Sunday, January 16, 2011

Anquan Boldin and a Failing Offense

I’m trying to figure out how the Ravens offense has failed so badly. Not just in the Steeler game, but let’s face it, they’ve been mediocre at best all year. They’re 16th in points scored and 22nd in yards.

I think a big part of it we know was the offensive line. But I’m having trouble getting past the play-calling. I’m watching the Patriots, and the Packers yesterday, and even the Falcons who sucked but serve as a good example. I see something in their offenses that I don’t see in ours, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what it is, and I think I’ve got it although I’m not sure that I can express it that well.

I think the best one word for it: variety. Give me a sentence: The Ravens don’t seem to have as expansive a playbook as other NFL offenses.

There are a couple specifics I’d point out. The first is the use of a guy they went out of their way to get to solve their receiver problems. They brought in Boldin to bring a lot to this offense. And in the first half of the year, they used him a lot. Then, his productivity fell off a cliff. I took a look at this a bit closer. Below is a graph of the # of targets and receptions Boldin received by game, with a trend-line for targets.

I cannot explain this. You can see the declining trend. It gets horrendously worse if you remove week 5 where he only gets 3 targets and then weeks 12 and 13 where he gets 9 each. But even with them in, it’s basically a decline of an average of 0.42 targets per game. It’s not his catch rate, the 1st half of the season it was 56%, it was 58% in the second half. He had 71 targets in the first half of the year, only 43 in the second half. Worse than that…in the first 9 games, only once did he get less than 7 targets. The last seven games, five of them he had 5 or less.

So, in conjunction with this, I’m trying to think about not just why Boldin wasn’t getting targets, but how he is most effective. One of the plays I think saw the most success with Boldin in AZ was the quick slant. Get him crossing over the middle, get the ball out in front of him and let him run with it. Last year, in a dispute year, he ranked only 39th in YAC (according to Football Outsiders), though the previous two years he was 5th and 10th. I’ve charted 15 of the Ravens 32 halves over the regular season for FO. In that time, the Ravens ran a total of three quick slants. Two of them went to Boldin, both of those were catches for a total of 30 yards and resulting in more YAC (21) than the yards picked up on the throw itself (9). According to the FO sheets – I have full data from all weeks (just not charted) where they track which direction of the field the passes went – only 26% of all passes to Boldin went in the middle.

I feel like the playbook is severely limited. We don’t see those quick slants. We don’t see crossing routes. We don’t see a lot of the things so many successful offenses use. It really feels like it’s all outs, tosses down-field, screens, etc.

Now, I don’t know if Cam and the coaches just feel like Flacco’s too limited to throw these passes and/or run these plays. But they’re not there. Something fundamental about this offense is broken. And I’m concerned that it may not improve any time soon, at least under this coaching staff.


  1. Other teams seem to use more personnel than the Ravens. The Steelers threw the 58-yd bomb to their number *5* WR on a crucial down. The Pats, trying desperately to generate some offense in the 2nd half of their playoff game, came up with plays for Julian Edelman, Aaron Hernandez, and the direct snap to Morris on the 2-pt conversion.

    On the season, the Ravens #4 WR caught *2* passes. The #s 2&3 TE's caught 12 passes. Seriously, there was no opportunity to throw a ball to David Reed or Marcus Smith, all season long? Seems like things could have been more diverse, even with who's on the roster.

  2. I feel like the email thread we're having is probably about to get really good, and may be worth posting. The more I look, the more I think the statistical trends are very disturbing. Coupled with the simple eyeball test where you can't help but notice that the Ravens playbook is severely limited, I'm now on the side of firing Cam.

  3. Please explain what offensive system works well with (a) a bad O-line, (b) slow WRs who can't get separation, and (c) a developmental QB who's a little slow to make decisions and who takes terrible sacks? Then we can criticize Cameron for not using THAT system.

