The Ravens Blitz-Happy Third Down Defense
The nail-biter on Thanksgiving night brought out the aggression in defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed a fairly clean pocket on the “Money Down” when he faced the Ravens defense in Week 7. This was not the case this past Thursday as the defense dialed up exotic pre- and post-snap blitz looks to muddy Ben’s reads and force him to release the ball quickly. The Steelers 3rd-down conversion percentage dropped accordingly (although only slightly): 58% in Week 7, 53% in Week 13.
So what was the Ravens game-plan like? I went to the film to take a look.
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Pressure by Formation
I took a look at all 14 of the Steelers 3rd down plays and added the Steelers 4th and Goal play at the end of the game. That gallery is here.
If you browsed the linked gallery, you’ll notice that the Ravens started to show their “Amoeba/Psycho” fronts during this game. These pressure looks create uncertainty in the quarterback’s pre-snap reads. If the blitz comes, the QB must read quickly and force the ball to a quick route without getting a clear picture of the coverage. If the blitz is feigned and multiple defenders back into short zones, this can leave the OL to block air and the QB to adjust to a new coverage after the snap. The Ravens have had success using these packages before including against Tom Brady.
Pressure by Practice
I mentioned before the Thanksgiving game that it would behoove the Ravens to pressure Roethlisberger even though he has a respectable completion percentage when under pressure this year (49.2%, good for 11th out of 30 QBs). Coming into the Ravens re-match, Roethlisberger was white-hot and playing some of the smartest football I’d seen him play. My reasoning for pressure was to confuse protection alignments in front of Ben and force him to play fast. The Ravens mixed up the number of rushers, keeping things unpredictable (as seen in my 3rd down gallery). And when they pressured Ben, the results were generally favorable:
This play came with 3:14 left in the First Quarter. A third down play with 6 yards to go before the sticks.
The Ravens are using their standard 2-4-5 Nickel look that was common throughout this game. With seven potential rushers (including 3 from outside the Tackles), the Steelers used “half-slide right” protection (i.e. LT, LG, and C use zone protection against Dumervil, Jones, and Smith). This leaves the LG and LT and RB to block three potential rushers. Ihedigbo on Le’Veon Bell? The Ravens will take that.
Only 5 rushers come and the RT Marcus Gilbert is left to block no one.
On the back-end, the Ravens play a Combination coverage. With Ihedigbo blitzing, Lardarius Webb is now the de-facto second safety.
On the far side of the field, CB Smith, LB Brown, and FS Elam play with Cover-2 rules. On the near side of the field, Corey Graham is in “Solo” coverage (man, no help) while Dumervil and Webb use an In-Out bracket of Cotchery. The Ravens bracketed the slot receiver often during this game. It’s a strategy that had a lot of success.
Pressure begins to bear down on Roethlisberger and he can only afford to read half of the field.
Cotchery runs an option route (work off the leverage of the defender) and opts to break outside.
In this still, both Daryl Smith and James Ihedigbo are pressuring Ben to release the ball. While scrambling, Ben throws to Cotchery but the ball lands short. Incomplete. Fourth Down. Punt.
No game-plan is rigid enough where the same defense is run in the same situation repetitively. There were times when the Ravens sat back in coverage and rushed the standard number of rushers (as can be seen in my 3rd down gallery). No Ravens third down call was more passive (and got more Twitter flack) than in the Third Quarter, 6:33, with 8 yards to go:
The Ravens rush only 3 here with Tampa-2 coverage behind them. The wrinkle is that Ngata drops into a QB Spy role (orange) at the snap.
Both Suggs and Dumervil pressure Roesthlisberger around the edges. But rushing only 3 defenders gives Ben a huge alley to step up into. The coverage at this point is stellar.
The coverage can only hold up for so long. Ngata steps up to Ben from his Spy role but Cotchery was able to freelance his route behind Daryl Smith for an uncontested Touchdown.
Fans will yell that using Ngata as a Spy is a poor decision here. That extra interior pressure would have been more beneficial than a Spy. I can’t disagree with this notion. I can say that if Ben rushed for a Touchdown, fans would be upset in the opposite direction.
The Ravens defense tended to keep the Steelers from First Downs when they pressured Ben. This was not always the case. There were several plays where pressure lost and there were other plays where dropping seven won. Ultimately, Roethlisberger was less efficient and far less accurate when his reads were intentionally obfuscated.
I look forward to seeing the Ravens defensive game-plan in coming weeks now that it appears they have faith in their younger secondary to be the back-stop for exotic blitz looks.