Ravens' battle plans against Steelers

In his weekly column, long time Ravens Insider staff member and football guru Dev Panchwagh takes a look at what needs to be done to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Offensive Game Plan

1.) Getting Hampton blocked: The toughest place to crack the Steelers' defense is at its front seven, which is one of the more solid and consistent fronts in the NFL. The Steelers' three-man line is anchored by Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. Hampton is the key player in Pittsburgh's scheme, because he is responsible for controlling two gaps and to force a double team. The reason for double teaming Hampton is he simply cannot be blocked successfully by a single player (usually a center), although being able to get Hampton occupied using just one lineman can create a much easier blocking scheme for an offensive line to work with. Specifically, the guards are freed up to take on other responsibilites, whether that means attacking linebackers in the running game or helping to pick up the blitz in the passing game.

For Ravens center Casey Rabach, taking on Hampton is a mammoth task. Rabach struggled some in last week's game against the Browns, and has had some trouble adjusting to the center position since taking over for an injured Mike Flynn. However, Rabach has always been considered a more stout and fluid player at center rathar than at guard. In order to keep Hampton from being disruptive on Sunday, Rabach will need to use perfect technique to force Hampton to play higher than he likes. Rabach will also need to get a quicker jump out of his stance than Hampton does.

2.) Testing the Steeler safeties: There is no secret that if an offense wants to make plays against the Pittsburgh defense, you must attack them in the passing game. The ideal way for any offense to setup this attack is to spread the field, and operate out of three and four wide formations consistently. The primary reason for setting up in this formation is to slow down the Steelers' blitzing pass rush. Linebackers will be forced to drop into coverage, and if they don't, the quarterback will just throw (off of a quick step count) to the voids that are created when those defenders leave their posts to come up field. However, whether an offense has success throwing the ball depends largely on how solid the offensive line is in pass protection situations. Ideally, you want to have a line that is capable of blocking the Steelers front without any help from extra blockers, because you need as many receivers out in the open as possible.

Relying on just the front five to block the Steelers' attacking front is something the Ravens may not be able to accomplish consistently. That is why you will probably see the Ravens spread the field some just to get Jamal Lewis more space to work with in the running game.

The best way for the Ravens to attack the Steelers in the passing game is to attack safeties Chris Hope and Troy Palamalu. Hope and Palamalu are speedy players with promise, but they are green starters that tend to bite hard on play-fakes. Using play-action could suck either player up the field so that a vertical route is opened up downfield or over the middle. Another way to get these safeties moving out of position is to use the pump fake when the receiver breaks off the first leg of his route before running the second leg.

3.) Passes in the flat: Another way to beat the blitz is to use short passes in the flat area to force the outside linebackers to cover a tailback, receiver or a tight end. The Ravens didn't use enough dump off passes to their backs against Cleveland, because the Browns didn't need to blitz to break apart the Ravens' blocking scheme. However, the Steelers will be much more aggressive, especially if Jonathan Ogden plays.

Using Chester Taylor more often-- not just on third down-- is perhaps the best way to go in this game. Taylor is the best receiver at the running back position on the team. He runs clean routes, and is hard to contain after the catch because he has the shiftiness and deceptive strength to break tackles. Another way to go is to use a two-back set in which Taylor and Jamal Lewis would line up alongside each other either out of a shotgun set on third down, or out of a split back formation. The two could stay in as blockers simultaneously to help pick up the blitz, whether that means chipping or to stay in the backfield through the course of the play. As receivers, both players have the potential to gain chunks of yardage in the open field.

Defensive Game Plan

1.) Keeping an eye on Duce Staley:

One of the biggest issues when facing the Steelers offense is blue-chip receivers Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Antwan Randle-El attract so much attention that their teammates are enabled to make plays. One of those "other" players to watch, especially in the passing game, is Duce Staley. Staley is a tenacious tailback that is hard to bring down because he is constantly fighting to gain an extra inch. In addition, Staley is also a respectable blocker. But his biggest asset is as a receiver. Staley has had a knack for making big plays in the passing game through his career on screen plays and dump offs. Staley will almost always secure the football tightly after he catches it, and he has enough patience to let his blockers get in front of him downfield.

Containing Staley is important, because if the Ravens are too aggressive, he can burn them, especially on third-down. One of the linebackers should judiciously spy Staley whenever he's in the game. Even when it appears that Staley will just be used as a blocker on a given play, he will need to be watched closely because he could come off of his blocking assignment within seconds, and leak out of the backfield as an eligible receiver.

2.) Blitzing off the right side:

After dealing with injuries to the offensive line a year ago, the Steelers seem fortified up front with the return of Marvel Smith as their left tackle. With Smith manning the left island spot, Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca can remain at his natural position after spelling Smith at the tackle position last season. The trio of Smith, Faneca and center Jeff Hartings forms a strong left side. However, the right side of Pittsburgh's line, manned by guard Keydrick Vincemt and tackle Oliver Ross still remains a question mark. Ross is a better run blocker than he is a pass blocker; Vincent has athleticism, but lacks pop in the running game.

You should expect to see defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to consistently attack these two players using zone, fire and stacked strong-side blitzes. Ideally, Nolan will force the Steelers to use an extra blocker to help out Ross and Vincent. If that doesn't happen, than the Ravens will take their chances and hope that the paper mismatch goes in their favor.

 3.) Playing less aggressively:

One of the biggest problems in last week's affair with the Browns was that Raven safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps blew their deep coverage assignments by biting hard on the pump fakes of Jeff Garcia, which led to Garcia completing a couple of back breaking completions to wide open receivers that covered almost 100 yards.

There is no question that Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox will try the same move to get Reed and Demps cheating up the field. To avoid the same results, Demps and Reed must play with much better discipline, and stop gambling unless they have protection behind them. Although it's understandable that both players were overaggressive in last week's game because they wanted to intercept an underneath route to change the course of the game, it is necessary to play under control, especially against a quick strike passing team like the Steelers.

One-on-One Battle to Watch

Chris McAlister versus Hines Ward:

In the last two games against Pittsburgh, we've seen Chris McAlister face Hines Ward more often than he's faced Plaxico Burress. One of the reasons, although the Ravens coaches won't admit this, is McAlister has had trouble physically matching up with Burress over the years. The coaches feel as though Gary Baxter can better handle the responsibility of checking Burress man-to-man, although both players will have their chances to deal with the 6'5 deep threat.

Ward is the craftier and more dependable player out of this duo. He runs sharp routes, is adept at finding holes in zone coverage and is tough after the catch. McAlister has the physical ability to stay with Ward, but he will need to be careful when defending him, especially when it comes to jamming Ward at the line of scrimmage, as Ward is capable of getting a clean release after the ball is snapped.

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