By Brandon Thorn – Contributor to THE FOOTBALL EDUCATOR
Welcome to the first installment of a new weekly article that I will be publishing each week of the regular season for The Football Educator. After listening to a lot of podcasts over the summer I got the idea of doing an advanced scouting report from Daniel Jeremiah’s weekly Move The Sticks podcast upon hearing him discuss the various roles of a NFL scout.
One of a scouts’ roles is to write a weekly scouting report on their team’s opponent for dissemination to the coaching staff in order to aid in their game plan and preparation.
While there are many layers on each side of the ball to prepare for, I will be attacking this from a few select avenues. The first will be roster evaluation. I present an overview of the team from an offensive, defensive, and special teams standpoint. I also will identify a select number of key matchups that the Broncos will need to win to give them the best chance at a victory.
I will be using advanced statistics such as Pro Football Focus and as well as my own film study. I not only will be looking at player traits, but also coaches’ traits. Let’s begin.
The Baltimore Ravens (0-0)
2014 Season: 10-6
Won wild card playoff game vs the Steelers, lost divisional round vs the Patriots
- Head Coach: John Harbaugh (8th year)
- Offensive Coordinator: Marc Trestman (1st year)
- Defensive Coordinator: Dean Pees (5th year)
Team Overview/Offensive Scheme:
The Ravens enter 2015 with a newly installed offensive scheme from their first-year offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Prior to being hired in Baltimore, Trestman has had various NFL stops and has overseen very successful offenses as a coordinator and individual quarterback seasons as a QB coach.
Trestman’s offensive scheme has traditionally revolved around different variations of west coast principle. He has spent time in San Francisco, coincidentally replacing Gary Kubiak in 1995 and now here in Baltimore 20 years later. He also was the offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders under Jon Gruden in 2002 during their Super Bowl season.
Despite a new offensive coordinator in the mix, Harbaugh is the one who dictates the offensive philosophy in Baltimore. Trestman’s offensive scheme is also very similar to Kubiak’s thus limiting a drastic change in the offensive playbook. Harbaugh has already stated that the zone-read running system isn’t going anywhere.
So far in the preseason the Ravens offense has run primarily 21, 11, 12, and 20 personnel. They employ their QB Joe Flacco more under center than from the shotgun unlike how Trestman employed QB Jay Cutler last season in Chicago. Last season Trestman ran primarily the same personnel packages but from the shotgun. This shift to a more traditional offensive setup is most likely a testament to Harbaugh flexing his overarching authority over how the offense is run.
According to NFL.com, In Harbaugh’s eight year head coaching tenure his teams have an average ranking of 9th in turnover ratio in the NFL. In 2014 under Gary Kubiak the offense ranked 3rd in least offensive penalties. As a comparison, Trestman’s 2014 Bears team ranked 29th in the same category.
While this could be from Trestman being overwhelmed as a head coach and not being able to focus much time on the offense, it is still an interesting dynamic to consider with the intensely detail-oriented Harbaugh overseeing the team.
Predicting the offensive tendencies for Baltimore in week 1 is a bit tricky considering there is a first-year offensive coordinator and a head coach who publicly states that it is his philosophy that dictates how things are run. We can find some common ground however in the fact that Kubiak/Trestman run their offenses centered around West Coast principles and that both men along with Harbaugh want to run the ball to set up the pass.
The Ravens have built a roster revolving around their OL and QB. They are led by their 8th year QB Joe Flacco who set career highs in 2014 for touchdowns (27), yards (3,986), and fewest times sacked (19) which was the 2nd least in the NFL. Flacco has started 112 straight games (0 missed games in his career) as well. The continuity continues up front as their OL returns all five starters. This group is led by RG Marshal Yanda, one of the best in the league at his position and Pro Football Focus’s No. 1 rated OG in the league in 2014.
The offense in total returns 9 starters. The replacements are at wide receiver and tight end. The team let 2014 starter Torrey Smith go in FA to the 49ers while spending their 1st round pick on WR Breshad Perriman from Central Florida. Heading into week 1 Perriman is listed as the #3 WR while Kamar Aiken (another UCF product) is starting opposite of Steve Smith. Aiken was a special teams contributor in 2014 who saw action in all 16 games while notching 24 receptions for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns.
At tight end the team let 2014 starter Owen Daniels go in FA to the Broncos and have Dennis Pitta starting the season on the PUP list. Their new week 1 starter is 2014 3rd round pick Crockett Gillmore with 2015 3rd round pick Maxx Williams as his backup. Gillmore recorded one start in 2014 and has reportedly put 25 pounds on his frame in the offseason checking in at 6-6/275 now.
