Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers

Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers
Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy

Quick, since John Harbaugh took over as Ravens' head coach, what have Steve Spagnuolo, Todd Haley, and Leslie Frazier achieved as head coaches that Harbaugh has not? Before getting to that, here's Harbaugh's resume-in-brief after Saturday's win over Pittsburgh:

  • .643 regular-season winning percentage;
  • two division championships;
  • at least one playoff win in six of his seven seasons;
  • a 10-4 playoff record;
  • and a Super Bowl championship.

He has done all that despite having a quarterback who never ranked in the top 15 by DVOA until this season. On Saturday, he had to overcome a secondary so beset with injuries that it started one player who was on an Arena League team earlier in the summer and another signed from the Dolphins' practice squad in November. Harbaugh and his staff had that secondary ready to play competently against the league's best passing offense. More generally, the Ravens' coaches outcoached their Steelers' counterparts on Saturday.

Harbaugh's success on Saturday is certainly nothing new, but he has continued to travel under the radar to a remarkable degree. Returning to the question at the top, those three underwhelming coaches have each received Coach of the Year votes, while Harbaugh has not received any. While those three coaches have as many playoff wins combined as Taylor Swift, Harbaugh just pulled even with Bill Walsh, who had an identical 10-4 record in the postseason. Harbaugh has gotten to that record in a pretty unusual manner, however. Saturday's game was Harbaugh's fourth consecutive win as a playoff underdog, and his sixth overall. In fact, no other coach has been a playoff underdog of at least three points half as often as Harbaugh since he became Ravens' coach. Harbaugh's teams have won so frequently as underdogs in the playoffs that it is fair to wonder if the lines have adequately accounted for his coaching.

Coaches as Playoff Underdogs, 2008-2014 (Spread Three Points or Higher)
2014 Lewis IND L 10-26 3
2014 Caldwell DAL L 20-24 6.5
2014 Arians CAR L 16-27 6.5
2014 Jo.Harbaugh PIT W 30-17 3
2013 Belichick DEN L 16-26 5
2013 Ji.Harbaugh SEA L 17-23 4
2013 McCoy DEN L 17-24 7.5
2013 Pagano NE L 22-43 7
2013 Payton SEA L 15-23 9
2013 McCarthy SF L 20-23 3
2013 McCoy CIN W 27-10 6
2013 Payton PHI W 26-24 3
2012 Jo.Harbaugh SF W 34-31 4.5
2012 M.Smith SF L 24-28 4.5
2012 Jo.Harbaugh NE W 28-13 7.5
2012 Kubiak NE L 28-41 9.5
2012 Carroll ATL L 28-30 3
2012 McCarthy SF L 31-45 3
2012 Jo.Harbaugh DEN W 38-35 9
2012 Arians BAL L 9-24 7
2012 Shanahan SEA L 14-24 3
2012 Lewis HOU L 13-19 4
2012 Frazier GB L 10-24 11
2011 Coughlin NE W 21-17 3
2011 Jo.Harbaugh NE L 20-23 7
2011 Kubiak BAL L 13-20 8
2011 Coughlin GB W 37-20 8
2011 Fox NE L 10-45 13.5
2011 Ji.Harbaugh NO W 36-32 3.5
2011 M.Smith NYG L 2-24 3
2011 Fox PIT W 29-23 7.5
2011 Lewis HOU L 10-31 4
2011 Schwartz NO L 28-45 10.5
2010 Tomlin GB L 25-31 3
2010 L.Smith GB L 14-21 3.5
2010 Ryan PIT L 19-24 4
2010 Ryan NE W 28-21 9.5
2010 Carroll CHI L 24-35 10
2010 Jo.Harbaugh PIT L 24-31 3
2010 Haley BAL L 7-30 3
2010 Carroll NO W 41-36 10
2009 Payton IND W 31-17 4.5
2009 Childress NO L 28-31 3.5
2009 Ryan IND L 17-30 8.5
2009 Ryan SD W 17-14 9
2009 Whisenhunt NO L 14-45 7
2009 Jo.Harbaugh IND L 3-20 6.5
2009 Jo.Harbaugh NE W 33-14 4
2009 Reid DAL L 14-34 3.5
2008 Whisenhunt PIT L 23-27 6.5
2008 Whisenhunt PHI W 32-25 3.5
2008 Jo.Harbaugh PIT L 14-23 6
2008 Reid NYG W 23-11 4
2008 Turner PIT L 24-35 6.5
2008 Whisenhunt CAR W 33-13 10
2008 Jo.Harbaugh TEN W 13-10 3
2008 Sparano BAL L 9-27 3.5
2008 Childress PHI L 14-26 3.5
Harbaugh Vs. Other Coaches as Playoff Underdog
Win-loss Record
Average Spread
Average Point Differential
John Harbaugh 6-4 (.600) 5.4 +2.0
All Other Coaches 13-35 (.271) 5.9 -6.5

After Saturday's win, Harbaugh's teams now have a +20 point differential over ten games in which they were underdogs by an average of 5.4 points. During his coaching tenure, all other coaches have won only 27 percent of their games as playoff underdogs.

