Over Weeks 3 and 4 of the Ravens' 14-2 2019 season, Baltimore suffered two defensive blowups against Kansas City and Cleveland, allowing a combined 333 rushing yards in a pair of losses. They also allowed 157 rushing yards to the Bengals in Week 10, 174 to the 49ers in Week 13, and 217 to the Titans in a season-ending playoff loss. In the offseason, they made it a focus to get bigger on the defensive line and have enough stout bodies to deal with this sort of thing. They also drafted a slew of linebackers in the early rounds of the draft.
Unfortunately, health is health, and rookies are rookies. The Ravens didn't have Calais Campbell available to them for Sunday Night Football, as he was out with a calf injury. They then lost Brandon Williams, their star nose tackle, on the first drive of the game. What wound up happening was an interesting change of pace where the Ravens were the team that was overmatched schematically against a ground-based offense with a dominant running quarterback. The Patriots have gimmick-offensed most of the year away, playing with almost no interesting receivers and treating Cam Newton like someone they are afraid to let throw the ball. But if you can't stop the run no matter how many guys you park in the box, it doesn't matter. Per Next Gen Stats, Damien Harris saw 54.5% of his carries with at least eight men in the box. He rushed for 121 yards anyway.
NE run game = 21 personnel (2RB, 1TE, 2WR) + gap schemes.
Counter, ISO, Toss, more. Old school power.
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 16, 2020
Justin Ellis was not effectively able to hold the middle on most of these plays. Patrick Queen was tentative -- as you'd expect from a rookie linebacker -- and the Ravens were boatraced as they tried to work in new face Yannick Ngakoue. The Patriots' All-Pro-laden offensive line just wasn't having it.
Damien Harris does a good job selling the outside here, 48 is a buyer. pic.twitter.com/3irnJyTj03
— Asinine Punk (@riversmccown) November 17, 2020
On this play, what instantly stands out is the seal that David Andrews (60) gets -- he is barely moved off his spot at all, and doesn't give up much ground. Meanwhile, as I wrote on the Tweet itself, Harris is able to get Queen to buy the outside run, so when he dives in, there's a big hole. Then he makes a safety miss for extra yardage.
Baltimore's run defense has been pretty good on the whole -- Sunday night dropped them from first to third in DVOA against the run -- but when their personnel is gashed up like it was on Sunday, and all they can trust are rookies and street free-agent-quality linemen, it's hard to live up to those standards.
Where the Game Swung
|Where the Game Swung|
|M.Skura aborted fourth-down snap||9:45 Q3||66.6%||81.6%||+15.0%|
|C.Newton completion to J.Meyers on third-and-3||3:35 Q4||77.9%||89.1%||+11.2%|
|M.Skura aborted first-down snap||6:01 Q4||66.1%||75.9%||+9.8%|
|L.Jackson TD pass to W.Snead||0:08 Q3||76.6%||67.9%||-8.7%|
|J.Meyers TD pass to R.Burkhead||1:02 Q2||37.5%||46.1%||+8.6%|
|L.Jackson pick in two-minute drill||0:07 Q2||38.5%||46.7%||+8.2%|
|C.Newton 26-yd pass to J.Meyers + M.Peters roughness||13:42 Q3||55.4%||63.2%||+7.8%|
As I will demonstrate conclusively both here and in the next section -- though we don't want to make too big of a deal about this because the poor guy's family is already being threatened -- it's kind of unavoidable to look at this game and not come away with the idea that Matt Skura's three aborted snaps didn't just destroy whatever chance the Ravens had to come back and win. Here you can see the 24.8% hit the Ravens took between the first two. The third one, on the final drive, added another 2.3% GWC for New England, and it would have been worse had Jackson not returned the ball to the line of scrimmage.
By the (D)VOA
So, of course, those are ugly numbers. The Ravens are dinged heavily for this on offense because the Patriots have been really bad at defense this year. In fact, after this game the Patriots dropped to dead last in defensive DVOA because Jacksonville did a good job against Aaron Rodgers this week.
If you remove the three aborted snaps from the game, Baltimore's offensive DVOA was actually -3.4%. That is better than their season average. Those plays were just devastating for their chances of winning this game.
The Numbers Behind Going From MVP to Mere Competence
It's hard to avoid the elephant in the room: while the Ravens defense has been good and their rushing offense has been good, the passing offense has taken a step back. I think it's a multi-faceted problem -- one of those things where there is no simple solution. The aggregate of the parts is kind of like this:
- Ronnie Stanley's injuries and Marshal Yanda's retirement has considerably crushed the amount of time Jackson has before he has to scramble. Last year's Ravens line was the rare one that played well and mostly stayed healthy for 16 games.
- The Ravens have not had Miles Boykin or Marquise Brown develop in a significant way. They are so disillusioned with their wide receiver corps that they're kicking the tires on Dez Bryant.
- Teams have clearly rolled out specialized game plans to stop what Lamar Jackson does best. This does tend to happen when you are as much of a historic outlier as the Ravens were last season.
- The Ravens, as Doug Farrar pointed out Friday, seem to be calling plays like they want to hide Jackson as a passer.
The numbers tell a tale of an offense that has almost no explosion outside of concepts that Jackson's prowess benefits. Baltimore is leading the NFL in RPOs called (114) and passing yards off of them (875), per Sportradar's numbers. Interestingly, the Ravens have backslid a bit in terms of play-action passes. They ran 169 play-action passes last year, the second-most in the NFL. This year, the Ravens have run 57 play-action passes in nine games. So on aggregate, they've gone from roughly 10 play-action passes a game to six. Some of that, clearly, is about the offense's inability to hold blocks long -- but that feels more like an excuse when you look at teams such as the 49ers and Falcons in the top 10 in play-action rate.
If you look at the plays where the Ravens are simply asked to win with the passing game, there are some very stark contrasts:
|Ravens 2019 vs. Ravens 2020 (Pass Offense DVOA)|
Basically, when this offense is stuffed on a first-down run this year, it is in trouble. Last year it was explosive in every way. This year, with the myriad of techniques and less time, it has been a disaster.
I know people take heart that this is all about stopping Lamar Jackson and his regression because he's the flashpoint, but the takeaway I leave with every time I watch a Ravens game is that he's showing some of the same plays that made him the MVP in the first place. The circumstances around him just aren't what they could be. And now, with ace blocking tight end Nick Boyle out for the season, that's one less way the Ravens will be able to rely on their run game to clean up the mess. Baltimore is seeing more counters based around their speed than their beef as a run offense, meaning a lot more dime gets rolled out against them.
Jackson hasn't made the plays that he made last year, and I know it's very easy to get caught up in that and relitigate MVP arguments and so on. I continue to think the Ravens will make necessary adjustments after the season -- they need to find a receiver who can decisively win against man coverage to help Jackson out. They need to get back to the play-action passing. Last year this was the team that caught everyone by storm; this year they're the team that other teams have adjustments for. Now it's time for them to adjust as well.