After two weeks of frolicking in the newness of the NFL season, we still have little to no idea about what is really going on. We probably know a few teams who are going to pick in the top five of the draft, like the Jaguars, Raiders, and Browns. We also have an idea who the championship contenders are: Texans, Seahawks, 49ers, Packers, Broncos, Patriots and the Saints, perhaps. That still leaves 22 teams who range from rancid to swell. The most unknown of these teams? The Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens have played two polar opposite games. In Week One, the offense played reasonably well as Joe Flacco unleashed his cannon arm again in the thin air of Denver, throwing for 362 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Ravens went into the half up 17-14, but Peyton Manning would not let his taste for revenge go unfulfilled. Denver would go on to outscore the Ravens 35-10 in the second half; Manning finished the game with 462 yards and 7 touchdowns, proving 37 is the new 25.
In Week Two, Baltimore played an all time classic against the team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns; they just changed their name from the Browns to the Cleveland Pit Of Despair Where Dreams Go To Die. But hey, at least the Indians are good sometimes.
Cleveland came back from a 6-0 deficit, which at the time was thought to be insurmountable. The offense struggled in another example of what happens when an offense attempts to move the ball on an immovable force. Baltimore struggled in the run game; Ray Rice was injured and Flacco couldn't throw the deep ball. It didn't matter because Brandon Weeden was the starting quarterback for the team on the opposite sideline. Never again should a team use a draft pick on a quarterback who enters the draft at the ripe age of 27.
Adding to the question of "Are the Ravens any good?" is how they won the Super Bowl last year. Heading into the postseason, they were a possible upset waiting to happen against the Colts, losing four of their last five games entering the playoffs. Then POOF, out of nowhere, they transformed themselves into the 2010 San Fransisco Giants, surfing waves of momentum, emotion, and Durga to a championship.
Joe Flacco completed 58% of his passes for 1,140 yards, which comes out to 9.04 yards per attempt and 15.61 yards per completion. It was like seeing that average dude Clark Kent hop into the phone booth and come flying out with his red cape fluttering into the Earth's atmosphere. On top of that, he threw eleven touchdowns without throwing a single interception in one of the greatest postseasons by a quarterback in NFL history. They went from a team on the ropes to a team holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.
Then, in a tumultuous offseason, they traded Anquan Boldin while Matt Birk and Ray Lewis retired. They lost Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Ed Reed, and Bernard Pollard to free agency. All of these players were either cornerstones of the franchise or played significant roles in their championship run.
Despite the fact that the Ravens came out of nowhere in the playoffs, have played two different types of games this season, and replaced 25% of their starters, there are still different pieces of information to help better understand how the game on Sunday will be played and how Houston can beat the defending champs.
Flacco Go Deep
Last year, the Ravens won a championship because of Flacco's play, not in spite of it. In 2012, Flacco completed 350 passes, attempted 657, threw for 4,957 yards and had 33 touchdowns against 10 INT. This comes out to 14.16 yards a completion for Wacko Flacco Flame. He was able to do this because of his deep threat wide receivers Jacoby Jones (eww), Torrey Smith and, his possession man, Anquan Boldin. The offense last season was set up to eat up yards on the ground and take shots deep when needed and their success depended on it.
Pro Football Reference counts a deep pass as one that travels in the air for at least 15 yards. Take a look at these numbers:
|Deep Left||15/49 (30.61%) 368 Yds 3 TD||2/10 59 Yds 1 TD|
|Deep Middle||15/26 (57.69%) 471 Yds 3 TD||2/9 55 Yds 1 TD|
|Deep Right||28/51 (54.90%) 905 Yds 4 TDs||6/16 177 Yds 2 TD|
|Total||58/126 (46.03%) 1,744 Yds 10 TDs||10/35 291 Yds (28.57%) 4 TDs|
The difference between their deep pass numbers in wins and losses is staggering. The Ravens went 14-6 (including playoffs last season); in the six games they lost, they averaged 1.6 deep passes completed, 5.83 attempts, and only 48.5 yards. In wins, Baltimore had a mean of 4.14 completions, 9 attempts (44.4% completion rate) and 124.57 yards because of the deep pass. Moreover, the Ravens averaged 28.5 points in wins and 19.6 points in losses. They tripled their long ball numbers in wins compared to losses and scored about a touchdown more. The difference between the two is like comparing the Gini coefficients between the United States and Sweden.
In addition, deep passes accounted for 41.05% of Flacco's yards, 17.4% of his completions, 24.5 % of his attempts and 42.42% of all his touchdown passes. To say that the Ravens' offensive game depends on the deep ball is an understatement. Their offense was like a Panda Bear who can only survive if he munches on bamboo.
