Best defense: Attack Ravens' run game

On the Ravens

Pro Football

September 11, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

WHEN TENNESSEE TITANS defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz studied several Ravens opponents last season, he noticed how most defenses tried to stop the Ravens' running game by shifting, twisting or stunting players up front.

But when the Titans played the Ravens in the AFC wild-card game, Schwartz put nine players around the line of scrimmage instead of eight. His players shot gaps and pursued vertically instead of horizontally. Titans linebackers attacked fullback and lead blocker Alan Ricard, and Tennessee dared the Ravens to beat its cornerbacks one on one with long passes.

Tennessee held Jamal Lewis to 35 yards rushing on 14 carries in a 20-17 victory. The Ravens went home scratching their heads, trying to figure out what happened.

Because the NFL is full of copycats, it will be interesting to see if the Cleveland Browns borrow the Titans' strategy, or stay with their approach of a year ago and use a lot of line twists.

It didn't work.

Lewis rushed for 500 yards against the Browns in two games, including an NFL-record 295 yards in the first meeting. The Browns, especially middle linebacker Andra Davis and safety Earl Little, have been talking a lot this week. But they should go back to the second half of both games when they were taking dives like European soccer players to avoid tackling Lewis.

"If something happens to you in the past, and it embarrasses you, and if you're competitive, then you're going to play lights out to not let that happen again," said Ravens offensive line coach Jim Colletto.

"I don't know what they can come up with because some of Jamal's runs were because of poor tackling, not the scheme. They're still using four down linemen, moving around, angling and twisting a lot."

The movement up front allows defenses to camouflage things, particularly teams that want to slip one or both safeties into the box for run support.

Movement can also cause indecision on the offensive line. The Ravens are huge up front. Minus runt center Casey Rabach at 301 pounds, the group averages 350. If teams try to match the Ravens power on power, they lose because the Ravens can grind teams down.

"If I was playing against us, I would do it out of a seven-man front," said Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan. "I would stem my front movement before the snap and after. If you just let our guys come off and pound you because they know where you're at, then it's going to be a long day."

The Ravens faced seven- and eight-man fronts all of last season. Opponents tried to force the Ravens to beat them with the arm of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller and a group of inconsistent receivers. But the Ravens do a nice job of teaching their running backs to find cracks.

"One of the things we try to figure out is how you're going to get that strong safety or free safety down in the box," said Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon. "We teach all our backs key reads, that every play has a starting point. Then we coach them hard on how they're going to react, where you're going to insert the football into the line of scrimmage."

That's one of the reasons the Ravens are basically a "downhill" running team. What they do better than most is off-side blocking where Lewis might start right, but cut back left after Jonathan Ogden pushes a lineman or linebacker past him.

Schwartz calls it sweep blocking because it's hard for a defender to change direction with a 300-pounder on his hip.

"Their scheme doesn't allow you to get direct shots on Lewis; it's always from the side," said Schwartz. "Sometimes when you're stunting and twisting, they hit the right spot and the gate is wide open."

It wasn't against Tennessee. The Titans filled every running lane, leaving their cornerbacks exposed on the outside.

The Ravens had no solution. They have some plays now.

"They didn't allow us to insert the fullback to establish an edge," said Simon. "We have some adjustments for that technique. We're looking forward to implementing them."

Colletto said: "In hindsight, we should have done some other things on the weak side. We came out with the mind-set after watching that game of not allowing anyone to do that to us again."

It's there for the rest of the league to see on videotape. But Cleveland may choose to stay with its own packages. Ends Courtney Brown and Kenard Lang and tackles Gerard Warren and Orpheus Roye certainly aren't as talented as the Titans group of a year ago with ends Kevin Carter and Jevon Kearse and tackles Robaire Smith and Albert Haynesworth.

Simon says he expects defenses to be more creative this year, using more secondary players to attack the run. Even more interesting is that the Ravens aren't at full strength on the offensive line. Regular center Mike Flynn will miss the game because of a broken collarbone. and even if Ogden plays, he won't be at full strength because of his sprained left knee. Right offensive tackle Orlando Brown has missed extensive playing and practice time because of an illness in the family.

"We've been in circumstances before and moved guys around to different positions," said Colletto. "That doesn't concern me. But the practice time that we've missed bothers me a little bit. We're probably not as smooth as I'd like to be."

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