Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the Baltimore Ravens, who can pressure the quarterback with multiple blitz packages or a simple four-man rush, but also with another approach that makes one look the other.
BALTIMORE RAVENS' SIGNATURE PLAY: SUB PRESSURE WITH MUG LOOK
Baltimore's defense ranks in the NFL's top 10 in a wide variety of categories, including points allowed (first) and yards allowed (second). The Ravens are in the top four against both the run and the pass, are tough on third down and allow the fewest yards per play in the league. Oh, and they can really get after the passer.
Baltimore has 37 sacks on the season, more than half of those supplied by a trio of seven-sack edge rushers: Terrell Suggs, Za'Darius Smith and Matt Judon. But the Ravens have talented and experienced players at every level of their defense, and they work together well to provide opposing quarterbacks with multiple looks and disguises.
"They've got really good players," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They've got multiple guys that can win one-on-one pass rush, they have big guys on the interior that can push the pocket, they have fast, athletic linebackers, they have long corners who can hold up in press coverage and they have two experienced safeties who have seen a lot of NFL football. They're package fits well with their personnel and they're not afraid to play zero coverage. They'll bring it all."
It is this knowledge by opposing teams that the Ravens are liable to send a heavy blitz at any time that makes one of their other pass-rush strategies work. That was the case on one critical play last weekend, when the Ravens went to Kansas City and nearly pulled off the upset, taking the Chiefs into overtime before falling, 27-24.
Baltimore tied the game late in the third quarter on a Lamar Jackson 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Maxx Williams. That was still the score when Kansas City got the ball with seven minutes left in regulation. Patrick Mahomes threw one incompletion and then completed a five-yard pass to Demarcus Robinson, leaving the Chiefs in the situation seen in the above image: third-and-five at their own 27 with 6:29 left in the fourth quarter.
To get the ball back, Baltimore would rely on their pass rush to get to Mahomes before he could get off an accurate pass. The Ravens have big, tough defenders and their general approach is to take the air of the ball up front while their corners play mostly press-man coverage on the outside. In third-down situations, they like to get all three of those edge rushers – Suggs, Smith and Judon – on the field at the same time.
That's the look the Ravens are giving Mahomes and the Chiefs here. Smith (#90) is actually lined up on the interior, in the gap between the left guard and left tackle. Suggs (#55) is rushing off the left edge of the offense out of a two-point stance. Judon (#99) is on the opposite end, standing up outside the right tackle and defensive tackle Chris Wormley (#90) is in a three-point stance over the right guard.
Though they primarily play man-to-man coverage, the Ravens use sort of a hybrid approach on this play, with the corners on the bottom of the screen, Brandon Carr (#24) and Jimmy Smith (#22) playing man while CB Marlon Humphrey (#29) and the other defenders on the top of the screen about to drop into zone coverage.
With safeties Eric Weddle (#32) and Chuck Clark (#36, playing for an injured Tony Jefferson) pulled up close, the Ravens have all 11 defenders within seven yards of the line of scrimmage. The key to this look, though, is the duo of C.J. Mosley (#57) and Kenny Young (#40), the only linebackers on the field in this nickel package (not counting Suggs, who is an edge rusher on this play). As the Chiefs get lined up, Mosley and Young are "mugged up" to the line of scrimmage. Given the Ravens' aggressive pass-rushing tendencies, there is every reason for the Chiefs to believe that one or both linebackers will be coming on a blitz.
That is likely what Mahomes is expecting, in which case he is probably expecting to get the ball out quickly to one of his hot reads. However, as can be seen in the shot above, with the ball just snapped and about to arrive in Mahomes' hands, Mosley and Young are not blitzing and Weddle has dropped back into deeper coverage in the middle.
It is quickly apparent to Mahomes that his hot reads are not there because the Ravens did not blitz as expected. Carr and Smith stayed with their men as they outside receiver cut across the middle, and with Mosley and Clark dropping back into coverage, tight end Travis Kelce is well-covered as he hooks from the left into the middle.
On the top of the screen, blazingly-fast wideout Tyreek Hill runs a vertical route and Humphrey passes him off to Weddle in order to curl back into the right flat to cover the running back, who has run a route out of the backfield. Without the quick pass option he was expecting, Mahomes has to adjust, but the Ravens don't give him time to do so because their pass rushers are winning up front without the need of a blitz. That's clear in the shot above but is even more obvious in the next picture.
At the snap, Smith quickly beats left guard Cameron Erving (#75) around his outside shoulder. Rather than trying to go wide around left tackle Eric Fisher (#72), Suggs stunts underneath, aiming for the lane that has opened between Erving, who has turned to his left to try to stop Smith, and center Mitch Morse (#61). Fisher has no shot at getting to Suggs but his reaction to that move underneath keeps him from helping Erving stop Smith. Kansas City would have been better off if Fisher double-teamed Smith and Morse moved to his right to try to cut off Suggs.
Unfortunately for Kansas City, Morse reacts in the other direction because Wormley is also winning his battle with right guard Andrew Wylie (#77), getting leverage to the inside. Morse slides over to help and the two do stop Wormley, but the damage is done. There's no one to stop Suggs at this point, and Smith has already beaten his man.
The Chiefs do not end up stopping either Suggs or Smith and they arrive at Mahomes at the same time a moment later for what is ruled a split sack. The Chiefs are forced to punt and Cyrus Jones returns the kick 55 yards to the Kansas City 14, setting up a quick three-play drive ending in Jackson's nine-yard touchdown run. The Chiefs do manage to tie the game with a fourth-down Mahomes touchdown pass to Damian Williams with a minute left, however, setting up the overtime win for the home team.