This year, the Ravens have thrown twelve passes longer than fifteen yards, which leaves them 25th in the league. They threw seven against Denver and five against Cleveland. It's a small sample size, so we still don't know if this trend from last year will continue again this season. There is a case for and against the Ravens employing the deep passing game successfully this season.
The argument against Baltimore being a deep threat is the absence of Boldin, the loss of Jones for the next couple of weeks due to injury, and missing Dennis Pitta for the entire year. Another drop in the bucket is having saggy Brandon Stokley and the wrinkly Dallas Clark playing snaps for them this season. Baltimore will probably depend on the deep ball this season because of their nine figure man, Joe Flacco. He's been fairly accurate up to this point in his career, but his best skills are his arm strength and his ability to drop bombs deep down the field.
If Baltimore is a team that utilizes the deep ball, they will most likely have a tough time utilizing it against Houston on Sunday. This season, Houston is tied for 3rd in the league in the least number of passes of 15 yards or more, and has given up only 10 this year. This number is a little skewed since they played Tennessee last week (they only have six 15+ yarders this season), but they gave up only 6 to the Chargers, who are tied for third with 21 passes like this. I'm confident Houston can keep the deep pass to a minimum if they leave Kareem Jackson on Torrey Smith. Smith has caught five of Flacco's deep passes this season and is known for his ability to turn corners into a marshmallow left on the campfire for too long. What scares me is Johnathan Joseph has looked a little gimpy this year and has been beaten deep here and there. Additionally, Shiloh Keo and Danieal Manning are slow as far as safeties are concerned; they will have trouble helping over the top if Marlon Brown or Smith is able to speed past the corner. The key to Houston's game plan on Sunday should be shutting down Baltimore's deep passing game.
Ray Diddle Diddle
Ray Rice is the ying to Flacco's yang in this offense. The little man from Rutgers has had at least 1,000 yards in each of the years he has started for the Ravens and has averaged 4.5 yards a carry. However, this year the run game has been quite feeble. In the past two weeks, the Ravens have 151 rushing yards (not counting Flacco) on 53 attempts, which equals out to 2.84 yards a carry. Part of the reason the running yards are lower is because of how they fell behind against the Broncos; it turned into a Flacco fest where they had to throw the ball every play (Flacco threw it 62 times). The other is that the offensive line has been inept. Football Outsiders has a stat called adjusted line yards that measures the efficiency and the offensive line's performance in the run game. The Ravens have 3.04 adjusted lines yards which is 20th in the league and have been stuffed on 30% of their runs putting them at 30th overall.
Also on Sunday, Ray Rice is a game time decision and Bernard Pierce will most likely take on the majority of his carries. Pierce is a Ben Tate type of substitute running back where not much production is lost when he is in the game. In his career, Pierce has averaged 4.5 yards a carry (4.9 last season) but like Rice, his production has faltered so far this season. Pierce has only been able to grind out 79 yards on 28 carries for 2.8 yards a carry. This running attack is going up against a defense that has been middle of the pack when stopping the run.
Houston has allowed 199 yards rushing (17th) and 3.8 yards a carry (16th), both of which are good numbers to have in this category. Their league rank should improve once teams start playing tougher schedules. Whether Rice plays or not, Baltimore should have a difficult time running the ball against Brian Cushing and the gang.
Where did all the Hall of Famers go?
For the first time in eleven years, the Ravens won't be fielding a team with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed staring into the quarterback's soul while asking for the troll toll. Reed (who looks just like Chris Partlow, Marlow's hit man, from The Wire) is having his homecoming this weekend and could possibly play a few downs. Lewis exchanged his black and purple jersey for a suit and tie and has been bombarding viewers with his intelligence on ESPN's NFL pregame show. However, these were not the only two who left. Below are the Ravens' additions and departures this off season.
Departures: WR Anquan Boldin, C Matt Birk, G Bobbie Williams, NT Maake Kemoeatu, DE/OLB Paul Kruger, ILB Ray Lewis, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, ILB Brendon Ayanbadejo, CB Chris Johnson, S Ed Reed, S Bernard Pollard.
They exchanged their expensive players for cheap veterans and decided to give their younger players a chance to play more snaps this season. The Ravens have now turned from a veteran team into one of the younger ones in the league and are ranked as 6th youngest via Football Outsiders. The real question is how has their defense played this season?
