Ray Lewis playing on Monday Night is sort of like giving a whole Charleston Chew to an already active toddler. The amount of energy Lewis and his team bring to every game is enviable, but as we’ve learned over the years from watching the Vikings’ enthusiastic failures, energy and adrenaline isn’t everything. One thing we’ve learned specifically is how stupid you can look if you’re all pumped up and then you get burned badly. I’m anticipating that Balt will sport that pumped up/then burned look a few times tonight.
Given the energy level Balt will be playing with, I think it’s sensible to pre-program some plays on offense for the first quarter of the game designed specifically to diffuse that energy and frustrate them. One obvious way to do this would be to go without a huddle early (or even just push a faster-than-normal tempo). Doing this might complicate their establishing defensive rhythm AND create serious mismatches because subbing could be tougher for them. Also, we might try a few screens, short passing routes, a few handoffs up the middle to let our O-Line demonstrate its physical strength, a misdirection play or two and maybe a longer crossing route off of play action where Rodgers would be throwing away from the defense (toward the sideline). One play I’d be less inclined to run early on would be a stretch running play to the sideline where their LBs can penetrate and possibly get a tackle for loss – that would only add fuel to their fire.
This is a game where I really like James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Balt’s corners have been a weakness all year. In fact, I might say that their once vaunted defense has lost some of its vaunt, as it were, because these corners just aren’t that good. Yes, Ed Reed is still scary and Landry isn’t a bad safety, but it will be a tall order for Balt’s weak corners to guard Driver, Jennings, Jones, Nelson AND Finley. I wouldn’t be surprised if MM goes to a few 4WR/1TE sets tonight because that’s where the biggest mismatches will be. And, if Balt tries to blitz against multiple WR sets like this, Rodgers and his WRs should win the resulting single-coverage match-ups all game.
Point above made, I also think it’s important that MM keeps a solid run/pass balance tonight. If the run game suffers (which it often does for most teams facing Balt), MM will be seriously tempted to abandon it and go after Balt’s shaky secondary. But I would argue that being patient and running Grant 20+ times anyway, even if he’s not gaining huge yardage would be smart because it would keep Balt’s defense honest and wear them down some. (Also, if Grant isn’t getting it done, I’d hope MM borrows from Balt’s own offensive philosophy and mixes in Jackson and Green just for different looks/styles.)
I can see Ahman Green and/or Brandon Jackson being active tonight, on screens and blitz pick-ups.
Balt’s kicking game presently has some sort of voodoo curse its dealing with – they’ve already cut the young kicker they planned on having around for years. I can see a missed FG or two from Balt.
Ray Rice is fantastic, but I’m hoping the Pack’s improved D might do a solid job of filling gaps and keeping it crowded wherever Rice goes. When we play well against the run, we clog running lanes well with solid LB gap filling and D-Line space-eating. It’s timely that BJ Raji is starting to make some noise – because Raji being involved in the D-Line rotation tonight could be an important part of the D-Line/LBs more effectively clogging the running lanes. Effective clogging would not only limit Rice’s moves, but it could also interfere with their FBs or TEs making key blocks for Rice.
Even if we effectively clog, we still need to watch for Rice bouncing it outside- he’s good at this too. Ugh, I’m concerned about this guy.
Our LBs should be exhausted after this game. There will likely be tons of sideline to sideline/lateral pursuit required. Fortunately, this is something Nick Barnett has done really well over the last few weeks. If I were Capers, I’d seriously consider working in Bishop and Chillar to keep guys as fresh as possible.
Another way to limit Rice psychologically would be to strip the ball from him early – would disrupt his focus. Seems like a specific task I’d give to Collins and/or Bigby to think about once Rice is on his way down. (Woodson always thinks of this…because he rules.) (Or we could just play Desmond Bishop a bit more because he’s good for causing 1 turnover per minute played.)
My guess is that after watching film, Balt has resolved to do 2 things with their running game in particular: run outside a lot (to get away from our “clogging”) and run away from Charles Woodson. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually change a few plays at the line of scrimmage in response to where Charles Woodson is lined up. They would be smart to run toward Tramon Williams because he just isn’t a great tackler – especially against big/strong RBs like Rice and McClain. If Balt starts doing this the Pack should borrow a page from the Cardinals’ playbook by moving Woodson around a lot – making it difficult to figure out where he’ll be. Also, if they steer plays away from Woodson, we shouldn’t be afraid to leave Woodson alone and bring the safety help toward wherever the ball is going.
Balt would be smart to run a flea-flicker or two – with GB keying on Rice, a flea-flicker is just the kind of play we could get burned on.
Another big game from Woodson tonight and a few more people at the national level may include him in MVP discussions.
The last one and this is a big one: MM/Capers have to be on their games tonight. John Harbaugh is a very good coach and he’s smart. He and his staff have demonstrated that they can adjust to the flow of games effectively. They’ve led their decent, but not super-talented team to a few quality victories over the past 2 years on the strength of their quality decision-making. Due to the importance of this particular game and the opposing teams’ quality coaching staff, it’s imperative that MM and Capers not only recognize THAT adjustments are needed, but also that they implement the new strategies as quickly as possible. (None of this wait until halftime crap, or worse, wait until “we take a look at the game film” afterward.) In the moment MM/Capers, be in the moment.
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1. Offensive line toughness – the offensive line needs to stand up against a hard hitting nasty trash talking defense that will be energized. Take a punch and then smack them back.
2. They must run the ball effectively on first down but that doesn’t always mean handing off to the RB. Short passes, screens, end rounds, etc… It makes the defense think and sets up manageable 2nd and 3rd downs.
3. The defensive line has to hold their ground and set the edge especially when the Ravens go into a u-71 package. This will allow the LB’s to be active and play quick to the ball.
4. And my key to the game: win the field position game. This means no turnovers and ST’s coverage has to be good. This Raven’s offense has a good RB but if you make them march 70-80 yards for points I think our run defense is good enough that it forces Flacco to pass and make some mistakes. We give this team short fields and free points it will be hard to win this game.
I would also love to see a long pass on the first Packer offensive play of the game. It is something MM did a few times last year and I have not seen it this year. It may fall incomplete but it sends a message that the o-line can hold their blocks and Jennings/Driver need to be respected deep.
Rice is frightening, he can do so many things well. That said, I think it is a good matchup for the Pack in the sense that they have been successful at stopping the opponent’s running back most of the year. Rice will really test the improving front 7.
For me there are two keys to this game and all the games from here on out: keep improving on the O-line and eliminate the penalties on both sides. When the Pack doesn’t make dumb mistakes it’s talent level is as good as anyones.