Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Ails the Ravens

In the last eight games, the Ravens have blown fourth quarter leads five times, and without a clock-killing drive against the Bucs, could have been in position to do it a sixth. All four of their losses were after holding leads in the fourth quarter, and four of their wins featured leads given up in the fourth quarter, only to later be regained.

Let that soak in for a second...the Ravens have surrendered a lead in eight of their thirteen games this season. I’m struggling to remember the Ravens surrendering eight fourth quarter leads over the previous decade.

Given that, it’s actually fairly easy to make an argument that the Ravens could be the only undefeated team in the NFL right now. It’s also just as easy to argue that the Ravens could be 5-8 and out of contention. I don’t see another team with such a razor thin margin between how good they could be, and how bad. So I’ve decided to try to cut deeply into what specifically it is that is wrong with the Ravens, and whether or not they can do anything about it.

So much has been made of the coaching in Baltimore. Fans seem to fall in one of two camps. Either Harbaugh and crew are terrible and need to all (or some of them) be fired, or they’re doing a fine job coaching the team to one of the best records in the NFL The truth probably falls somewhere in between.

The coaching staff is clearly doing something right. The Ravens are 29-16 since Harbaugh and co took over, have won three playoff games – all on the road – and have yet to finish a season ranked in the bottom half of the league in points scored or out of the top five in points allowed (and are on pace to continue that this season). The offense is more productive than it’s ever been over a three year stretch, and the defense is still playing very good football.

But there are things about what these coaches do that are maddening. Three examples specifically, to show why people are so frustrated with the coaching.
1) Earlier I posted a little about the Ravens tendencies on third and short. They pass twice as often as they run, and play out of shotgun half the time and spread teams out even more. For a team with a strong run game and mediocre pass game, this is a disappointing trend.
2) Defensively they quit trying to put pressure on quarterbacks when sitting on a lead in the fourth quarter. They often go into a three-man rush and rarely use the zone blitzing schemes that are very effective at generating pressure even with four rushers. The disappointing play from the safety position (more on that in a moment) has resulted in an inability to effectively control the hurry-up offense when there’s no pressure on the quarterback. So why aren’t they using more zone blitzing, rushing 5+ and rarely using the three-man rush plays even late in games?
3) One fundamental issue has been Flacco’s snapping the ball with time on the clock late in games when trying to burn time. A specific example was the Ravens final drive in regulation of the Texans game. Flacco left 19 seconds on the clock, snapping the ball early. Had they snapped it at the last second each time, they’d have been able to call a run play on 3rd and 2, and run the clock down to the two minute warning. With those 19 seconds on the clock, the Texans were getting the ball with a two minute warning stoppage in their pocket no matter what the Ravens did on that third down.

There is no question this Ravens team has talent on it. The problem is, I think many people assume that there’s a great deal more talent than there really is. The result is a predictable underperformance compared with expectations. Three positions highlight a large gap between perception of and actual talent, but the reality is that the Ravens are actually lacking talent in a lot of key positions.

The three positions: The Ravens are perceived to have great talent at three positions that they don’t actually have. Michael Oher was at one time leading the Pro Bowl voting for AFC tackles. While he hasn’t been terrible, he certainly hasn’t been Pro Bowl caliber. He’s committed several penalties of all sorts. He’s not only been beaten regularly, but is regularly missing assignments and allowing rushers to come at Flacco untouched. He’s played well at RT, but has been average at best at LT.

Gaither’s absence has had a big impact on the entire line, not just with Oher’s shift. Oher’s move off RT forces Yanda away from RG where he has Pro Bowl talent, into RT where he is merely average. This has pushed Chester, an adequate backup but in no way a decent starter, into RG. With Birk showing his age, and Grubbs no more than an average LG, no one on the line is better than an average player, and overall the line is predictably performing poorly.

Ed Reed, while boasting an impressive four picks in seven games so far, is barely playing replacement level at safety. None of his four picks were “vintage” Ed Reed, reading the QB and jumping the route. They’ve come off tipped or badly overthrown balls, three of them he was far behind the play as it developed and happened to be lucky with the ball coming right to him. He’s often lined up deep and away from the LoS, where most of the action happens. He is no longer fast enough to jump routes. And he’s taking bad angles, which leaves him out of position in pass coverage, often resulting in long completions given up.

Largely this isn’t Reed’s fault. He’s the victim of a body breaking down from a mix of years of launching his 5’11, 200 pound frame into much larger bodies with abandon, and an impinged nerve in his neck that is both unfixable and very painful. In July I wrote that Reed should retire and I’ve seen nothing thus far that has changed my opinion.

And finally, Ray Lewis is, with 15 seasons nearly under his belt, a shadow of what he once was. He’s regularly blown off the ball, not getting off his blocks, slow in pass pursuit and missing tackles more than he ever has. He’s still one of the smartest and best at reading the play, which allows him to make up for his physical deficiencies. But those deficiencies are starting to have a significant bearing on how he’s able to impact the game.

