Any Given Sunday: Bengals Over Ravens
by Rivers McCown
The Baltimore Ravens have finished in the top six in defensive DVOA and special teams DVOA each of the last two seasons. In 2017, Baltimore dug out Alex Collins and watched him finish among the top five running backs in rushing DVOA. That's the kind of found money that can make a big difference for a team in the playoff chase, even if they only got him for a shade over 200 carries. Teams like, say, the Seattle Seahawks would kill to have a back as effective as Collins was this year. (I enjoy a good knife twist.)
The Ravens have zero playoff appearances to show for it after Sunday's devastating loss to the Bengals. The reason is fairly obvious: the cognitive dissonance between the organization's respect for Joe Flacco and his actual performance.
Public relations as media is now a powerful industry. Stories from both the Baltimore Sun and the Ravens' official website led with the idea that the Ravens were crushed, that this was a gut-wrenching and surprising loss. The Sun story made it 13 paragraphs before getting to Flacco, after John Harbaugh and Marty Mornhinweg. And even then, it only mentioned in passing that the Ravens are locked into him but should possibly consider drafting a replacement soon, and buffered that statement by saying that Flacco was better in the second half of the season. The official Ravens story did not mention Flacco at all beyond a reference to the "Flacco Era." It didn't even attribute the pick-six Flacco threw to anyone, since it apparently just happened by chance. ESPN's Ravens reporter did not mention Flacco in his game story until the third-to-last paragraph. To be fair, he does mention Flacco's poor play in his season review (paragraph 11 of 13) with the same caveat that a long-term replacement should be on the agenda.
The Ravens have every right to shackle themselves to Flacco's broken career and pretend that it's about everyone else. That the offensive coordinator they're bringing back is to blame, and that there aren't enough playmakers around Flacco. Those aren't even untrue statements. It's not like Baltimore's affection for Flacco negatively impacts anyone but their organization and their fans. But at some point we should accept the truth that Flacco has played like a replacement-level quarterback for four of the last five seasons. Joe Flacco is not elite. Joe Flacco is not acceptable. Joe Flacco is bad.
Joe Flacco did not allow the Bengals to convert fourth-and-season for a game-winning touchdown. But he is to blame for averaging 4.3 yards per attempt. The Ravens scored 10 points in the first half, and those came on a pair of drives that combined to go for 12 yards. Flacco threw behind Chris Moore, enabling the bobbled pick-six to happen. On Baltimore's first long scoring drive of the game, Flacco completed three passes to running backs for 16 yards. The Ravens targeted an astounding 26 passes at Cincinnati over the short middle of the field, to an area where the Bengals were missing all of their starters and were down to Vincent Rey and UDFA Hardy Nickerson Jr. at linebacker. Baltimore averaged 5.7 yards per attempt on those passes. And that was the successful part of the pass offense. Given the ball with 44 seconds and three timeouts left, the Ravens went four-and-out.
In his stretch of "improved play" after the bye, here's where Flacco ranked league-wide. I'll even conveniently set aside this meltdown to cherry-pick the best argument the Ravens have.
|The Great Flacco Caper|
|Weeks 11-16||10.0% (17th)|
|Weeks 1-10, 17||-13.9% (29th)|
Some quarterback situations that had a better DVOA than non-Week 11-16 Flacco did: the non-Jimmy G 49ers; the three-headed monster in Denver; and even Jay Cutler. And the absolute upside that the Ravens are promised by putting up with those games is average quarterback play driven by low-turnover games.
Flacco has finished with negative DYAR three times in five years, and in one of those years he didn't, 2015, he finished with 17 DYAR. The complete list of quarterbacks who generated negative DYAR in two of those years, with more than 400 pass attempts in each negative year is: Joe Flacco and Cam Newton. Newton has legs, an MVP award, and a history of electric throws. Flacco has an above-average stretch of play under Gary Kubiak and four years of being a pumpkin.
For some reason it's verboten to criticize Flacco in Baltimore. It's the sort of thing where -- pardon the political trek -- certain viewpoints never get aired publicly because they aren't considered "serious" by the establishment.
If I were running the team, I'd draft a quarterback early and have a camp battle. That might not be a "serious" solution, but some teams care about winning, and others care about the legacy of their former franchise quarterback. Prayers up for Steve Bisciotti as he figures out how to count the money. The Ravens remain a team with an absolute upside of 1990s playoff team in the 2010s.
