Through his seven-year career with the Arizona Cardinals, receiver Anquan Boldin scored three touchdowns in a game just once – on November 10, 2008, in a 29-24 win against the San Francisco 49ers. In 2009, Boldin caught just four touchdown passes in his entire season, and he hadn't seen the end zone in his first two games with the Baltimore Ravens in 2010.
With all that as background, the question comes into sharp focus: How was it that Boldin was able to score three times against a Browns team that was good enough to almost pull off an upset last Sunday?
The 24-17 loss was actually a beacon of encouragement – for the first time in a long time, the Browns were able to legitimately hang with a team that many believed was on its way to the Super Bowl before the season began. And as Boldin was the only Raven to get in the end zone, we thought it would be worth reviewing how the Browns covered him.
Boldin's first score came with 1:29 left in the first quarter; the Ravens had second-and-6 at the Cleveland 8-yard line. Baltimore went with a formation that might draw a defense to assume that a run or short pass is coming – Boldin (81) in the right slot, fullback LeRon McClain (33) in motion from right to left, and just one receiver split wide. The Ravens had gone with the same formation on the previous play, a handoff to running back Ray Rice, with the only differences being that McClain went in motion from left to right on the run, and Boldin was about a yard wider in the slot on the pass. Cleveland responded with a tight 5-2 front and zone coverage.
The Ravens used motion and timing to predetermine where the Browns' safeties were going on this play – McClain's motion seemed to freeze safety Abram Elam (26) on the weak side, and T.J. Ward (41) seemed befuddled by the counter play-action fake from Joe Flacco to Ray Rice. With that zone coverage, Ward should have been quicker to the end zone, where Boldin was running a post, and catching a Flacco pass in the end zone, over the head of Eric Wright. The ball was actually a hair overthrown (a problem for Flacco all season), and Boldin made a great catch, but safety help would have been nice. Right about the point when Boldin makes his turn, you can see Wright checking Boldin in a way that seems to indicate a handoff to the safety.
But the key to this play was how well the Ravens sold run action. In typical play action, the linemen and other blockers will generally backstep in traditional pass-blocking techniques. But Baltimore is one of the NFL's best teams when it comes to installing playfakes with run-blocking look. As we see in the diagram, the Ravens line went with a slide protection/hybrid zone scheme that helped freeze those safeties, because the run blocking was so convincing. Run action is a crucial – but often-overlooked – element of effective play action.
The second touchdown came with 5:59 left in the first half, and this looked like more motion confusion affecting Cleveland's safeties. When Boldin motioned from left to right, that left the strong side empty of receivers except for tight Todd Heap (who was inline), and cornerback Sheldon Brown followed the motion while directing Wright to motion out wide in following Boldin. This left Wright covering McClain out of the right slot, and Wright one-on-one on Boldin. Ward followed Brown and McClain to the middle of the end zone, and Flacco found Boldin for the score with Wright obviously expecting safety help on the play – he's playing off Boldin, and he starts talking to Ward right after the play is over.
The camera then panned to Eric Mangini, talking to Rob Ryan with a decidedly "WTF?!?!?" look on his face. Heap and McClain complicated the coverage by forcing the defensive backs to commit, and Ward made the wrong commitment.
The final dagger came with 9:13 left in the game. This time, the Ravens went shotgun with two "backs" in the backfield (Heap was actually the second blocking back). I'd blame this one on formation, as the Ravens had the ball at the Cleveland 27 with third-and-5, and down 17-14. Oh, and Ray Rice was on the sideline. What on earth had the Browns thinking run here? They brought all eleven defenders to the line, with Elam the last to come on a delayed blitz. This left three Cleveland defenders playing man and scrambling, against a quarterback with a renowned deep ball, and no deep safety help at all. Boldin just outran Weight to the end zone on that solo coverage, and that was all she wrote.
I don't question Rob Ryan's abilities as a defensive coordinator, but I wonder if he understands the limitations of his current personnel. In Oakland, he had cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who essentially shut down half the field on every pass play. Because of that, Ryan could dial up all the man coverage he wanted, shift his ancillary coverages, and be more creative with his safeties.
Brother Rex generally has Darrelle Revis, who can do the same thing when he's healthy. Wright is a dynamic cornerback, but he's simply not in that realm just yet, and he's going to need help up top.
Perhaps it's time to ask Cleveland's safeties to play more areas and zones, so they can avoid blowing so many tighter assignments.