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Talking Ravens at the bye week with Dan Bryden of Baltimore Sports and Life

The Baltimore sports scene is blessed with a bunch of talented bloggers who bring unique perspectives to the conversation. Each week, I hope to chat with one in a regular feature called Blogger on Blogger. This week, I exchanged emails with Dan Bryden, who blogs about the Ravens for Baltimore Sports and Life.

MV: Over the past few weeks, you have written a lot about the struggles of the running game. From your perspective, why are the Ravens among the NFL’s worst in yards per attempt and did you see anything in the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that suggests Ray Rice may be close to breaking out?

DB: The Ravens struggle in their zone blocking scheme for three major reasons. First, they often run into loaded fronts like seven blockers against eight defenders. Second, back-side defenders have been able to crash down onto the running back from the edge. Given this pursuit, the smallest hesitation from the ball-carrier leads to lost yardage. This can be avoided by using bootlegs, fake reverses, or bubble-screen options. Third, post-snap communication has been lacking. The zone run game calls for two players to double-team a first level defender and combo block to the linebacker level. Each of the five linemen starting has had struggles reading the leverage of double teams which leaves unblocked defenders to make tackles. Ray Rice looked spectacular against the Steelers. I speculated about his health prior to last Sunday but he showed the renewed ability to cut with purpose and see holes open up with patience.

MV: After adding Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty, the Ravens have been able to generate pressure with a four-man rush. But despite ranking second in sacks, the Ravens are in the middle of the pack in many defensive categories. What have you seen from this rebuilt defense and why have teams been moving the ball on them?

DB: The defensive scheme has been relatively vanilla out of necessity. The same defensive coordinator of last year’s complex blitz approach has implemented a less deceptive version due to personnel. The Ravens haven’t had as much Cover-1 (single high safety, man underneath) success as last year due to poor man coverage (Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith prefer to play off-coverage) and a severe drop-off in safety range from Reed to Elam. The Ravens have leaned on standard zone coverage concepts (Cover-2, Cover-3) to minimize the big play and keep linebackers from chasing running backs underneath. These coverages, although simple to master, can be beaten with standard route combinations that every team uses. The ability to reach the passer with four rushers has bailed this defense out a number of times.

MV: Cornerback Lardarius Webb has been targeted often this season and has been beaten more than we are used to seeing. His reconstructed knee is an obvious explanation for that. But on the field, what specifically has left him vulnerable?

DB: Prior to surgery, Webb had a lot of success rerouting receivers at the line of scrimmage. He has abandoned this press technique and replaced it with a lot of "bail" technique (turning your back to a receiver and running with him). This is presumably more comfortable for him because he doesn't have to suddenly flip his hips to recover against vertical routes. This leaves him vulnerable for underneath passes, though, as it is far more difficult to drive toward the ball in bail technique than the standard backpedal. On the bright side, Webb has shown glimpses of his 2012 self in run defense. When not playing a deep zone, Webb sets the edge extremely well for a defensive back.

MV: After throwing the ball all over the place during the Super Bowl run, the passing attack hasn't taken off this season. Some players have said that injuries, forcing new faces into key roles, have impacted the play-calling. How has the offense been different and should Joe Flacco be getting more praise or more criticism for his play?

DB: Flacco no longer has a receiver who can make contested catches. This was Anquan Boldin's forte and Dennis Pitta was almost as reliable. Without consistent playmakers, the pass offense has to rely on scheme. Caldwell has not been particularly imaginative using short combination routes. Simple one-read plays with three-step drops take pressure off the offensive line, allow receivers to work to their strengths (yards after the catch) and can open up deeper plays later in the game. Sound deep passing concepts using safety manipulation have been there, but the Ravens' vertical receivers do not effectively break off deep routes so defenders routinely stack on top of them to eliminate their speed advantage. Flacco should be criticized mostly for his pre-snap reads so far. He presumably has the ability to check to different plays given the defensive alignment and therefore needs to flexibly put his personnel in favorable match-ups. Once the ball is snapped though, Flacco has been very good especially with a set of receivers who cannot reliably defeat man coverage and an offensive line that is too often beat by execution, not scheme.

MV: What is your evaluation of the rookie class, particularly key contributors in safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown and wide-out Marlon Brown?

DB: Elam has shown surprising range given his heavy slot corner usage at Florida. He hasn't been spectacular in man coverage. His niche is playing with his eyes on the quarterback in zone coverage due to his explosive ability to drive toward the ball.  Elam has taken some poor angles in the run game, but this may be explained by his gradual acclimation to the speed of the pro game. With only 87 snaps played, evaluating Brown is difficult. Brown has played well in spot coverage duty and his strengths lie in scraping over the top of defensive piles to get to the ball carrier. At this point in Brown’s career, he is a reactionary player. Without experience or elite size for his position, he has opted to be patient before attacking in the run game.  This suits his frame but his impact will be hidden due to a lack of highlight reel plays. Brown is still a stiff receiver. He doesn't have complete body control at the speed of the NFL game. This leaves him slow out of breaks and hesitant with the ball in his hands. Regardless, he has shown an incredible ability to utilize his size and his hands to catch passes above his head.

If you are a blogger who is interested in participating in this feature, email me at matt.vensel@baltsun.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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