So perhaps it should not be a surprise that coaching played a key role in Saturday's win over the Steelers. Most notably, Harbaugh's defensive coordinator Dean Pees could be sued for copyright infringement by Dick LeBeau for creatively bringing pressure from unexpected places. Facing this year's newly-solid Pittsburgh offensive line, the Ravens got more sacks in one game (five) than the Steelers had allowed in their previous five games (three). Part of the Ravens' success in the pass rush came from dominant play from their front four, most obviously Elvis Dumervil off the edge, but just as important was the consistent push up the middle from Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata. In addition to each getting a sack and knockdown, the push up the middle from Williams and Ngata denied Roethlisberger an easy escape route to the out-of-pocket plays that the Steelers have counted on in previous years.

The Ravens paired that dominance up front with schemes that freed pass rushers even when they only brought four pass rushers or fewer. On the last play of the third quarter, Dumervil got an easy sack on third down when the Ravens had six men on the line and brought overload pressure from the offense's right. Daryl Smith immediately dropped into coverage on the left and Pernell McPhee followed suit after waiting a beat to disguise his drop. Even though only four men rushed, Dumervil had an unabated path to the quarterback.

On Terrell Suggs's fourth-quarter interception, Pees dialed up an unusual rush that allowed Darian Stewart a free path to the quarterback despite the Ravens only sending three men. The Ravens lined up with a single man over the center, three outside the left tackle, and three outside the right tackle, where Pittsburgh had trips in a bunch. The alignment and the personnel almost dared the Steelers to run for the first down on third-and-4, a decision where the coaching staff might have been responding to the absence of Le'veon Bell. As Roethlisberger dropped to throw, the lineman over the center (DeAngelo Tyson) dropped into a zone. Initially, the Ravens appeared to bring three from the offensive left and one from the right. But Suggs instead did a delayed drop into the middle. When Stewart came free, Suggs was there with his thighs to accept the ball.

On the other side of the field, Steelers' offensive coordinator Todd Haley failed to have the offensive line ready for Pees' zone blitzes and did not take advantage of the mismatch between Antonio Brown and the undertalented Baltimore secondary. Brown ran few routes that exploited his uncommon change-of-direction. When Brown finally ran a route that called for him to make more than one cut early in the second quarter, an 18-yard gain on Rashaan Melvin came very easy.

While Pees ran circles around Haley, Ravens' offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak continued to get the most out of his quarterback against a mediocre or worse defense (more on that below). He manufactured a couple of big completions by calling for rollouts to the right away from play action to the left, including the touchdown to Crockett Gillmore that put Baltimore ahead 30-15. While the Steelers' line was flummoxed by the Ravens' pass rushing schemes, Baltimore was prepared to cover for their weaknesses when necessary. On the Ravens' third-quarter touchdown to Torrey Smith, Kelechi Osemele came over to divert Harrison after he had beaten backup left tackle James Hurst. While we might have expected Dick LeBeau to be the defensive coordinator who found creative overload blitzes to exploit a weakness like Hurst, the coaching firepower was on the other sideline.

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Most of all, credit for that coaching success has to go to the less-heralded Harbaugh. His playoff success now spans four defensive coordinators and three offensive coordinators. It seems hard to fathom that the league's most anonymous secondary could navigate the gauntlet of Roethlisberger, Brady, and Manning/Luck on the way to a Super Bowl, but great coaching makes it easier to overcome personnel deficiencies. And if Bill Belichick is a great coach, we have to apply the adjective to the coach who has outscored him by 31 points across three road playoff games, and whose team just handled the best passing game in football with Rashaan Melvin playing corner.

How Good Should We Expect Joe Flacco To Be?