Baltimore enters the 2015 season with 8 returning starters to their 3-4 defensive scheme. They have replaced starting DT/LDE Haloti Ngata with former 2nd round pick Timmy Jernigan who is entering his second NFL season. Jernigan started 3 games as a rookie in 2014 notching 11 solo tackles and 4 sacks. Jernigan injured his meniscus last season and has been battling nagging injuries to his foot and knee this preseason. He is expected to be ready for week 1 but it is worth noting he may be hindered from a knee injury he suffered in week 3 of the preseason against the Redskins. The other new starters are both safeties: Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis. Hill started 8 games last season for the Ravens and was entering training battling Matt Elam for the starting job before Elam was placed on IR with a torn bicep. Lewis was signed as a FA from the Texans to replace last year’s FS Darian Stewart who signed with the Broncos in FA.
The defense is led by their front seven who should once again be one of the premier units in the NFL. They ranked 2nd in the NFL in 2014 in sacks with 49 and 6th in scoring defense at 18.9 PPG. Pro Football Focus ranked them as the No. 1 ranked pass rush and run defense in the NFL as well.
The team used their 3rd and 4th round picks on two defensive lineman who will be looked upon for depth. Carl Davis from Iowa is a 6-5/320 interior DL who they have primarily used at NT with the second unit in preseason. Za’Darius Smith from Kentucky is a 6-4/274 pound player that the team has used primarily at RDE in their 3-4 package as well as both OLB spots in a 2-point stance.
Strongest Position Group – Linebackers
Starters: Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosley, Daryl Smith, Elvis Dumervil
Baltimore boasts a stout linebacking corps led by 13-year pro Terrell Suggs. Suggs has only missed 11 games in his career while racking up 106.5 sacks. Last season Pro Football Focus rated him as the top overall run defending 3-4 OLB in the NFL and 4th best overall. His counterpart Dumervil graded out as the 2nd best pass rushing 3-4 OLB as well as the 6th overall best.
Denver’s rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo will be making his first career start in week 1 and will undoubtedly need a fair share of help from tight ends and running backs to combat these two players. The reason for the Evan Mathis addition was due in large part to help out the two young players lined up to his left and right (Sambrailo & Matt Paradis) who are both making their first career start.
Where Sambrailo struggled on tape in college was generating movement versus stronger players as well as anchoring versus hard inside moves and bull-rushes. Suggs is notorious for being supremely physical both versus the run and pass. This matchup is in clear favor of the Ravens in terms of one on one, so expect Denver to funnel plenty of help Sambrailo’s way, which could hinder other areas of the game-plan. I wouldn’t say the offense will be vanilla on Sunday, but there are obvious limitations personnel-wise in the offensive line/defensive line matchup that the Broncos have to overcome with strategy and scheme.
The right side of Denver’s offensive line is superior to the left both in terms of overall experience as well as size/strength. It is almost as if the right and left side lineman are in totally different schemes based on their physical styles.
Right tackle Ryan Harris is a crafty 9-year veteran who returns to Denver in 2015 after a 3-year hiatus with Houston and Kansas City. Harris graded out as Pro Football Focus’s 38th best offensive tackle in 2014. While he doesn’t display any dominant aspects to his game he is a disciplined player (flagged just 3 times in 16 starts in 2014) who is a better run than pass blocker.
Baltimore’s middle linebacker group of second-year pro CJ Mosley and 12-year pro Daryl Smith is close to being as stout as the outside group.
Mosley as a rookie in 2014 was Pro Football Focus’s 10th overall rated inside linebacker as well as 3rd best in run defense. An area Mosley was picked on last season that could be an area Denver can exploit is in the passing game.
Pro Football Focus records how many passes were attempted and completed in a defender’s coverage and in 2014 Mosley was successfully picked apart. Mosley was targeted 96 times and gave up 83 completions, both the highest in the NFL. He also ranked last in the NFL in yards given up on those completions with 660, next closest was Atlanta Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow with 614.
Mosley still managed to earn a Pro Bowl selection as well as finish 2nd in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, but it was mainly due to his production against the run. As long as Denver can establish their running game to set up the play-action, QB Peyton Manning could have a field day manipulating Mosley in coverage.
Mosley’s counterpart Daryl Smith is the more well-rounded, savvy of the two who will be the tougher player to take advantage of. Smith was ranked as the 7th best inside linebacker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus and is one of only two players (the other being LaVonte David) who has recorded at least 200 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 INTs, and 4 forced fumbles over the last two seasons.
The second most important matchup in this game is between Smith and Broncos QB Peyton Manning. Their chess match back and forth Sunday will be one of the more enticing battles to watch. In my opinion the key matchup that the Broncos must win is the one I have highlighted in the game’s “Key Matchup” a little later.
