In this week's edition of Blogger on Blogger, I reached out to Baltimore Sports and Life blogger Daniel Bryden, who does a great job breaking down the Ravens, to wrap up the season. I would recommend you follow Dan on Twitter.
MV: The running game was the team's biggest issue this season with much of the ire being directed at run game coordinator Juan Castillo. The Ravens have been using zone blocking for years, though. How did Castillo tweak the scheme and why was the running game such a massive?
DB: We can never know if the change in scheme or change in personnel was the main contributing factor. My sense was that it was a bit of both. In 2012, Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda, Bryant McKinnie and a healthy Kelechi Osemele had a collective rapport and were a stronger group who played with better leverage. Last year's scheme emphasized lead blocking (i.e. fullback lead, H-back lead), taking larger lateral steps before contact to gain leverage at the point of attack and cutting defenders below the knees on the backside. In 2013, backside cut-blocks were rare and largely ineffective. In addition, the offensive line (particularly the interior) struggled to double-team first-level players and combo up to the second level. This lack of post-snap communication forced running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to evade defenders before reaching the line of scrimmage. I looked at these struggles more in-depth here.
MV: The Ravens for most of the season were ranked near the top of the league in red-zone defense. But in the final few games of the season, they allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 11 straight red-zone possessions. What the heck happened?
DB: Many of those touchdowns were in the run game. The Ravens linebackers (inside and outside) struggled against the run toward end of the year. Courtney Upshaw was a Jarret Johnson type of edge-setter last year but was sucked inside too often in 2013. Daryl Smith and Jameel McClain had issues with standard run fits and too often took poor scraping angles in pursuit. Against the pass, poor man-coverage technique was to blame. Instead of being aggressive at the line of scrimmage, cornerback Lardarius Webb and safety Matt Elam were too reactionary and allowed free releases and eventual touchdowns.
MV: The pass rush disappeared down the stretch. What were teams doing to neutralize Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and company? And can Suggs still be a productive player going forward?
DB: Teams were using standard schematic wrinkles to minimize the pass rush. Quarterbacks were getting the ball out quickly which was made easier due to lack of press-coverage technique. Teams like the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals typically use reduced formations (multiple players tight to the formation), which widened the angles that Suggs and Dumervil attacked with. In addition, both the Detroit Lions and Patriots chipped the Ravens rushers on the way into the flats. Although the Ravens' opponents were prepared for the outside rush, the injury to Dumervil can't be discounted.
MV: Give me a couple of players who played better than people might realize and a couple who weren't as good as some thought they were.
DB: Matt Elam was never a single-high or deep-half safety at Florida and has been criticized for his coverage ability throughout this year. I've seen him steadily improve when playing at depth and he has been solid in running the alley against the run. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones has also exceeded my expectations this season. After recovering from injury, he was the most reliable intermediate threat. Fans have been excited about Brandon Williams since the draft. I thought his technique in college was poor and I didn't see it improve much after sporadic snaps during his rookie year. Williams has the body type to be a two-gapping demon as a nose-tackle but his upright stature and lack of hand usage has minimized the advantages stemming from his size/strength combination. Wide receiver Torrey Smith is a fan favorite but his unrefined route-running and propensity to catch with his body has limited his impact.
MV: How much of Joe Flacco's struggles this season were on him and what must the Ravens do this offseason to get him to play better next season?
DB: Flacco did not play particularly well this season given his surroundings. Several of Flacco's poorest plays were independent of the play call. In fact, there were several plays where the route combination was designed to beat the coverage on the field, yet the throw was inaccurate or poorly timed (I looked at Flacco's struggles here). Making things more difficult, the Ravens prefer to use the run to set up intermediate and deep shots down field. Without a run game, Flacco was forced to throw far more than he should. This left pass plays predictable because the run/pass ambiguity was eliminated. The first priority moving forward should be the rushing attack. This will allow Flacco to throw less and pass against heavier-footed personnel. A fundamentally-honed wide receiver and a blocking tight end would go a long way as well.
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