Joe Flacco was solid on Saturday, but his stat line needs the proper context of the defense against which he was playing. Even the normally excellent Cris Collinsworth talked during the broadcast with some frequency as if the Steelers' defense is still dominant and their pass rush still fearsome. But these Steelers just wear the same uniforms as those overpowering Pittsburgh defenses of the past. This year, they recorded the seventh-fewest sacks in football, and nobody on the team got more than 7.5. Adjusting for down, distance, and opponent, the Steelers look a little better in Adjusted Sack Rate, but still rank only 20th. And the pass rush was not the worst part of the Pittsburgh pass defense. Overall, the Steelers ranked 30th against the pass by DVOA

Until 2013, Pittsburgh had been in the top-half of the league by defensive DVOA every year since 1989. Last year, they fell to 19th. This year, they tumbled all the way to 30th. Accounting for the new-and-not-improved Steelers' defense and the new-and-very-good Pittsburgh offense, the Ravens' performance on Saturday stands out only on the defensive side of the ball.

BAL 13.5% -49.3% 5.4% 68.2%
PIT -21.2% 5.9% 10.2% -17.0%
BAL 27.6% -27.4% 5.4% 60.3%
PIT -27.5% 14.5% 10.2% -31.9%

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Accounting for opponents also points out an aspect of Flacco's improvement this year that doesn't project well to matchups against the good-to-excellent pass defenses he will face with New England and possibly other future opponents. His improvement this year is driven by excellent play against pass defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league by DVOA. Flacco has generated about twice as many Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), on average, against those bad defenses as against pass defenses ranked in the top half of the league. These numbers correct for quality of opposition, so the comparisons in the table indicate that Flacco has beat up on the bad defenses such as Tampa Bay's even more than most other quarterbacks, and struggled against good pass defenses such as Houston's more as well.

Joe Flacco Vs. Good and Bad Pass Defenses
Avg DYAR Vs.
Defs Ranked 1-16
Avg DYAR Vs.
Defs Ranked 17-32
No. Games Vs.
Defs Ranked 1-16
No. Games Vs.
Defs Ranked 17-32
2010 21.4 73.1 9 7
2011 54.2 18.2 10 6
2012 21.2 22.8 5 11
2013 -25.1 -11.5 8 8
2014 42.1 80.0 8 8
Total 24.4 35.5 40 40

The narrative with Flacco is that he plays his best in the biggest and toughest moments. He certainly had a great playoff run in 2012 where he came up very big against good pass defenses in Denver and San Francisco. That pair of games is still not enough to override a career of mediocrity against good pass defenses, a pattern that continues into this season even with the coaching and personnel changes. Flacco could post big numbers in another small sample, just as he did in 2012. But, with only good pass defenses left for him to face, the odds are even more stacked against Flacco this time.


10 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2015, 6:20pm

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers

It's kind of sad to see Polamalu be more than a step behind any play. Unless he guesses correctly he is always in trail position on the play. Pretty sure if it was anyone else the guy wouldn't even be on the roster.

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers

"But, with only good pass defenses left for him to face, the odds are even more stacked against Flacco this time."

NE's pass defense DVOA is 2%, and while they are ranked 12th, as I understand it they are actually 2% worse than the league average. That's not overly intimidating.

Indy's pass defense DVOA is 1.1%, again, not that impressive. Have we already determined the Broncos will win this week? Are are NE's and Indy's pass defenses considered good to great? Using a ranking system suggests they are slightly above average, but according to efficiency per play they are slightly below average.

The Ravens posted a pass DVOA of 69% against the #2 ranked pass defense in week 17 (CLE), so it's not impossible to imagine Flacco having success vs. better pass defenses. I don't know how much that historical data matters in the end, the offensive scheme this year is so different from the past. While Flacco was better against bad defenses than he was against good defenses this year, I'm not sure whether that is predictive or not. Flacco was better against good defenses than bad defenses in 2011, and about equal in 2012, the data doesn't seem clear cut to me without taking into context other factors of the Ravens offense (offense line, RB play, WR ability).

9 Re: Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers

Pass defenses tend towards positive DVOA because passing is more effective than running. Rushing defenses are negative on average for same reason. So it's not that NE is 2% worse than league average. NE is better than league average, but the league average itself is negative on passing plays.

Note that NE was a little higher in defense before Week 17, too.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers

I think this article ends on a down note concerning Flacco's ability to perform against good defenses. We should remember that the game won't be all on Flacco's shoulders because of what we read at the beginning of the article: Flacco plays for a coach who has a proven magic touch in playoff games.
Harbaugh knows how to play against the weaknesses of his opponents and also how to coach to the strengths of his own team. If Flacco just plays his game, he can probably count on his coach to put him in position to throw another Rocky Mountain Rainbow.
Or, Foxborough Flyer, Boston Bottle-Rocket...whatever.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Ravens Over Steelers

I can tell you as a Patriot's fan that Jon Harbaugh's success has not flown under the radar around here. I'm sure everybody remembers the Ravens killed themselves in the 2011 loss at NE.