The Ravens offense wasn't always respectable.
Beyond the jokes about quarterback Trent Dilfer, the play-callers over the years were jokes themselves. A recent one is Cam Cameron, who had one of the most vanilla offenses that I've seen. He didn't use his weapons the way he should have, relying on simple formations and isolation routes from his receivers. Sometimes they got open, most of the time they didn't.
But it's different with Jim Caldwell.
Caldwell was appointed interim offensive coordinator after Week 14 in early December. Ever since then, the offense has looked coherent and used its weapons wisely. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is now spending more time in stack and bunch sets that give him a free release at the line of scrimmage. His partner, Torrey Smith, is still attacking vertically but in the middle of the field too. And running back Ray Rice is being utilized on screen passes and draws seemingly more than ever before.
Now that the offense is a legitimate threat to score points, defensive coordinators have to seriously consider how to stop it. Stopping it is not an easy task because the Ravens have threats that can do damage at all levels of the field, whether it's Smith deep, Boldin intermediate or tight end Dennis Pitta short. But there's a way and the Patriots had the right idea before they lost players to injury.
When facing the running game, it's important to note that Ray Rice is not the lone threat, as Bernard Pierce rotates into the backfield as well.
Pierce is a different ball-carrier than Rice because he's more likely to stick his foot in the ground and immediately get downhill. He has very good vision, balance and power. Conversely, Rice also gets downhill but he does it utilizing dangerous jump cuts that a defender go from the right gap to the wrong one in a second.
The best way to handle both runners is to set the edge, force them inside and crash down on the back-side so there's no chance of them squeaking out into the open field. It's discipline and fundamentals, which are taught at the lower levels of football. Here's an instance of the Patriots being able to do just that.
The Ravens were in "12" personnel, utilizing one running back and two tight ends. Both of the tight ends were to the formation's right, the strong-side, but the play would be going to the left, the weak-side. It was an inside stretch run.
Lined up at the five technique outside of left tackle Bryant McKinnie's shoulder, linebacker Rob Ninkovich was going to be the key defender on this play. He was part of a three-man, even front that saw both Ravens guards covered up in order to prevent combination blocks executed at the second level.
Ninkovich did his part, setting the edge outside to force the ball-carrier inside, and he had backup "force" from the deep safety coming outside. While he squeezed the running lane, inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower came across the face of the offensive guard and ensured that the ball-carrier was going to go inside once more.Weak-side inside linebacker Brandon Spikes also flowed across the formation to plug the alley.
With the front-side, back-side and alley filled, the ball-carrier had nowhere to go and was brought down.
Against the pass, the defense also has to be disciplined and aggressive. Besides sacking Flacco, the best way to attack is to be physical with the receivers and tight ends at the line of scrimmage.
One must reroute the receivers to throw off their timing with Flacco, especially on vertical routes, while also protecting the deep ball. What the Patriots were able to do at times was play with either one deep safety or two and be physical with the receivers.
On one play, the Ravens were with their "21" personnel (two backs, one tight end) and had a Twins set to Flacco's left. Torrey Smith was initially lined up wide but then cut down his split and stood behind Anquan Boldin. This created a stacked set, which Caldwell likes to use as I alluded to earlier.
The Patriots made an adjustment with the boundary cornerback (Alfonzo Dennard), who cut down his split as well and stayed at a different depth than the slot cornerback. This was done to avoid any "rubs" or picks that the receivers could potentially administer. The two deep safeties also stood at different depths, between eight and 12 yards deep.
When the ball was hiked, both cornerbacks let the receivers release and then bumped and rerouted them. At the left side of the field (bottom of image), strong-side linebacker Dont'a Hightower also put his hands on Ed Dickson, the only tight end.
Because the pass-catching threats were rerouted and covered, Flacco was forced to check the ball down to his outlet, fullback Vonta Leach. Ideally, Leach wouldn't be open as much as he was but it's still something that the defense can live with because it forces the offense to be patient going up the field. In many cases, the quarterback loses patience and turns the ball over.
Going into the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers defense can do this because they've been doing it all season long.
Whenever faced with multiple threats, they've been able to clamp down on them (for the most part) by getting physical at the line of scrimmage and playing two deep safeties, which they can do because of their dominant front four.
They also like to rotate one of their safeties down to create a single-high look with the dropped down safety playing the "robber" role underneath. I expect to see both of these looks, as the defense looks to slow down Torrey Smith vertically and control the seam overall.