    Perhaps it's true that Cameron should be replaced. But we play in the same division as a multi-time champion that exemplifies the virtues of patience and continuity. Bruce Arias has been with the Steelers since 2004 (though not OC the whole time), taking criticism several times along the way.

    Cameron knew his job last year and the year before. This year we have personnel problems at a few critical positions on offense. So we conclude that he's not good at the job anymore?

    I would have to see us make a knee-jerk move. Perhaps he needs to be replaced. But I don't think it's completely obvious.

  4. Regarding offensive progression:

    1) There have been some improvements, but really how much has this offense progressed since he came? Take a 3 year moving average of points and yards on offense. Points scored has improved, but only because '08 and '09 were the only two-year stretch where the Ravens were ranked 11th or better. This year we're back at 16th. Yards has not improved measurably.

    2) There SHOULD be improvements. Significant ones. The weapons that this team has now that they have never had? Gone and drafted a big OT to try to fill back in for Ogden. Brought in a QB who, while not perfect, is still significantly better than any in Ravens history. Brought in a WR who's known for being big and physical and making tough catches and running guys over. Drafted a dynamic RB to pair with a solid yard-chewer. The offense has so many more weapons than they've ever had, and there's been almost no improvement.

    Who should shoulder that blame?

    Regarding how to succeed with those limitations:

    Three-step drops and quick hitting passes. How can this NOT be the answer? If your OL can't block well, then the objective should be to ensure they are blocking for as little time as possible. If your receivers can't separate but are instead these physical guys that run crisp routes, they should be running short routes to get them any space they can and not let DBs run routes with them...the longer they're running, the more likely they're going to be covered.

    And yet how much of that have we seen all year? I'd say I could count the number of three-step Flacco drops on one hand, but I honestly can't even remember any.

    Look at the Packers as the model for this. Look up their pass protection OL stats, they're ranked 21st in the league. 21st! Yet they've got the #5 most passing yards, #3 best QB rating but only the 16th most pass attempts. How are they doing this? Mostly their QB is dropping back and getting the ball out fast. Now, of course it helps that Rodgers is one of if not the best in the game right now. But still, can you possibly argue that a team that has the #21 blocking line still being one of the best passing teams has NOTHING to do with play calling?

    San Diego's another one...FO ranks their line #20.

    Balt is ranked #25 in pass blocking lines. Philly and Pitt are both ranked below the Ravens. It's not like it's not possible to be efficient and good on offense with a poor pass blocking line. Especially with the weapons the Ravens have.

  5. Is that a strength of Flacco's? Getting the ball out fast?

  6. How can we know it's not? Cam doesn't even call the plays with any sort of consistency. The only thing we could possibly argue is that they try the plays in practice and Flacco's terrible at them.

    But the evidence in-game doesn't add up to make me believe that at all. I have charting data from last year full year, plus my 15 halves from this year. Combined looking at plays that are generally quick-hitters (quick slant, quick hitch or short cross) Flacco is:
    15/17, 115 yards, 6 first downs

    Now, while it's not exactly like he's dominant with that, but one thing is for certain...those are certainly not numbers that make me think that he's NOT successful at running plays like that.

    Then, even more than that, you have to wonder how over what amounts to a 23.5 game stretch, the Ravens have only run those fast-hitting plays 17 TOTAL TIMES! Again, the argument can be made that he's terrible at running these plays in practices, but it's hard to imagine that being the case given that he's certainly fairly successful with them in-game.

  7. Do teams take it away? I'm no expert on defensive countermoves, but I would think that if I were playing a team whose receivers lacked big-play speed, but were great route-runners and hands guys, I might take inside position to take away the slants and ins, and make them beat me outside or over the top.

    Joe throws outside the hashes a *LOT*. Evidence that teams are taking away the inside?

  8. I don't think you can automatically assume it is...I think your argument works in a one or two game vacuum. I actually think it's far more likely they're just not using it than other teams are taking it away. It'd be just the opposite...teams could take it away at first, and the less the Ravens use it, the more the opponents will adjust. If Joe's working the outside a lot, aren't teams going to be focused way more on that? Why would a team continue to work to take away the middle of the field when the Ravens never use it?

