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Steelers Film Room: Ravens live and die by play-action passes

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In 2016, the Baltimore Ravens go as far as their play-action passes will take them, for better or worse.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at New York Jets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

On an initial viewing of the 2016 Baltmore Ravens' offense, one thing jumps out: it's boring.

I don't mean that in quite the negative way it sounds. After watching the Steelers' absurdly complex schemes, it's hard to be impressed by most offenses. That's not always good for the Steelers, and it's not always bad for other teams.

Admittedly, the Ravens are struggling, offensively. They have scored 133 points this season, which has them tied for 29th in the league. It's possible they are trying to run a scheme that their personnel simply can't support right now. When reviewing them, that's pretty much what I saw.

The scheme they run has components of other offenses, from power running to the shotgun spread. It's a bit of a mutt, to be honest. Many of their runs are from power formations that utilize two or three tight ends, or a fullback. But it doesn’t seem as if they use the run in a balanced way, to gain small chunks of yards. Instead, they seem to implement the run specifically to make their play-action passes work. I say that because one trait of their offense is glaringly obvious: they live and die by play action.

Now, with a statement like that, you would expect they would use a lot of play action, but they don’t. That, however, is half the reason why it works. If you overdo something, it becomes too predictable. The other half is simply that Terence West is an electric runner.

However, despite the fact that the first play we are going to look at is actually a run that didn’t net much for the Ravens, it is precisely that very fact that shows how much respect teams have for West.

What’s special here is not what happened on this play. It’s special because of the play before it.

On the previous play, West gained 15 yards going between the right guard and right tackle before bounding outside. The safeties were both playing off the line, and there were six in the box. The play included a fake end-around component, too, from the offensive right to the left. The right outside linebacker bit so hard on the end-around that he was completely removed from the play without ever touching anyone.

On the play above, the Ravens have two tight ends, so the Raiders bring a seventh defender into the box. The inside linebackers play it well and keep the play inside. Additionally, a safety is playing close to the line.

Game after game, they use this as the textbook setup to play action. In fact, it’s so common that the pattern becomes obvious when you watch several of their games in a row: the Ravens like to run early in a drive to set up the play action for a big gain, and then settle in to short throws for most of the remainder of the drive. Once they cross their own 40, it’s not at all uncommon to see Flacco throw eight to ten consecutive passes.

On this next play, we see the kind of damage they can do when they get the defense to load the box and cheat the safeties toward the line.

This play was against the Jets, who may have the worst secondary in the NFL right now despite the presence of future Hall-of-Fame corner Darrelle Revis, so take from this what you will. But it turns out to be a perfect storm that leads to a huge gain.

This play screams power run, and that’s the most basic reason it works. Five offensive linemen and three tight ends lined up to one side make it look like an obvious run to the right. The defense is playing it accordingly, with no one more than nine yards off the line.

Then the Ravens fake the run to the left, so it looks like a little trickery, as if the unbalanced line was merely a diversion. Both safeties take the bait for a moment, and neither is immediately aware that receiver Mike Wallace is one-on-one to the offensive left and is running a deep post pattern, with his man well and truly beaten. If the ball is thrown list a hair more out in front, and if the strong safety doesn’t channel his inner Usain Bolt, this ends up a 90-yard touchdown. It was risky, because Wallace wasn’t just the first option on the play; he was the only option.

If it always worked the way it was drawn up, this would be a scary-good offense. However, one thing more than anything else has been keeping the Ravens from being more consistent with their scheme: very inconsistent line play. And it’s not from one or two positions, either. All five linemen have had moments when they looked downright terrible, and they haven’t exactly been rare.

As we can see here, the play action works perfectly again, as it freezes both inside linebackers and the strong safety. Unfortunately for quarterback Joe Flacco, his right tackle and right guard are both beaten — by the same guy. The pressure quickly forces Flacco to flee the pocket, giving up any chance he might have had of finding a wide, wide open tight end in the deep middle of the field. What could have been a huge play to gain at least a first down after a penalty had pushed them back ends up falling incomplete, forcing third and very long.

Thanks to the fact that the Ravens run most of these plays from power running sets, the Steelers will at least be able to keep their base, 3-4 defense on the field more often, which should help them with the times the Ravens legitimately hand the ball off to West. If they can get the upper hand early in drives without getting beat by play action, they should be able to force the Ravens into many three-and-outs. If, however, the Ravens can knock out that big chunk of yards before the defense has a chance to settle in, a secondary that has struggled to defend short, quick passes could be in big trouble.