Breaking Down the Baltimore Ravens' Gameplan for a Massive Upset in Denver
After all, the Ravens were blown out by 17 points against the Broncos in Baltimore, where the Ravens are borderline unstoppable. Further, the Ravens are just 1-2 against repeat opponents this season, with both of their losses in the AFC North coming in the second games of those respective series.
The Broncos have more talent, more athleticism, and they are at home. On paper, there is litle reason to think the Ravens have a chance.
Look a little closer, though, and there are reasons for optimism for Baltimore.
The No. 1 reason that this will not be a blowout is the Ravens' pedigree of playoff success. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens' worst loss in the playoffs was a 20-3 thumping by the Indianapolis Colts. That's a big margin, but it was more competitive than the score indicates. Outside of that loss, the Ravens have never lost by double-digits in the playoffs under Harbaugh.
Further, the Ravens are much healthier than they were in Week 15. Ray Lewis is back and motivating the Ravens, Bernard Pollard is back on the field, and guys like Ed Reed and Dannell Ellerbe are as fresh as they've been all season.
There are reasons for optimism here, but the Ravens will still need a flawless gameplan. Let's take a look at what they need to do to pull of the monumental upset.
Give the New Look Offensive Line Help
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Joe Flacco was rightly criticized for a poor performance against the Broncos in Week 15, but to be fair, he never had a fighting chance. Look at the offensive line's performance: Flacco was dropped three times, hit seven times, and pressured a total of 15 times. That means there were 15 dropbacks that resulted in sacks or incompletions due to poor pass protection.
The Ravens sported a new lineup along the line against the Colts on Sunday, with Bryant McKinnie pushing Michael Oher to the right, moving Kelechi Osemele in to left guard.
Without question, that's the Ravens' best lineup to deal with Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, but they will still need help.
Examining the individual matchups, McKinnie actually matches up well with Dumervil. Against the Colts, McKinnie surrendered just one pressure to Dwight Freeney, and Dumervil possesses a similar skill set to the Colt's edge-rusher.
The other side, though, remains problematic. Miller is a bona fide superstar, and Michael Oher will not be able to block him one-on-one. Miller got by Osemele in the first meeting for six pressures, as the Ravens usually didn't offer Osemele any help.
The Ravens can't afford to make that mistake twice. Oher will need help to block Miller, and a double-team with a running back or tight end could make the difference between a clean pocket and a sack.
If the Ravens are to pass the ball deep, as they want to be able to do, they will need time in the pocket to get it done. Double-teaming Miller is the only way to ensure that happens.
One other thing the Ravens can do is roll Flacco out of the pocket. Flacco is surprisingly mobile, and rolling away from Miller could buy him the time to find Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith deep.
However they do it, the Ravens need to find a way to neutralize Von Miller. That might be the No. 1 key to the game.
Make the Broncos One-Dimensional on Offense
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Believe it or not, Peyton Manning was not the catalyst for the Bronco's win in Week 15, it was Knowshon Moreno, who racked up 115 yards and a touchdown on his 21 carries.
With the Ravens unable to stop Moreno, the Broncos were able to benefit from play-action passing. As The Baltimore Sun's Matt Vensel points out, Manning's passer rating was 143.4 on play-action passes.
Shut down Moreno and make the Broncos one-dimensional, and that number drops significantly.
The keys to that are nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody. Kemoeatu and Cody are two of the worst nose tackles in the entire NFL, getting pushed around on a near-constant basis despite both weighing over 350 pounds.
Hoping for these two to improve is probably foolish, so the Ravens will need to find a way to make up for them.
A healthier Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee should help, as well as the return of Ray Lewis and Ellerbe, neither of whom played against the Broncos earlier in the season.
To account for the run-defense void in the middle of the defense, the Ravens would be wise to run-blitz Lewis and Ellerbe regularly.
This would serve two purposes. First of all, both Lewis and Ellerbe are awful in coverage anyway. Ellerbe has given up a passer rating of 97.1 to opposing passers this season, while Lewis has been even worse, surrendering a rating of 100.3. Getting them out of coverage would actually be a good thing for this defense.
More importantly, though, it would make up for Cody and Kemoeatu's struggles. It would allow Ellerbe and Lewis to play more active, rather than reactive, football and make plays in the backfield. The Ravens' defense would feed off that aggression and turn it in to much better play on the field.
Get the Running Game Going
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The conventional wisdom regarding the Ravens is that if Ray Rice gets the ball enough, the Ravens will win.