  9. Chicken/egg. Do the Ravens never use it because it is usually taken away?

    But I do agree with you that the likelihood of the Ravens *not* doing something being due to the opponent taking it away, is much more likely try over a 1 or 3 game stretch, not an entire season. But I hesitate over breaking down the play-calling at the level of what routes were run etc. Cam Cameron knows *SO* much more football than we do, it's really preposterous. I didn't have as much respect for Cavanaugh, partly because of his credentials but maybe mostly because I was younger then. Seriously, am I competent to break down the route combinations employed by Cameron? I'm not Ron Jaworski.

    I think if you step back and look at the three seasons of Harbaugh/Cameron football as a whole, the progression of the offense looks more satisfactory than it does if you focus on the Steelers game. The most important factor, obviously, is the development of the QB. We see steady, conservative growth by Flacco. How did Cameron's last 2 NFL QB's progress? Flacco is ahead of Drew Brees' growth curve – Brees didn't break out until his 4th season; Flacco's 1st 3 are statistically superior. Flacco is also statistically ahead of Philip Rivers thru 3 seasons, but their 3rd seasons are very close.

    If Cameron has been somewhat patiently withholding certain parts of the offense from his QB, either because of some master development plan or because of limitations in pass-protection or the receiving corps, I wouldn't argue with him. If Flacco were Rivers, this would have been his first year as a starter (aftet 2 years riding the bench). If Flacco were Tom Brady, this would have been his first FULL season as a starter (came on as an injury replacement in year 2), and Flacco stats are slightly better than Brady's year 3 stats (better yards per, fewer INTs), though he takes more sacks. If Flacco were Aaron Rodgers, he wouldn't start his first game until NEXT year! (his 4th season, 3 yrs sitting behind Favre) And Rodgers' stats his 1st season as a starter are almost indistinguishable from Flacco's this year, if you give Flacco ~50 more attempts. (but Flacco takes more sacks)

    We are judging Cameron as if Flacco is a finished product. That's premature. And it completely fails to observe any issues with the O-line. Last year the Ravens averaged 4.7 yards per rushing attempt; this year, 3.8. You gonna tell me that doesn't put enormous pressure on every other aspect of the offense?

    Add a fixture OT to the line, a speed WR to the corps, plus give more looks to promising guys like Ed Dickson and David Reed; fix the running game; see if we don't have a completely different perception of this offense.

    Or dump Cameron, lose all continuity and all benefits of the QB's growth within it and familiarity with it. Go back to square one.

  10. Yeah but part of the argument there has to be "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results." The thing is, this offense really HASN'T progressed much. It's not just the Steeler game, although that was a microcosm. Offensively, this team was nowhere near as good as it should have been, and took a significant step backward from last year.

    While I grant that certain people know football far more than us, I think it's still possible for certain folks to be bad at their jobs, and I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility for some observers to be able to point that out. I don't accept the argument that we're automatically wrong to call him out as not performing well simply because he knows far more about football than we do. I mean, can you honestly say that all the trends I've laid out here aren't disturbing to you? Should we simply accept that Cam's great cause he's had past great results and he's more of an expert at it than we are, so who are we to criticize?

    You may or may not know my theories on Marvin Lewis. I always thought he was made out as a better DC than he actually was. He had one scheme and it worked incredibly well cause he had the personnel to run it very well. When that personnel broke up and changed to guys with different skill sets, it didn't work nearly as effectively.

    Sort of feel like that's what's going on here.

  11. Never studied film but a couple of things stood out to me about the offense. When it is early in the game or the team is down Cam is creative and the offense looks very good. When the team is up the offense goes conservative and stumbles. Everyone I know who watched the games could not understand why Flacco was taking deep drops all the time. Why they did not put him in the shotgun more often. The problem is that OCs when they get to Baltimore always focus on not losing the game instead of winning the game. Get a lead and not make any mistakes.