Where the Game Swung
The Bengals put this game in a delightfully boring chokehold early, kicking a field goal with 23 seconds left in the quarter to take what looked like a 17-3 lead to halftime. However, Moore bailed the Ravens out with an 87-yard return right up the gut, then caught a Flacco touchdown pass on the next play to cut the lead to seven.
CHRIS MOORE MY GOODNESS pic.twitter.com/mUqgDUa2ZV
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 31, 2017
Flacco answered the fortune with misfortune, putting the ball behind Moore and having it result in the aforementioned pick-six after Darqueze Dennard snapped it up:
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 31, 2017
Per EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance, the pick-six increased Cincinnati's chances of winning by 24.3%.
The Ravens scored 17 unanswered by running the ball better and getting underneath yardage on two linebackers with little range. Cincinnati, at this point, had punted the ball or ended the half on their last four possessions, accounting for a total of 11 yards over that span. Despite starting at his own 10 with 2:48 to play, Andy Dalton dink-and-dunked the Bengals down the field. However, in Baltimore territory for the first time in the second half, A.J. Green committed an illegal motion penalty to put the Bengals at first-and-15. Two incomplete passes and a dumpoff later, fourth-and-12 for the playoffs, Dalton threw a strike to Tyler Boyd in zone coverage.
— NFL (@NFL) January 1, 2018
Maurice Canady couldn't recover in time to stop the touchdown, and the Ravens coughed up their playoff hopes at home to a team with a -12.5% DVOA. That play was, obviously, worth a lot of GWC: 90.1%.
That Ravens loss last night definitely goes in the books with such all-time Week 17 losses as the 2003 Vikings, 2004 Bills, and 2006 Broncos. Fourth-and-12! Field goal range and you give up a TD!
— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 1, 2018
By the VOA
The Ravens came close to winning this game all because of special teams. They started three of their five scoring drives in Cincinnati territory and had two other drives start nearly at midfield (At the Baltimore 39 and 44, respectively). The only time the Bengals started a drive beyond the Cincy 28 was when Flacco turned it over on downs to end the game.
When Family Goes Wrong
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One of my many wrong predictions this season was assuming that the Bengals could overcome some fairly glaring issues in pass protection and make the playoffs. In fairness, I wasn't wrong about my assessment of the rest of the AFC playoff picture. I thought most of the non-Pittsburgh and New England teams would struggle, and that a team with a weak schedule like Cincinnati could overcome its concerns. Other than Deshaun Watson's six games, Kansas City's hot start on offense, and the Jaguars defense becoming a pulverizing cloud, I think you could argue that nothing unexpectedly good happened to any AFC team this year. Seven of the bottom nine in DVOA were from the conference.
Our projections at the start of the season actually oversold the Bengals on offense as well. My confidence in their rookie class didn't go very far in Year 1 after the Bengals mercy-killed John Ross's season and placed Tyler Eifert on IR early, leaving them with little NFL-ready passing game talent outside of A.J. Green.
And, simply put, Andy Dalton has always been woeful under pressure. Dalton's DVOA dropped -132.6% under pressure in 2016, which ranked 28th out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks. While we don't have this calculated just yet for 2017, we know the rate of pressure Dalton took increased. The Bengals finished eighth in pressure percentage allowed in 2016, at 22.8 percent. In 2017, they allowed pressure on 29.4 percent of their snaps. Even this somewhat undersells things given how quickly the Bengals switched to Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator and had to retool their offense on the fly. Dalton looked skittish all season as a result. Tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi continued to be bad.
— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 1, 2018
The Bengals have a tendency under owner Mike Brown to not want to make changes. Changes, you see, cost money. And while most of the time I'm willing to give owners the benefit of the doubt on a direction, it can't be disputed how little the Bengals have spent, especially in upfront money, compared to the rest of the league. They, more than anyone, are a team that relies on breaking in young talent. It's why a lot of what Cincinnati does feels like it's from bizarro land, and why I compared them to a family in their FOA 2017 chapter. Marvin Lewis may leave, and the only person bandied about as a real candidate to succeed him (through Monday night) is defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
So, for Cincy's sake, here's hoping there are some good offensive linemen in the draft. Because the only way to fix what ails Dalton is the confidence of knowing he's not going to be under immediate pressure. If they'd had that this year, they might have been in the playoffs as well.