As Lee Corso would say: Not so fast, my friend!
Bernard Pierce must be the catalyst to the Ravens' running game against the Broncos, as he possesses the explosion and power to make the Broncos' defense pay in a way that Rice was unable to in Week 15.
My favorite stat this season shows just how explosive Bernard Pierce is: Counting the playoffs, Pierce has a carry of 10+ yards in 13-of-17 games this season for the Ravens. Including receptions, Pierce has had a play go for more than 10 yards in all but two games this season, one of which he didn't even receive a touch in.
That doesn't mean I want Pierce to get the majority of the carries of course. There is a reason Rice gets the majority of the carries: He's more reliable and less prone to taking a loss.
The ideal split would be 20 carries for Rice and 10 for Pierce. That would allow Rice to wear down the defense, setting Pierce up for a big run or two.
To be honest, who gets the carries really won't matter as long as they are turned into production. Splitting the carries between these two dynamic backs gives the team the best chance to run the ball effectively.
Joe Flacco is not good enough to win this game on his own. Pound the rock, and the Ravens can be in position to win this game.
Isolate Paul Kruger on Orlando Franklin
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If the Ravens are to have any prayer of slowing down Peyton Manning, they will need to pressure him. The centerpiece of any plan to do that is Paul Kruger.
In the second half of the season Kruger had 7.5 sacks, and he continued that torrid pace in the playoffs, with eight total pressures against the Colts. The Ravens cannot let the Broncos neutralize Kruger.
The best way to do that is to set up a matchup between Kruger and Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin. While Franklin is no slouch, having surrendered just four sacks this season, he did give up two pressures in the teams' Week 15 matchup. Kruger should make that number grow on Saturday.
Now, finding the ideal matchup is well and good, but how are the Ravens going to make sure this matchup happens? The best way is to blitz, early and often. Teams are able to double-team Kruger when the Ravens send four or fewer pass rushers, usually meaning no pressure.
Send five or more rushers, though, and the Broncos will be unable to double-team Kruger. That should set both the defense and Kruger himself to do some serious damage rushing the passer.
There is another way to coax Kruger into one-on-one matchups, which would be ideal if possible. This way would entail another Raven to break out as a feared rusher himself, pulling the double-team away from Kruger.
Looking at the Ravens' roster, this seems unlikely, if not impossible. Kruger is the only player on the entire roster to be a force rushing the passer this season, which is all the more amazing considering the attention he's been paid from opponents. There is one player, though, who has the power to help Kruger.
That player is Haloti Ngata, who might be even more important for the Ravens' pass rush than Kruger. Ngata will absolutely need to push the pocket so Manning can't step up and deliver strikes. Doing that alone would be a big help for Kruger and Terrell Suggs.
Ngata was hobbled in the first matchup, but he has since become more healthy and more of a force. The Broncos have done well against defensive tackles this season, even holding the stellar Geno Atkins to just one pressure. If Ngata bucks that trend, though, he and Kruger can combine to wreak havoc.
Pressure Manning, and the Broncos won't be able to score at will. Give him time, and the Ravens have no prayer. Ngata and Kruger will be crucial.
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This is easier said than done, but it needs to be an emphasis going into the game: The Ravens must not shoot themselves in the foot. That means a focus on two things in particular: penalties and turnovers.
Turnovers should be easy, but they never are. The Ravens' game plan should be focused on running the ball effectively and getting Joe Flacco some high-percentage throws. Limit the deep balls to either favorable matchups or third downs, where an interception isn't much different from a punt anyway.
If Flacco is careful, he won't break the game with interceptions like he did in Week 15. Fumbles, though, are a different story. Ray Rice had two last week while Flacco has had nine this season.
Rice knows how to carry a football, yet his fundamentals got sloppy last week. That can't happen again. Flacco, on the other hand, has always been a problem area in that regard. The Ravens can hopefully avoid a Flacco fumble with sound pass protection.
Penalties will be just as important. If the Ravens again rack up nine penalties for 70 yards, as they did last week, they won't be able to beat the Broncos. Particularly egregious was a taunting call against Bernard Pollard that saw the talented safety get pulled from the game.
John Harbaugh needs to make this clear. Any stupid penalties like Pollard's will result in getting pulled from the game for the series. That should have been the rule all season.
There is no way the Ravens can win this game if they help the Colts with stupid mistakes. That must be a focus heading into this game.