Weakest Starting Player – Lardarius Webb
Webb enters his 7th NFL season in 2015 and carries with him injury and production concerns. He began training camp this year by failing his initial conditioning test then proceeded to pull a hamstring in practice which forced him to miss all four preseason games. He is reportedly expected to be ready to go for this matchup in week 1.
Webb is a player the Broncos are surely planning on targeting a high number of times in this game for various reasons. Aside from the obvious reason of him having zero game time to get ready for regular season play, Webb is also a mismatch in size at 5-10/182 pounds.
Denver will have major size advantages on Webb with either Demaryius Thomas (6-3/229) or Cody Latimer (6-2/215). The more glaring reason to expect the Broncos to target Webb early and often was his subpar 2014 film. Pro Football Focus ranked Webb the 78th best cornerback last season, primarily due to his inefficiencies in coverage. Quarterbacks completed 96.3% of their passes in Webb’s direction last year.
In studying Webb’s 2014 tape his two worst games were both against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In those two games Webb was thrown at 24 times with 16 completions, 211 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
A large portion of his poor performance was attributed to Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, a shifty, insanely quick player who gave Webb fits primarily with his quickness downfield. Due to this style of player giving Webb fits, expect Denver to not only attempt to isolate Thomas or Latimer on Webb for size reasons but also Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders is a former teammate of Brown in Pittsburgh who can be best described as a “lite” version of Brown in terms of quickness and route running. This is no slight against Sanders who in his own right is an outstanding receiver.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sanders graded out as the 8th best receiver from 2014 with a 72.1 completion percentage on balls thrown his way. Antonio Brown’s completion percentage on balls thrown his way? 72.5. The Broncos should be able to have some sort of advantage with any one of the top three receivers on the roster when Webb is the primary defender covering them.
Key Matchup: DEN LG/C/RG Evan Mathis/Matt Paradis/Louis Vasquez versus BAL DT/NT/DE Timmy Jernigan/Brandon Williams/Chris Canty
This matchup will be the determining factor in how well Kubiak’s return to Baltimore goes because it will be the key to developing an effective running attack versus the Ravens’ stout front seven. While a “key matchup” could be built on either team’s interior three offensive lineman versus the opposition’s interior three defensive lineman, I’m focusing on Denver’s because they have never played a game together and are a little more unknown.
In order for Kubiak’s newly installed offensive scheme to achieve success and develop momentum the running game must be established first. It is what creates confusion for the opposing team’s linebacking core and opens up the middle of the field off the play-action pass. With Peyton Manning at the helm – one of the least mobile but best play-action passers in football – getting the run game going quickly carries with it heightened importance.
Let’s peel back each of these player’s role in sparking Denver’s offensive success.
LG Evan Mathis vs RDE Chris Canty
Offensive guard Evan Mathis was added to the Broncos via free agency in the middle of the preseason and comes to Denver as arguably the most efficient and best guard in pro football. According to Pro Football Focus, Mathis was their top overall rated offensive guard in 2011, 2012, 2013, and was second behind Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda in 2014.
I have heard that the reason Mathis was let go out of Philly was due to his style of play not meshing with the Eagles scheme or with their left tackle Jason Peters style of play. Mathis has been extremely successful playing his way and wasn’t willing to adjust to a scheme that didn’t suit his strengths.
Mathis by and large achieved his lofty status through his run blocking prowess where he uses an advanced application of leverage, angles, and efficiency. He is the ideal representation of a “technician” at his position and is a beautiful fit in Denver’s zone blocking scheme. The only question mark heading into week 1 for Mathis against this stout Baltimore front is his lack of experience and chemistry with the rest of the offensive line. This is an aspect to pay close attention to in the game in terms of how effective Mathis works off double teams with center Matt Paradis. The double team and all that stems from it – initial movement, reaching the second level, creating alleys – is a crucial factor in making the running game work.
From my tape study on Baltimore’s preseason, the right side defensive lineman who will line up over the offense’s left side is primarily 11-year pro Chris Canty; a 6-7/320 pound player whose length and strength at lockout gives offensive lineman fits. While Canty is the primary player at RDE, it isn’t an exclusive lineup as LDE Timmy Jernigan will switch over to this side sparingly.
Both of these players are stout versus the run yet in different ways. Canty’s length, lockout, and experience are his best assets while Jernigan is built more robustly at 6-2/298. Jernigan uses an overwhelming combination of power and leverage to create penetration at the point of attack.
Pro Football Focus highlighted Jernigan’s rookie season as a major success and he even graded out with the top Run Stop Percentage among 3-4 defensive ends for a three game stretch.