    I realize the Oline was in bad shape. Having to move Yanda outside weakened the entire line. Less effective running inside and weak pass blocking on the exterior.

    There are problems on offense but Flacco is not one of them. Most teams would kill for a QB like him. I think the team needs to look at replacing Cam and upgrading the oline. I think the offense would have been more successful had Gaither come back as the LT.

  12. I think you know that I think you're obviously & clearly wrong about Marvin Lewis, because you're not giving him credit for shaping the personnel. Many of those players had never played for any pro DC other than Lewis. He taught them the system, and they played it great. I'm not sure what you mean about "when that personnel broke up, the scheme didn't work as well", because Lewis was long gone (to the Redskins and then Cincy) by the time that squad was broken up.


    Since we're talking about Cam, I think your point is, "Cam's reputation as a great offensive coordinator rests on his run with San Diego, where he happened to have 2 Hall of Famers in LDT and Gates, along with a great O-line and 2 QBs whom we know understand were terrific young QBs in Brees & Rivers. In fact, even the best of those Chargers offenses (2005?) only got decent production from their WRs: mostly it was all LDT and Gates. Take away the 2 Hall of Famers, and how good an OC is he?"


    If that's your point, I think it's a good one. We don't know how inventive he is. We know that he's a longtime offensive coach at the college and pro levels. We know that he's a 2-time loser as a head guy, as a lot of fine coordinators make unsuccessful head coaches. I personally like the system that he coaches, that lineage of Coryell-Saunders-Norv etc. I guess Harbaugh likes it too, since he retained Saunders and once coached with Sid Gillman. It's not the same watered-down West Coast dink & dunk that we see all over the NFL. It's a power running game and mid-range passing game.

    Maybe that means some of those plays you're asking about are de-emphasized? Not as many slants etc? I don't know.

  13. >>>>When it is early in the game or the team is down Cam is creative and the offense looks very good. When the team is up the offense goes conservative and stumbles.<<<<

    This is actually something I might be able to dig into a bit more with the data I've got. They neatly track what the team is winning or losing by, and how deep the passes go. So theoretically I can look at what the average pass distance is in Q2/Q3 when up by 7+ vs. the start of the game or in Q4 or whatever. I'll see what I can see there...

    @ Jim:
    Understand the points about Marvin, that may make an interesting post later. I don't really agree with it, but we've had that discussion before.

    I think generally you're about hitting my criticism on Cam and whether we can really know how good he is. We know he can take Hall of Famers and make them continue to look like Hall of Famers. His SD offenses were terrific, near top of the league everywhere. But SD has continued to see that success since his departure under arguably a much worse head coach. Take out the year Cam left, and the three years with and without him are virtually the same.

    But can he take a group that across the board averages out to be somewhat above average and make them better than that? Good QB, good to great RB, good TE, great WRs, bad OL, can we get better than average production? This year we certainly don't see that. DVOA puts the Ravens offense at 12th, but we've discussed flaws in that methodology in the past, and I really don't believe this offense was better than "NFL average". Even if DVOA is 100% right though, can we still say this is acceptable performance, given the personnel the Ravens have?

    Maybe it is the system, although I don't think the Ravens were running a power running game this year. McClain was rarely used. And I still remember and long for the days from two years or so ago when we would line up with 6 OL, one or two TE, FB and RB in the 4th quarter and simply hammer the game home with a 7-14 point lead. How often did we see a drive last > 5 minutes in Q4 this season? Chiefs game obviously, but I'm struggling to remember many if any others. (Something I can probably look up.)

  14. Maybe not great. But not far from it, and if not, only because Mason's over the hill.

    Misused and under-utilized. And all having the same skill set which makes things even more difficult.

