Break It Down, Divisional Round: Anquan Boldin's second chance
Anquan Boldin was a non-factor in Baltimore's 34-17 Week 15 loss to the Denver Broncos. The Ravens' receiver, who had a team playoff-record 145 yards last Sunday in a playoff win over Indianapolis, was held catchless on six targets by the Broncos.
For the Ravens to have any shot at upsetting the Broncos in this weekend's divisional round, Boldin likely needs to deliver another huge playoff game.
He never had much of a chance the first time around against Denver, even with top Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey focusing most of his attention elsewhere. Boldin had no luck creating space against the Broncos' coverage and, exacerbating the problem, Joe Flacco delivered a subpar performance.
Denver's pass rush had a lot to do with the latter problem -- when Flacco did look Boldin's way, the passes often were rushed and off-target.
Let's take a closer look at what went wrong for Boldin in Week 15 (and what went right against the Colts) in this "Break It Down" ...
The Ravens tried to get the ball to Boldin off a number of different routes in that earlier 17-point loss, but the Broncos had an answer for each of them. The biggest defense play of all came when Chris Harris stepped in front of a quick out to Boldin near the Denver goal line, then returned the pick 98 yards for a touchdown.
Boldin and Torrey Smith were lined up to the same side on that play, each drawing man-to-man coverage.
First and foremost, that was an egregious decision by Flacco -- one that underlies just how mediocre he was on that particular day. But it also highlights a key component to Boldin's zero-catch outing: He simply could not get open in tight quarters against Denver's cornerbacks.
The Ravens ran into the same problem, on all counts, on the play pictured below, as Flacco overthrew a curl route that was not open in the first place.
And here, Boldin faced tight coverage at the line, plus over-the-top safety help on a crossing route. Flacco tried to fit the ball into him anyway, despite Smith streaking up the right sideline with a step on his man.
The only time the Ravens were able to find Boldin any room over the middle came on one second-half pass (which was called back by a holding penalty). Boldin found himself facing press coverage from a linebacker, beat his defender off the line and made an easy grab for a 10-yard gain.
Those gaps were few and far between, though, in part, because the Ravens rarely gave Boldin the opportunity to stretch the field.
Case in point: In the play pictured below, Boldin had man-coverage, while the Broncos slid the rest of their defense to the other side of the line, where Baltimore had two receivers and a tight end lined up. Denver rushed five and left just one deep safety, who also shaded away from Boldin.
Rather than Flacco checking into another play or Boldin adjusting his route on the fly toward that wide open area deep (white line), the Ravens tried to force an underneath route. It resulted in yet another incompletion.
Contrast that to Sunday against the Colts, when the Ravens took advantage of those gaps to send Boldin deep.
On one of his several long grabs in the second half, Boldin lined up in the slot to Flacco's right, with Smith motioning in tight to him. The Colts had just two defenders in coverage spots on that side of the field, tipping the Ravens that they probably would see man-to-man looks after the snap.
Rather than try to flare Boldin into a short-yardage route, the Ravens called for a double move up the sideline. Boldin beat Cassius Vaughn for a big gain.
Baltimore picked up solid yardage again later by having Boldin stretch the field. He lined up alone to Flacco's left but, as you can see in the picture below, there was space over the middle plus a deep safety.
The Ravens pushed the envelope a bit here anyway, sending Boldin on a deep out. He created space and Flacco delivered for a 22-yard gain.
A key to that completion, which came in the face of a six-man rush by the blitzing Colts? This:
The Ravens did a terrific job picking up said blitz, allowing Flacco to set in the pocket, step up and find Boldin downfield.
That's a noticeable difference from Flacco's pocket presence against the Broncos. Denver managed to pressure the Baltimore QB all day, specifically off the edges. As a result, Flacco hurried his throws and lost his mechanics.
On one of the few deep shots Flacco took against Denver, he tried to give Boldin an opportunity against one-on-one coverage outside, as the Broncos' deep safety dove underneath to help on Dennis Pitta. The resulting defensive look was not all that different from what Baltimore uncovered on that Boldin-Vaughn matchup above.
Except, rather than planting and delivering a solid pass, Flacco threw the ball like this:
That's a recipe for an incompletion (or worse), and Flacco's footwork similarly devolved all afternoon against the Broncos. It occurred one last time late in the game, with Denver holding that 17-point lead, when Flacco tried to fire one wide to Boldin on a fourth down.
Everything that we've covered so far went wrong on this play for the Ravens:
1. Flacco felt pressure off the edge, so he hurried his throw.
2. Boldin was unable to create any space with a cornerback covering him on an underneath route.
3. With Denver backing off deep to play it safe, there was tons of room available across the middle, but Flacco and Boldin did not make the necessary read to find it.
The Ravens' offense needs to be much better across the board this weekend to have any shot at unseating Denver.
For Flacco, that starts with more effectively diagnosing the Denver defense pre-snap, so those downfield gaps do not go to waste.
And for Boldin, he not only needs his quarterback to deliver accurate passes and put him in advantageous situations, but he ought to be given a few shots to open Denver up deep. Boldin no longer possesses elite speed and he will struggle against quality cornerbacks short. As he showed against Indianapolis, however, he is capable of coming up with big plays, if everything falls into place.