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Flacco has reliable receiver in Boldin

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Willie McGinest previews the top matchups of Week 9.
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Chad Pennington

Chad Pennington, a 10-year NFL veteran who recently retired from the game, brings his football knowledge to FOX Sports as an analyst.

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Each week, Chad Pennington breaks down a dynamic NFL playmaker or scheme, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Pennington looks into how QB Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense can counter the stalwart Steelers defense.

Maybe everybody wants Joe Flacco to be something he isn’t.

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It appears NFL fans and analysts want the Ravens quarterback to play pretty. Fantasy football enthusiasts are crying out for him to post sexy numbers. But he might just be one of those QBs who likes it when it’s ugly.

Can you blame him? The Ravens have won ugly for years because of their defensive style of play. In the NFL, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

Complementary football is essential to a team’s success. Play great defense and be efficient on offense. Have an explosive offense with a complementary defense. Look at the Patriots, for example. From 2001-06, the Pats were known for their stingy defense with an offense that “just got the job done.” Since 2007, New England has exploded offensively and fielded a younger defense that bends but doesn’t break.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore’s opponent Sunday night, certainly understand ugly, in-your-face football. Put these two teams on the same field, and one thing is for sure: You will be sore Monday morning!

Historically, these two teams like it when it’s ugly.

Play tough, physical defense and win with a tough-minded offense that gets the job done in the fourth quarter. Both offenses have complemented their team’s defenses. When these two teams try to be something they aren’t, it usually ends up not being such a good thing.

My assignment this week: Game plan for Flacco and the Ravens offense against the Steelers defense.

The Ravens are coming off a 30-27 victory over Arizona that was anything but pretty. Baltimore fell behind 24-6 at the half, and the Ravens — Flacco, in particular — were serenaded with boos as they left the field.

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As a quarterback, you know it comes with the territory. When it’s not your fault, it’s still your fault.

Flacco had an interception that was a dropped ball by the receiver, and the Ravens special teams gave up an 82-yard punt return for a TD. The negative vibes from the crowd can be bothersome, but Flacco always has handled the negativity extremely well. It appears he never gets too high or too low. His demeanor reminds me of Vinny Testaverde. Vinny was a master of his emotions, always staying on an even keel. If he was rattled on the inside, you never knew it.

The second half, Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron tried something different — a heavy dose of the shotgun formation and no-huddle offense — and they just might be on to something. Although this approach may have come out of necessity, it helped produce the largest comeback in Ravens history.

What does the no-huddle do for an offense? It increases the tempo of the game similar to a fast-break offense in basketball. It gets your blood pumping and creates a sense of urgency. The beauty of the no-huddle during the regular course of the game is two-fold.

First, the offensive coordinator can still call the plays. Code words and signals are normally used. However, time is not a factor. An offense can give the appearance of hurry up but actually use the entire 40-second play clock.

Second, if the coordinator wants to hurry up, the quarterback can become involved with the play calling on the line of scrimmage. With a package of plays, your field general can become engaged mentally as well as physically. This style produces a sense of mental confidence that leads to physical production.

Against the Cardinals, the implementation of the no-huddle produced a sense of urgency from Flacco and his offense while getting wide receiver Anquan Boldin much more involved. Boldin helped open the game up as the Ravens scored 14 points in the third quarter and moved into position to score again on the first play of the fourth quarter.

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Boldin caught five of his seven passes in the third quarter for 117 yards. I really like Boldin because he’s consistent, physical and accountable. He gives you a chance for a reception every time you throw to him, regardless of where the ball is thrown. When the ball is thrown his way, something positive usually happens.

If I’m Baltimore, Boldin and running back Ray Rice are at the center of my game plan.

These two playmakers are the meat and potatoes of the Ravens offense. I love to watch Rice run the football. His low center of gravity coupled with his vision make him dangerous every time the ball is in his hands. Match his ability with Boldin’s downfield presence, and the Ravens have two outstanding football players.

I could see the confidence of Flacco growing with each pass he completed to Boldin on Sunday. Having Rice behind him as an underneath weapon in the passing game added fuel to the fire.

The first time these two teams played, in Week 1, the Ravens had their way with the Steelers 35-7. Granted, Pittsburgh turned the ball over seven times, but Baltimore came out firing on all cylinders. Rice exploded for a 36-yard run to begin the game, and Boldin finished the three-play scoring drive with a 27-yard touchdown reception. This explosion set the tone for the rest of the game.

Despite the lopsided victory, I still don’t think there is an advantage for either of these teams. They know each other really well. The Steelers are coming off a very impressive win over Tom Brady and the Patriots, in which they held New England and Brady to their fewest yard totals of the season. This wasn’t accomplished with defense only. The Steelers offense possessed the ball for more than 39 minutes, had 78 plays and accumulated 427 yards.

The Ravens’ offensive success begins with the running game and flows to the passing game. Running the football effectively creates an opportunity for the deep, play-action pass. Flacco then can set up deep behind his offensive line with a clean pocket. When he has a clean pocket, Flacco can step into his throws and deliver the ball with the best of them.

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Using the no-huddle approach also can be effective for the Ravens. Cameron still can call any play in his game plan. He can use spread formations, tight formations, and any type of play. Most important, crowd noise is limited. Why? Fans are creatures of habit. Typically, after the opponent’s offensive play ends, the crowd gets quiet for 15-20 seconds and then becomes loud as the opposing offense breaks the huddle. When there is no huddle, fans are unsure of when to get loud again. Their habit has been broken. This allows for smooth communication offensively.

When you think of Pittsburgh, you normally start with defense. The Steelers’ personnel always have had a great understanding of the defensive scheme. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau uses creative zone-blitz schemes to cause hesitation in the quarterback. A majority of zone-blitz schemes implement defensive coverage where a free safety occupies the middle of the field. In a quarterback’s mind, free-safety coverage tells him there are one-on-one matchups on his outside receivers.

This thought process eliminates any hesitation with his decision. Thus, he can beat the pressure by getting the ball out of his hand quickly. However, LeBeau will implement zone-blitz schemes with two safeties. These coverages are more difficult for the quarterback to dissect. Typically, the quarterback can’t finalize his decision until he has completed his drop. As a result, there can be slight hesitation in his thought process that can lead to a bad decision.

To sum it all up, we’re talking Ravens-Steelers. Forget about being pretty. I don’t want it to be pretty. I want hard-nosed, AFC North football.

And for either team, that “W” will look mighty pretty, no matter how it comes!

Tagged: Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Anquan Boldin, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice

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