to build some timing and wear down the defense early. The way a pitcher might establish fastball command early. Easy stuff first. The Raiders went for a long one and converted right off the bat. Later in the game on a 3rd and 8, a clear passing down, they did a delayed run, good for 11 yards and a first down. During the two-minute drill towards the end of the half, they executed another long run in a clear passing situation.
Come to the 4th quarter, three minutes to play, Raiders up by seven and posses the ball. The book would say it’s time to milk the clock. On 1st down, Derek Carr threw deep to Amari Cooper. The pass was incomplete, but completely caught the Titans off guard. Had they connected, the Raiders could have sealed the deal right there. Now, the Raiders ended up punting, the Titans had a chance to score and force overtime, but a penalty negated their scoring chance in the final seconds and they turned it over on downs.
High risk, high reward. Oakland’s offense will do some unpredictable things…unless you game plan for that and predict them yourself. On the first play of drives where time and score are not necessarily a factor, they threw the ball on five of six occasions. If they pass when you think they are going to run, and they run when you think they are going to pass, and they execute, the Oakland offense could have a big day. DeAndre Washington, backup running back to Latavius Murray, notched 9.5 yards per carry on his six attempts. He was able to get big chunks because of the timing of the calls. He would gain 5 or 6 yards before a Titans player is even close enough to get a finger on him at times. Murray scored a TD, but only recorded 37 yards on 10 carries (3.7 YPC). 22 of the 37 came on the touchdown run.
Quarterback Derek Carr will adjust on the fly, and the Ravens will have to adjust accordingly. Eric Weddle has been masterful at communicating adjustments to the defense as the captain of the unit. No one on the team might be more familiar with the Raiders than Weddle, former division rival during his time with the Chargers.
The Ravens are going to have to play all 60 minutes in this one as Oakland leads the NFL in points scored in the 4th quarter with 36 (though not scoring in the second half at all last week), and have converted touchdowns on six consecutive red zone trips. They seem to have quite a game plan when the field gets shorter. It’s up to the coaching staff to counter that. Stay aggressive and keep them out of the red zone. Settling for field goals might not cut it as touchdowns seem likely the closer they get.
The other wrinkle in Bill Musgrave’s offense is that he will often try to isolate a potential blitzer. Almost like he’s trying to play 10-on-10. Watch for plays where the running back goes in motion all the way to the sideline. Then at the snap. He stands still like a statue, in no athletic position, not even ready to field a pass. But the defense still has to account for him, so whoever follows the motion man will stand next to him while the rest of the action takes place. (Side note: Bill Musgrave and John Harbaugh were on the Eagles coaching staff together in 1998).
Here’s a look at an example from the coach’s film. It’s 2nd down and 8 from the Raiders own 11-yard line. Early in the 3rd quarter. Raiders lead 17-3. A sack could pin them against their own goal line, or worse. I’ve numbered the potential blockers and the potential rushers on this play. If the snap goes off as is, we don’t know if Latavius Murray is going to run a route. It could be seven rushers versus six blockers. Someone will have a free release on Derek Carr. If Murray is a stay at home blocker it’s a seven-on-seven scenario, but then Murray has to know who to pick up. Could be anyone. Could be Titans 1 coming wide off the edge. Could be Titans 3, 4, or 7 if they crash the A-gap. I would assume 7 if the other blockers put a hat on a hat and the ILB slips through.
Now from the broadcast cam, you can see where Murray is going, and why the Titans best edge rusher Brian Orakpo has to follow him. Their top cornerback Jason McCourty is locked in on Amari Cooper in press man coverage. He’s not playing a zone where he can stay home and pass off Cooper to someone behind him. Carr knows this because of McCourty’s hips. Square to the receiver = man coverage, turned facing the quarterback = zone coverage. So by sending Murray in motion, a defender has to leave the box to account for him, or he’ll be wide open with McCourty stuck to Cooper.
As we go back to the coach’s cam after the motion is done, let’s recount the men in the box. Six-on-six, no guessing, hat on a hat. Most important is no Brian Orakpo. The Raiders are already winning this play. The only question is will the tight end (Raiders 1) be running a passing route, or stay in to block. If he runs a route and the Titans rush six-on-five, the Raiders have a check down option to that tight end. If the Titans cover the tight end it becomes a five-on-five, and yet a second potential rusher taken out of the equation.
One last time to the broadcast cam. The tight end runs his route and the linebacker (numbered 7 then 5 on the previous graphics) covers him. Orakpo can’t do a thing but stand there and watch the play unfold. It’s 10-on-10. Five-man rush, five blockers, Carr has a squeaky clean pocket, a clear sight line to his primary target Amari Cooper, and delivers it to him at the sticks.
Interesting concept the Raiders ran about four times last week, with not one pass going to the statue or decoy receiver. The Ravens have likely seen this in their game prep and thus the chess match begins. Essentially it’s like swapping queens in chess. Except Murray is more like a rook to Orakpo’s queen. Flip the script, if the Ravens executed this on offense, motioning Justin Forsett out and Khalil Mack had to cover him, Forsett is like pawn to Mack’s queen. Make that sacrifice all day long. Ravens will have to hope that when the Raiders execute this it’s when Kamalei Correa or Albert McClellan are out there. Not Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon, or Dumervil if he returns to action.
To sum up the Raiders offensive game plan, if it isn’t conventional, the Raiders will probably do it. Will that get them in trouble? Possibly. Sometimes you would be wise to go by the book and milk the clock when it says to, or pass the ball at least 9 yards down field on 3rd and 8.
I like the Ravens at home, against a defense that hasn’t slowed many teams down. The Raiders offense could get their motor running too and the Ravens defense has to counteract that. Home crowd behind them, beautiful day on tap, I think they get the job done but the Raiders offense won’t be silenced.
Prediction: Ravens 34, Raiders 24
Notes: Ronnie Stanley was in a walking boot yesterday and Alex Lewis has not cleared concussion protocol yet. That would leave a mess on the left side of the line with James Hurst and John Urschel in line to man those positions. Unless they get creative in their alignment with the versatility of some of the players.
Kenneth Dixon was limited in practice yesterday as we wonder if he could be the spark that jump starts the Ravens running game.
Elvis Dumervil was a full go in practice as we look for his return and contributions in the pass rush department.