Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
01 Oct 2013
by Tom Gower
Each week as part of our content for ESPN we write an Upset Watch column, highlighting one or a couple games from the upcoming slate where, by our numbers, we think the underdog has a chance to win. Sometimes, that underdog actually pulls it off. Such was the case this week, when the Buffalo Bills knocked off the Baltimore Ravens, 23-20.
Our numbers indicate the two teams played similarly in the first three games of the season, with Buffalo a little bit better on offense and defense and Baltimore offsetting that somewhat with a slight special teams advantage. The strongest unit for either team was Baltimore's run defense, a bad sign for a Buffalo team that would prefer to run the ball a lot with a rookie quarterback and two quality backs. The key for a Buffalo upset seemed to be for E.J. Manuel to be able to exploit the non-Lardarius Webb cornerbacks, a proposition made easier by the Ravens' propensity to play cornerback by sides rather than matching up Webb on the top opposing wideout (in this case, Stevie Johnson). Defensively, the Bills needed to do a much better job on defending deep passes, particularly to Torrey Smith, than they did in Week 3 against the Jets, when Geno Smith burned them for over 200 yards on passes marked "deep right."
By our numbers, here is how the game turned out.
|Offense Bad, Defense Good|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
Offensive proficiency was not much on display, especially from the Ravens.
The conventional stories of the game centered around Joe Flacco's five interceptions, and rightly so as all of them proved crucial to the outcome. Three of them let the Bills start in Ravens territory, at the 25, the 28, and the 48. Buffalo cashed that fine field position into 13 of their 23 points. A fourth interception came on third down in the red zone, costing Justin Tucker a shot at a field goal he very likely would have made. The fifth and final one came in the final minute, as the Ravens attempted to drive for the game-tying or -winning score.
A closer look at the interceptions reveals an expected mix of bad luck, bad offense, and good defense. One interception simply bounced off Ed Dickson's hands, and the Bills were the recipient of a fortunate deflection. Kiko Alonso's first interception was simply a ghastly decision by Flacco. The Ravens ran short crossing routes, and underneath zone defenders Alonso and Manny Lawson both stayed at home. Alonso's second and sealing interception came off a deflection by Da'Norris Searcy of a pass intended for Dallas Clark. The veteran Searcy seemed to be matched up on Clark a fair amount, and generally handled himself pretty well.
The other two interceptions came by the star Bills defender on the day, Aaron Williams. The second-round pick was a corner his first two seasons, but Buffalo tried to move him to free safety this offseason. With nominal starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin out for the game, as well as Gilmore's official backup, Ron Brooks, the Bills moved him back to his old position for this game. While he was burned in coverage for the one big pass Baltimore managed, a 74-yarder to Torrey Smith, he was credited with two passes defensed in addition to the two interceptions.
Williams' first interception was a very good opportunistic play lurking in zone coverage. Tandon Doss appeared to have beaten Nickell Robey's coverage, but Williams was there in his short zone. His other interception was a fine play in man coverage. He aligned over Torrey Smith in the right slot, and the Ravens ran a smash combination. He stayed with Smith on the corner route and made a great leaping interception. A perfect throw may still have beaten him, but Flacco's throw was only pretty good instead of perfect.
Beyond Flacco's five interceptions, the other striking part of the Baltimore offensive box score is 54 called passes and nine called runs. When the Ravens finally ran a draw on second-and-12 from the Bills 13 with just under five minutes to play, play-by-play man Ian Eagle literally exclaimed, "A running play!" Understandably, as the Ravens had passed on every play for the previous 32 minutes of game time. This Andy Reid-like abandoning of the run game actually made a certain amount of sense, as Ray Rice's 7-yard gain that play was about the closest the Ravens came to a successful run play (the only nominally successful gain, a five-yard Rice run on first-and-10 was negated by holding). Baltimore's run offense VOA of -61.2% was nearly as bad as its pass offense VOA of -70.9%. The combination of the pass and run game struggles meant the Ravens could not sustain drives and did not run more than six plays on any one of their 17 possessions.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens' offensive struggles and some defensive weakness let the Bills stick to the run-heavy gameplan they likely preferred to run with a rookie quarterback. They did not run the ball particularly efficiently, posting a VOA of only -16.0%.
When Manuel did have to pass the big day belonged to Robert Woods (four catches on eight targets, 80 yards, touchdown, plus a carry for 13 yards, 37 DYAR) rather than Stevie Johnson (one catch on six targets, -1 yards on a wide receiver screen, a second-worst -43 DYAR). Most of Woods' work came with Corey Graham in coverage, including his 42-yard touchdown. He aligned as the outside man in a bunch to the right side and ran a deep post. A combination of the play-action and a deep dig route from the other side drew up deep safety Michael Huff, and Manuel hit Woods in front of Graham for the score. The Bills would actually return to that same play-call and throw two quarters later, though this time Manuel, under slight pressure, underthrew the ball and Graham managed the interception. Woods' day could and should have been better, as he could not manage to hold on to a pass in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal from the four. Jimmy Smith probably deserves some credit for contacting Woods on the play, but the ball still should have been caught.
Defensively, one of the things that stood out to me for the Ravens was the safety position remains a work in progress. Rookie safety Matt Elam got the start and played every snap, but he stood out in a bad way in the red zone. Manuel missed a wide open Stevie Johnson in what looked like a two-deep zone coverage where deep half safety Elam was not close to the sidelines in the first half. The Bills got a touchdown two plays later, though, because Elam whiffed on Fred Jackson in the open field. He would have another bad miss on Jackson in the red zone later in the game, as the contain man on a cutback run.
If Williams played that well at corner every week, he would probably still be a corner. Head coach Doug Marrone indicated after the game Williams would likely remain a safety going forward. While the Ravens' lack of targets beyond Torrey Smith may make them perhaps the optimal team with a non-bad quarterback to play missing your top three cornerbacks, Williams and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, a big upgrade on the departed Dave Wannstedt, deserve a lot of credit for their performances Sunday.
Given their lack of targets, the Ravens will need a more effective running game going forward. Buffalo's front seven seemed to deserve most of the credit for winning the battle this game, but the Bills defense may be better than I thought it would be before the season. The Ravens' lack of depth beyond Torrey Smith is not a new problem, and one that seems very likely to persist barring something unexpected.
Defensively, it is tempting to look at the obvious struggles like the deep ball score to Woods, the exploitation of Graham, and the failings of the safeties and suggest that the Ravens defense is worse than it was last year. Realistically, though, they gave up 13 points on short fields and played well enough to win with a competent offensive performance.
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