  15. I get the feeling I am picking nits but I'm pretty sure my standard of "great" is much more exclusive than yours. Top 10% at the outside. Baltimore's should be above average and maybe 'underutilized' aptly describes why they aren't.

    But great? No. The Ravens don't have the best WR in their own division. Underutilized maybe, but great receivers put up numbers regardless of their circumstances. Look at Larry Fitzgerald this year, Calvin Johnson the last 3 years, Dwayne Bowe every year, even Steve Freakin' Johnson. Any of those guys would have loved to be catching passes from Flacco instead of John Skelton or Drew Stanton or Tyler Palko but they didn't get to catch passes from Flacco and they produced anyway.

    Greatness is recognizable. It isn't a quality subject to qualification ('he would be great if...'). The Ravens receivers either are great or they aren't great. I say they not only aren't, but in their current incarnation they cannot be.

  16. Just because the WRs previously made Pro Bowls does not make them currently great. Michael Irvin is not currently a great WR.

  17. I maintain Boldin's lack of production was more due to lack of use. Let me look up targets for CJ and Fitz, but I would guess neither of them saw only 114 targets on the year. Fitz caught 90, CJ 77... No chance Fitz has an 80% catch rate with Skelton/DA. Same argument for CJ having 68%, though that's at least a little more believable.

    Repeat Boldin's first half and he'd have 80 catches for 1,092 yards and 10 TDs. The argument would have to be made that teams were completely taking him away. I don't buy that, given his catch rate actually went up. He had a huge game against Tampa. Other than that, they barely targeted him. His targets dropped 40%!

    They don't have the best WR in the division, that's Wallace, no doubt. I'm trying to make an argument that I wouldn't trade the Steeler receivers for the Ravens receivers, but truthfully I can't make that argument sound sane in my head. A lot of that is system related, though. Housh > Sanders. Ward > Mason? Probably at this point, but not by much. Wallace > Boldin, though again not by a ton.

    I've already made the argument for Boldin being a terrific receiver back when the Ravens got him. I don't think anything's changed there. I think he's just been grossly underutilized and completely misused.

    Something keeps brewing in my head about how the Coryell system is COMPLETELY wrong for this group of players. You've got a set of big, possession receivers that are good out in space and crisp route runners with no real speed, and a dynamic RB that's known for creating things when he gets space. Coryell's system dictates using power running to open deep passing lanes. How will that work with these players? You need guys like Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall to make that system work...

  18. You are trying to make a statistical conclusion when I'm not arguing statistics. You can't know how often Boldin was targeted, only how often he was thrown to, and you can't know how often his number wasn't called because Cameron didn't have faith in any plays to him being successful.

    Production is the end result of the story, it isn't the story. Boldin had great production in Arizona but he also had Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. This wouldn't be the first time that a great #2 didn't become a great #1 when he switched teams, in fact that is probably more the rule than the exception. We've discussed this at length before.

    I will repeat: greatness expresses itself. Think of Santonio Holmes and all the great and critically important receptions he's already had in his short career. And then think about Boldin dropping the most important reception of his career.

  19. I thought Anquan Boldin was a great WR before he got here. But of course I'd never had a chance to watch him up close. After a season with the Ravens, I feel like I still haven't had a chance to watch him up close. I liked some of the glimpses I got of him. Except for the drop against the Steelers.

  20. Yeah, Boldin doesn't pass the eyeball test for 'great.'

    DeSean Jackson is great, to use the nearest geographically located WR to me.

    Jeremy Maclin is good, young, improving, but not great [yet]. Whereas DeSean can beat you catching, running, returning, and drawing double coverage so that Maclin and Avant can have career years, etc, opening up space for swing passes to LeSean McCoy, et al.


  21. I completely disagree on Boldin. Boldin was off to a great start the first half of this year. Other than that one drop in the Steelers game he was exceptional. I don't remember charting "dropped" in the Reason column for why a pass was incomplete to him very often. I don't even remember "defensed" very often but I'll check both when I get home tonight.

