Even with all the negative attention from the outside world that was focused on Baltimore in 2014, they still managed to accomplish a lot on the football field, reaching the divisional round and nearly knocking off the eventual world champs in Foxborough.
Joe Flacco and the offense managed to build a 14-point lead twice before eventually succumbing to Brady and the aggressive New England defense.
In many ways, this game was a lot more interesting to analyze than the Super Bowl, at least from the perspective of Bill Belichick’s defense and how he prepared for the multiple offensive threats from Baltimore.
Guys like Rob Ninkovich, who can play both the defensive end spot and the outside linebackers spot, allows the Patriots to present a wider variety of defensive fronts and looks in the tackle box with a minimal amount of personnel substitutions.
Baltimore presents a unique set of challenges for any defense, with their impressive mix of speedy receivers, a power run game, and the ability to jump in and out of multiple formations that can put stress on the structure of the defense.
Over the next few days we’re going to examine Baltimore’s opening drive of the game, and the different looks the Patriots used on defense.
Play #1 – 14:55 1Q – 1st & 10 – BAL 29 – Left Hash
There’s a lot going on with this play, but let’s start with the routes and coverage in the middle of the field, since that’s where the catch was made.
Baltimore is running an adapted version of the shallow cross concept here, with the tight end #81 Owen Daniels crossing underneath the drops of the inside linebackers. Once he clears the hash, however, he’s going to settle down in the window in the zone coverage before he runs himself into the linebacker sitting out there in the flat.
Coming from the opposite side of the formation, the receiver #14 Marlon Brown takes care to take an inside release and get vertical right away until he gets to around an eight yard depth, at which point he’s heading at an angle across the field, trying to gain depth, while at the same time trying to get across the face of the free safety to the left side of the field. He ends up past the fifteen yard mark at the end of his route.
This is where Smith comes in. The two routes we discussed previously do a good job of opening up the middle of the field and occupying the linebackers as they widen in their drops, leaving a nice-sized opening past the chains in the middle of the field.
From a defensive perspective, Rob Ninkovich isn’t as concerned with rushing the passer as he is with just containing any play to his inside. Starting the play in a two-point stance and lining up just to the inside shoulder of #14 Marlon Brown, he makes sure to give the receiver a good shove as the ball is snapped in an attempt to disrupt the timing of the route. Ninkovich usually lines up wide at his position anyway, and in these situations he has a good amount of freedom to “chip” or disrupt receivers in a tight split to his side like this one, especially if he expects some kind of timing route or shallow crosser coming.
New England starts the game with 4-3 personnel on the field, which is a curious strategy against the 11 personnel that Baltimore comes out with on the first play. The Ravens go right to the reliable veteran receiver on the first play, as #89 Steve Smith hauls it in on the dig route over the middle, picking up an immediate first down and moving the chains.
If you want more of this kind of analysis, check out my latest book breaking down all 16 drives of Carolina’s Offense vs Denver’s Defense in the Super Bowl.
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