Again, this isn’t Lewis’ fault. To know that he’s still able to play MLB at an average NFL level in his 15th season is an amazing accomplishment. Look back at some of the greatest LBs to play the game. Singletary. LT. Ham. Lambert. Butkus. Lanier. Virtually every great LB has been playing golf for two or three seasons by this time in Lewis’ career. Of the great LBs, only Junior Seau played significantly longer than Lewis has. And by this time in Seau’s career, he was starting half or less of the season and didn’t have more than 58 tackles in a season after his 14th year.

These three players, while creating an illusion of great talent due to name recognition where it’s actually average or worse. But they’re hardly the only positions where the Ravens lack even average talent. I’ve already covered the OL. The rest of it lies with the defense.

Reed isn’t the only problem in the secondary. Dawan Landry is a below average safety struggling to make even fundamental plays. The loss of Foxworth combined with the disappointment of Fabian Washington has created a vacuum at corner. And while Josh Wilson, Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb have played admirably for nickel-level players, they aren’t NFL quality starters. And Lewis, while just average at this point, remains the best linebacker on the team. There is no talent beside him at ILB, and if you count Suggs at DE – which is where he’s lining up most plays these days – there’s little to speak of at OLB either.

While the defensive line, particularly Suggs and Ngata, is playing quite well, and statistically they’re top ten in yards and top five in points, clearly the defense isn’t what it once was. Giving up long drives and fourth quarter leads is out of character, and the talent deficiency is a big part of it.

The Fans and Media
Okay, let’s get real for a minute. While this team has its problems, the level of crazy in Baltimore right now is off the charts. Fans and media are calling for the heads of coaches and giving up on games. Between message board watching and several chat conversations on Monday night vs. the Texans, I lost count of how many people told me some version of “game over” when the Ravens punted in overtime.

The Baltimore fan base has always been rabid. The media consistently paints the Ravens as the perceived bad guys fighting adversity. And the city has largely felt like they’re the step-children of the league, fighting for respect but preferring the role of underdog. Meanwhile, many believe the Ravens are an elite team that should be Superbowl contenders if not favorites. And while watching eight blown fourth quarter leads will wear on any fan, the reality is, the team is 5 games over .500 and two in front of any wild-card contender with three to play. They control their destiny to win the Superbowl, have not lost to anyone by more than five points and have the seventh highest point differential in the league.

The Ravens fan-base and some of the Baltimore media are making things out to be far more dire than they really are. While the Ravens aren’t the best team in the NFL this year, they’re without question in contention for the Superbowl. And fans of no less than 18 other teams would love to be in the position the Ravens are in, and enjoy the regular success the Ravens enjoy year in and year out.


  1. You know, just reading through this it appears that the Ravens have been really, really lucky with injuries this year. Yeah, I know they lost Gaither and Foxworth before the season and yeah, those were two significant losses, but compare the Ravens NOW to just about every other team and they are probably about the healthiest.

    Things might be a bit bleaker when they revert to a more normal level and have to dig even deeper into their depth.

  2. They have been pretty lucky, good observation. That said, their two injuries have been pretty significant. The Gaither injury has impacted the performance on more than half the line. But overall, yes, one or two other major injuries could be devastating.

  3. Regarding your discussion of the Ravens tendencies on 3rd and short: how do you figure the 2010 Ravens are "a team with a strong run game"? Their yards-per-carry average is 3.6, which is the 2nd worst in the NFL, behind only Indy.

    The Ravens are a team with a very weak run game. They are terrible running the football.

  4. PHL lost 2 starters to injuries for the season on the OL by week 1, including a PB, and has been missing Justice at RT for a while now. They lost PB FB and blocker extraordinare week 1 also. They've been missing Samuel for weeks and lost MLB Bradley again, lost CB Hobbs for the season and also lost starting DE and #13 overall pick Graham for the year. DeSean Jax is hurt and may not play this week, and both starting QBs have missed games with injuries.

    BAL has been very lucky.


  5. I find it hard to believe that Ray's play has been average. he isnt what he used to be, sure i can agree with that. but playing average? come on now...

  6. Jim - An error of how I worded it. I meant strong run game in those situations and mediocre pass game in those situations. Should have clarified, sorry.

    Bretts - Sorry, but it's true. Largely Lewis' play has been no better than average, and it's possible to argue it's been worse than average. He's still in on a lot of tackles, yes. However, in my charting, he's had a few tackles broken against him which is highly uncharacteristic, and of pass plays directed at him, QBs are 8/11 for 105 yards...that's flat out terrible. Just watching him play, a large chunk of the tackles he's making are well off the line of scrimmage. And he's simply nowhere close to the big-play playmaker he used to be.


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