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Steelers vs. Ravens: Keys to stopping Baltimore's zone running with Ray Rice

The Chiefs had success against the Steelers in their zone-running concept with Jamaal Charles. Baltimore runs this same concept, as the Steelers know. How can Pittsburgh stop it?

Geoff Burke

During the Ravens season-opening win against the Steelers last year, Ray Rice had success running the outside zone (stretch) play against the Steelers' vaunted run defense. At the time, many people attributed the success to the Ravens new-found willingness to employ the dreaded chop-block against the Steelers defensive linemen - specifically, Matt Birk and guards Ben Grubbs and Marshall Yanda made life miserable for Casey Hampton.

Hampton even said as much post game. With the success that the Chiefs had running the ball on Monday night, should Steeler fans be worried about watching Ray Rice run all over the Steelers' D? To answer that question, it's important to go back and look at what the Chiefs did last week successfully.

Last week, the Kansas City was at times able to implement what the stretch play is designed to do: stretch a defense parallel to the line of scrimmage. Invariably, a horizontal seam will present itself to a back. If that back is talented enough, he can plant his outside foot and hit it. The stretch first became popular in the NFL in the mid 1980's just for those reasons. First, allow your most talented runner to trust their innate ability. Second, put the offensive lineman in a position to, be successful. Don't ask them to knock a defensive lineman 5 yards off the ball. Instead, influence them to move horizontally and see if a back can make everyone look good. To some football purists (think Joey Porter pre Indy Colts playoff game a few years back), this is the antithesis of football. It is soft. But, there is o denying its effectiveness.

So, the Chiefs deserve some credit for implementing and executing a good scheme against the Steelers, but as is often the case, LeBeau got the last laugh. LeBeau saw the difficulties the defense was having and did what all great coaches do: he put his players in a position to be successful.

The adjustment was quite simple. He played Woodley and Harrison wider on the TE. On the snap, they would get penetration immediately and turn their shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. This forced Charles to make his cut much sooner; essentially eliminating the "stretch" from the play. This allowed the linebackers to play much faster and the gains became much smaller. KC tried to adjust to this by running more of a lead play with their fullback. But, the insertion of the Fullback took out their alignment advantage. Moreover, their fullback could not handle our OLB'ers. Advantage: Steelers.

Once again, credit goes to the Chiefs for implementing a good plan. More credit should go to the Steelers for not panicking and giving up a big play, but also for having an adjustment ready that the Chiefs could not answer. What does all of that portend for this week?

The Ravens have, obviously, some advantages over Kansas City. Ray Rice is a better running back than Jamaal Charles and Joe Flacco is a much better quarterback than Matt Cassel. But, Cassel is able to do one thing that Flacco does not excel at: running the naked boot off of the stretch actions.

Flacco can run play action toward the run, but he is not that adept at faking the run, reversing out with depth, and snapping his head around to find an open receiver. Not to say that he cannot do this, or he has never done it. Just that it is not as big as a threat as it would be with the smaller and quicker Cassel.

This helps the Steelers because it allows them to be much more aggressive with either outside linebacker pursuing the play from behind. Harrison has caused many a fumble in his day doing exactly this.

During the game, watch the outside linebacker away from the run. See if he is pursuing hard down the line to take away the cut back.

Also, the aforementioned Ben Grubbs now plays with the New Orleans Saints. The Ravens also have a rookie starting at right tackle. Therefore, I think it is fair to point out that KC might have a better run-blocking offensive line than the Ravens.

We'll see.

Finally, LeBeau has had the entire offseason to prepare for this game. The situation is reversed from last year. The Ravens made an adjustment that obviously caught the Steelers off-guard. They were much better against the run in the second game last year. What will LeBeau have up his sleeve for this game? It will be fascinating to watch and find out.