Monday, January 16, 2012

Diagnosing a Ravens offensive series

I just finished charting the second half of the Texans at Ravens playoff game, and I want to go through the series in which the Ravens scored their final FG.

As a season ticket holder, I attended the game in person. I have been very critical of Cam Cameron, as have most other fans I sit with. Cameron has taken a lot of criticism for this game, in particular the final two plays of this series. But after charting it, I’m not so sure he deserves the heat he’s taken. Were some of the play calls questionable? Could be. But after a long look, it’s now clearer why some of those calls were made, and I don’t think Cameron deserves the heat he’s taken over them.

The Set-Up
At this point in the game the Ravens offense was ineffective. The running game was getting between zero and five yards almost every carry. Joe Flacco was under a lot of pressure. To this point in the second half alone, there were a half dozen QB pressures or sacks by the Texans, and I charted eight blown blocks on Ravens drop-backs.

The Ravens take the ball over at their own 29 with 7:21 in the fourth quarter and a 17-13 lead. TJ Yates had just thrown his second interception.

1st and 10 @ Ravens 29 – I will abbreviate these plays as follows: 1-10 @ R29

The Series
1-10 @ R29 – Rice off left tackle is stuffed for a two yard gain.
2-8 @ R31 – From a run formation, JJ Watt comes off Oher’s attempted block to pressure Flacco, who steps up in the pocket and finds Pitta wide open in the middle of the field for a first down.

1-10 @ R44 – This is an important play, so I’m separating it. The Ravens are in an I-formation with Torrey Smith to the right, covered by Jonathan Joseph. The Texans are in a standard 3-4 formation. With the clock running, the Texans run blitz, throwing seven guys into the OL. The Ravens block with seven, which leaves single coverage with a deep safety. Before the pocket collapses, Flacco hits Smith on a quick slant for nine yards. The Texans sold out, Flacco read it and did a great job delivering the ball.

2-1 @ T47 – Hand off to Leach gets the one yard needed to pick up the first down.
1-10 @ T46 – Another run formation, another 1st down run, another stuff by the Texans, who are consistently beating their Ravens counterparts on the line.

2-9 @ T45 – The second important play. Here, the Ravens line up with three receivers, a classic pass formation. But the Texans don’t respond with the typical nickel defense; they’re still lined up in a 3-4 and clearly expecting run as they run blitz yet again. This time it’s six rushers (a seventh comes eventually, but not before the ball is out) on six blockers. Flacco again reads the rush and gets a very fast quick slant out to the right side, this time to Boldin.

The Ravens are now close to if not in field goal range. With the clock ticking, it will be just over 3:00 in the game by the next offensive snap. The Texans are clearly selling out on the run at this point, not even bothering to match up with the Ravens personnel on the prior play. And probably most importantly, the corners are giving the receivers the inside slant route, which Flacco has hit twice, both times before an overloaded rush can even apply pressure.

1-10 @ T31 – Rice rushes into the middle, this time for a gain of five yards. Houston takes its first time out at 3:04, clearly signaling they are going to make a stand here.

This is where the heat Cameron takes begins. Fans in the stands grumble that Cameron “better not get too tricky.” I agree with them. Everyone wants to see two runs. Bleed the Texans final two time outs, work to pick up five yards; if you do it, the game is virtually sealed, and if you don’t, you kick the FG and let Yates try to drive into the end zone which he’s only done once before.

But what I think we as fans miss is this probably isn’t the best way to play it. The first down actually holds great importance because it bleeds the clock. Assume each play takes just five seconds. With two time outs left, that puts the clock at 2:54 after the Texans take their last time out. If the Ravens don’t pick up the first, they kick on fourth down, kick off, and the Texans are getting the ball with 70-80 yards to drive, and likely between 2:30 and 2:45 to play.

But if the Ravens pick up the first down, even on this play, it changes the time significantly. There’s a time out on the first down at 2:59. A running play on first down, then another time out at 2:54, and the Texans are out of time outs. Two plays later after third down, the clock is at the two minute warning. And not just that…because of how close the clock is to 2:40, you actually can afford to run a passing play on either second or third down (as long as you run the other down), and still get the clock to the two minute warning. These open options make offense much easier to play and improve the odds of another first down, which ends the game. And if they don’t get the first again, they kick the FG, kick off and force Yates to drive 70-80 yards with between 1:40 and 1:55 to play.

2-5 @ T26 – The Ravens line up in a run formation, seemingly playing into the Texans yet again. The Texans blitz with six pass rushers, Ravens blocking with seven. The play is yet another quick slant to the right, the same that had worked twice previously. This time, however, Kareem Jackson did a great job getting up and jamming Boldin on the line. This knocked Boldin off the route, and the pass fell incomplete.

3-5 @ T26 – The Ravens line up with two receivers and two TEs. But just before the snap, Rice goes into motion wide to the right, leaving an empty back-field. Rice trips on his route, and the pass falls incomplete. This play likely works and comes close to, if not picks up, the first down if Rice doesn’t fall.

I want to cover the third down play first a moment. The situation is that the Ravens need to pick up a first down, or else the clock will be stopped with around 2:55 to play no matter what, and the Texans will still have at least one time out plus the two minute warning. This gives the Texans the ball plus 2:45ish to score a TD. While Cameron takes a lot of heat for this call not being a run, at this spot in the game, it actually makes little sense to me to not open up the play book and try whatever possible to get the first down. Perhaps he (or Flacco, if Flacco called/audibled to it) can take heat for the particular passing play being a fourth quick slant in seven plays. But running here actually makes less sense to me than passing, given the Texans’ dominance at the line of scrimmage.

The natural fan reaction becomes “It never should have gotten there! If you run on second down, you can run on third to pick up the first down or bleed the time outs!”

Thinking this through more, there are actually a lot of problems with this. First, with how great the Texans controlled the line, there’s no guarantee you can run on third down to have a high likelihood of picking up the first down. If Rice gets stuffed and it’s 3rd and four or more, a run is a very low percentage play, and you’re forced to pass anyway. Second, bleeding the time outs with almost three minutes to play actually carries very little value. They need more than a field goal, so they won’t need a time out to get the unit onto the field. And three minutes with the two minute warning is an eternity to drive the field.

Meanwhile, you have to look at how the game was going at the time. At this point, Rice had rushed the ball 19 times. He was averaging just under 2.7 YPC and had only three runs of more than five yards with his biggest a rush of eight. And the Texans were selling out on the run. Meanwhile, Flacco had just thrown two successful quick slants against a ferocious rush.

Suddenly it becomes understandable why those plays were called. The quick slant on second down seems in fact to be a pretty high percentage play. And there’s really little incentive to bleed time outs with so much time left.

With less than two minutes to play, I think it becomes a much different story. But in that situation, I actually think the play calling was solid if not very good. And considering it took me a day of thinking about it and an hour and a half to chart it to come to that conclusion, it shows why I sit on my couch writing amateur articles for no pay, while the experts make the big bucks to come to these conclusions inside of the 120 seconds they have before the play-call has to go in.


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