    If you'd have asked me at the end of the first half if I thought Boldin's production would increase or decrease in the second half of the year I'd have thought it was more likely to increase. But even if it didn't, the dude was on pace for an 1,100 yard, 10 TD season. That's not great?

    I mean, sure he didn't get there. But sorry, I simply don't believe that he was just not getting open nearly as much. If that was really the case, it's far more likely his catch rate would also have gone down, as defenses would be rolling more coverage his way, making it harder to catch the ball when thrown to him. His catch rate went up. And Cam didn't want to throw his way cause he didn't think he'd be successful? 55%+ catch rate is pretty good for a WR. Boldin was successful the whole first half of the season, and his success on balls thrown to him didn't decline. That causes me to think it doesn't make sense why he would think there's a reason plays wouldn't be successful going his way. (Similar to the argument of the Ravens not running short plays because Cam doesn't think they'd be successful...they were successful when they ran them, I don't buy that argument.)

    Plus, as I've noted before, Boldin has been great before when Fitz wasn't playing.

  22. You keep arguing greatness can be measured with statistics.

    Great players will have great statistics, but it isn't the numbers that make them great. Naj points out another player who had also crossed my mind, DeSean Jackson. He is just a flat-out scary dude. He is the type of player who will leave defensive coordinators screaming 'will someone please cover that guy!'

    The Ravens have four players who are like that and they all play on defense. Without using numbers, explain why Boldin is also like that. What are his qualities of greatness. Sure he's been productive, but so has Brandon Lloyd and Ryan Fitzpatrick. I don't care what makes him productive, tell us what makes him great.

    Plus Boldin had the luxury of playing with Kurt Warner. Great quarterbacks make receivers look better than they are. We've had that discussion before too.

  23. What makes him great? Certainly not his speed...

    - Terrific hands. 23.5 games worth of charting data and four drops. Catches everything that gets near him (except TD passes in playoff games in Pittsburgh).

    - Big and strong and excellent at getting YAC. 368 YAC in '09 (haven't looked at '10 yet).

    - Excellent at creating space in short routes. gets back to being so physical, but he runs good, clean routes and can create separation.

    - Strong down-field blocker.

    Not everyone has DeSean Jackson or Larry Fitzgerald speed, and you don't need it to be a great WR. Guys like Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson are freaks of nature...they get Boldin-like size and physicality matched with crazy speed.

    The guy he reminds me of or I think he compares to similarly is Hines Ward. He's not a speedster. But I'd still consider him a great receiver. Big, physical, gets open, catches balls, makes plays. That's the way I think of Boldin.

  24. Boldin was great in 2003 thru 2006, with Jeff Blake and Josh McCown throwing the passes to him. I would said his "qualities of greatness" were his size, his power, his tenacity at the point of the catch (if you'll allow that phrase). Maybe route-running & explosiveness too, but that might be covered in the first list.

    Maybe he still has those qualities, and they were hidden by a misguided attempt on offense, to share the ball equally / throw it to the open guy? Or maybe age & injury have sapped those qualities? Or maybe I was always wrong. I don't know.

    I feel like he's a weird case. Maybe always has been. Before this season he was the NFL's all-time leader in yards-per-game. That's something.

  25. I've already covered why I think Boldin's a great receiver, but here's a link to what I wrote before the season began:

    A thought has been rolling around my head for a few days...this discussion triggered it. I'm trying to get a full blown article out of it, but I'm not sure how much substance I can get into it. One sentence describes it. It's obvious, there's only so much evidence to support it that can be written.

    The Ravens are running a Don Coryell offense, but their personnel is suited for a West Coast system.

  26. I would say that Joe Flacco is pretty much the antithesis of a west coast quarterback.

    Also lacking the receiver who stretches the field, but they lack that in their current offense too.

  27. As we've discussed via email, neither their QB nor their O-line is well-suited for a WCO. They weren't when Billick was trying to be West Coast-y, and they're not now.


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