The answer is... we really have no idea. Baltimore's defensive stats will be skewed because of the Denver outlier for the next four weeks or so. It's similar to a pitcher who gives up nine runs in two innings on Opening Day and has to carry an ERA above twenty for a few weeks before it calms back down to a more reasonable level. After a rough Week One in Denver, the Ravens played against Brandon Weeden. That makes every defense look like the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Defensively, their numbers have been this:
|Completion %||Yds||NY/A||Rushes||Rush Yds||Y/C|
They've been stout in the run game because of Josh Bynes. Their WILL linebacker (weakside) has 16 tackles and Daryl Smith has 15 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 4 passes deflected. It also helps they have Haloti Ngata, the All-Pro nose tackle who is second only to Vince "Snorlax" Wilfork in the AFC. This matchup will be huge for Houston's run game to be efficient this Sunday. Wade Smith has trouble with enormous nose tackles like Ngata, and Chris Myers is a little undersized. However, neither of these two going up against Ngata will have my attention. I'll be looking for how the Werebear Brandon Brooks hangs against this 6'4" 335 lb. behemoth.
The other key offensive/defensive battle will be Derek Newton (who has played much better than most have given him credit for) and hopefully not Ryan Harris against Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. In the first two games, Suggs has had one sack and six quarterback hits. Dunervil has two sacks and four quarterback hits. They have been dangerous on the outside and should be able to bring some pressure on Matt Schaub. If we take a look at advanced stats, the Ravens have an adjusted sack rate of 9.2% and 8 total sacks on the season. When looking at Houston's offensive line numbers in the same category, they are tenth in the league for adjusted sack rate at an average of 5.3% and have given up only four this season, despite Schaub being knocked down numerous times. If Houston is able to give Schaub a clean pocket, the Texans' receivers should have a big day and the Ravens have shown they can be susceptible in the secondary when going up against a competent passing attack. It will be interesting to see what performance we'll see from the Ravens on Sunday as we take another step closer to understanding this enigma of a football team.
What To Watch For
Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for you, I went back and watched the Ravens-Browns game from last Sunday. All I have to say is, "James, it wasn't no fun". While watching the game I did pick up a few interesting plays to keep your eyes peeled for.
In order to create pressure on the quarterback, Baltimore has employed a mad scientist on their defensive staff. They will do numerous different things like what's shown in the pictures. On the play above, the Ravens show blitz with #90 and #51 while keeping only one player with his hand down. At the snap, the Ravens retreat the two showing blitz and use a defensive back to try and get to Weeden (that flash on the screen).
If you read the offensive line preview I wrote yesterday, I went over how Houston had to throw away the empty backfield and keep Arian Foster in to block at the end of the game because of the pressure the Titans were able to bring with big blitzes. Baltimore isn't a team that shies away from using multiple defenders to get to the quarterback, and they do so creatively. Take these last two sentences and add Ryan Harris to the picture, and Schaub could end up bruised and battered at the conclusion of Sunday's game like a piece of fruit in the grocery store on the bad side of town.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Ravens do something else a bit unconventional.
Because of the high turnover on Baltimore's roster and the injuries to Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta, the Ravens are having to rely on Marlon Brown (who may be a good WR2), Dallas Clark, Ed Dickson, and Brandon Stokely for catches. From last year's team to this one, the Ravens have only 32.9% of their catches and 43.7% of their yards playing this Sunday. Since they have to rely on these old men to make catches and a young unknown wide receiver, they have to do things a bit differently. They like to use this bunch formation to get in the way of the defensive backs in order to open up holes for their receivers and create confusion for the opposing defense. Something like this has to be done when you have Brandon Stokely catching passes in 2013.
I wish I could borrow one of those watches from Clockstoppers so I could stop time and change this part of the post Sunday morning when I know whether Duane Brown is playing or not. I could imagine a game where Suggs and Dummervil wreak havoc all day like Chipotle on my intestines. Flacco is able to hit Torrey Smith on one or two bombs and the Ravens squawk in victory to celebrate Ray Lewis joining their Ring of Honor.
However, I believe the Ravens are mediocre this season with a chance of making a run if they figure things out around Week 8. The problem is they went through too much change this offseason and will be rough for the next couple of weeks until they establish a Ray Lewis-less identity. It would be different if they were trotting out a 31 year old Tom Brady, who wins games no matter who's around him, but they aren't. They have a very good quarterback in Wacko Flacco Flame, but he's no offensive mastermind.
The run game has been suspect and the receiving corps is depleted because of injuries and the Boldin trade. On defense, they can be taken advantage of through the air if the quarterback has enough time. On top of all of that, I have a feeling Houston is about to have one of their patented "We know we are better than this team. Let's go out and take the lead from their first drive and never let go" sort of games after the wet and wild times these last two weekends have been. The Texans will take a shot at the king. They won't miss.
Houston wins 31-17.