C Matt Paradis vs NT Brandon Williams
Center Matt Paradis is a second year player from Boise State University who fits the mold of a more traditional Broncos center: tough, disciplined, undersized, and competitive. When I say undersized, it isn’t as extreme as Tom Nalen was at 6-3/286 but undersized nonetheless at 6-3/300. Paradis spent all of 2014 on Denver’s practice squad honing his skills and when Kubiak was hired he was a natural fit for the scheme.
So far in preseason he has played as his scouting report read. The aforementioned strengths (toughness, competitiveness) of his show up but his lack of functional strength has been a bit of a hinderance, particularly anchoring vs quality interior linemen in pass protection as well as blocking through people one on one in the run game.
He will have his work cut out for him going against arguably the best nose tackle in the NFL in Brandon Williams, a 6-1/335 behemoth who has heavy hands and bad intentions. There is a reason Baltimore felt comfortable trading away Haloti Ngata this past off-season and it’s because of Williams.
Williams has looked dominant in my preseason tape study, particularly versus the Redskins in week 3. Not only will Paradis need to work his ass off to get around Williams in the run game he will have an even more difficult time anchoring versus Williams’ devastating bullrush.
This matchup is the most pertinent to Denver’s offensive success and will be the most difficult for them to circumvent.
RG Louis Vasquez vs LDE Timmy Jernigan
Starting right guard Louis Vasquez is the biggest offensive lineman in the starting group and should be leaned on heavily to combat the size disadvantage Paradis will face all game long.
Vasquez played eight games last year at his usual right guard spot before moving to right tackle to compensate for injuries for the second half of the year. In those first eight games he gave up an impressively low 6 QB hurries and just 1 QB sack.
With his move back to the inside he’s looked much more comfortable and fluid throughout preseason. In facing Jernigan, his style of play matches up well in terms of size and power while holding the experience advantage. The area where his presence will be most critical in the game-plan is in aiding the young, undersized center lined up to his left.
Pairing with Paradis in double teams both in the run and pass game will be important for Denver to make happen, especially early in the game to ensure the young center develops some confidence in himself for what will surely be a very difficult first NFL start.
Head Coach John Harbaugh is a former ST coach who consistently has a premier ST unit in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus the Ravens have ranked inside the top 10 in ST grading 3 of the last 4 years including 5th in 2014.
Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker was the No. 1 ranked kicker on Pro Football Focus in 2014. Tucker was perfect inside of 49 yards in 2014 going 25 of 25. From 49+ he tailed off a bit going 4 for 9. He is an outstanding KO specialist as well ranking 4th in the NFL in touchbacks with 60.
The Ravens top ST performer is LB Albert McClellan who has led the team in ST tackles 3 of the last 4 years. He is currently listed as LB Daryl Smith’s backup.
Punter Sam Koch is entering his 10th year with the team and is an above average punter with two Pro Bowl alternates to his credit (2014 & 2010). In 2014 Koch finished 3rd in punting average at 47 yards per punt and 1st in net punting average at 42.9.
In a home game for the Broncos they host the team their head coach left as offensive coordinator to come to the only job he would’ve left for. There will surely be a bit of a chip on Baltimore’s shoulder coming to Mile High as Harbaugh did not want to lose Kubiak, especially after just a single (highly successful) season having him on staff.
Denver is in for an extremely physical game and quite frankly may not be ready for it offensively. The reason for that is the inexperienced offensive line they’re putting on the field who have never started a game together as a unit. There is only one returning starter so chemistry is virtually nonexistent. Developing said chemistry versus the front seven they’re facing on Sunday will be a tall task. QB Peyton Manning has barely played this preseason and when in the game had at best, questionable timing with his receivers.
With that being said, RB CJ Anderson, RB Ronnie Hillman, TE Owen Daniels, TE Virgil Green, and FB James Casey will play critical roles in the offensive success, mainly for their blocking. Expect plenty of chips by the RBs on the way out for passes and on delay routes while their blitz pickup will be absolutely vital. The tight ends will be leaned on heavily to seal and set the edges versus outstanding players. These three positions and their roles as blockers will be something to keep a close eye on as it could be the difference in starting 1-0 or 0-1.
Defensively the Broncos have looked assertive, dynamic, and at times dominant in the preseason. General Manager John Elway brought in Wade Phillips to coordinate the defense who is a much better fit with the personnel than former DC Jack Del Rio.
Phillips defense is uber aggressive and has brought chaos to offenses in the preseason so far. Linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were tailor-made for the scheme and behind them are two capable rushers themselves in 2015 1st round pick Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. With the depth in the front seven and arguably the best group of cornerbacks in football there is a recipe for success building in Denver.
These Broncos will look much different than what we’ve been used to in terms of scoring and how we win games. The irony is the benchmark for how Denver wants to win games under first-year head coach Gary Kubiak is residing in the team he left and will face Sunday in Mile High.
Tell Brandon what you think of his report – @VeteranScout