J.K. Dobbins: Baltimore's Last Hope

Baltimore Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins
Baltimore Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Wild Card - No coin flip required.

After to the Damar Hamlin crisis, the Bengals found themselves in the odd position of already having the AFC North locked up, but needing to win to beat Baltimore in order to clinch a home game against the divisional runners-up. A comfortable Week 18 victory ensured that the game will certainly take place in Cincinnati … and that about ends anything certain about this matchup.

If this game featured Lamar Jackson, then it would be one of the more intriguing contests of the week. Jackson and the Ravens beat Cincinnati 19-17 back in Week 5, when Baltimore was sitting with the top offensive DVOA in football and the Bengals' questionable pass-blocking threatened to end their whole season. Since then, Cincinnati has shaken off that slow start and looks better than it did when it went to the Super Bowl a year ago. That would be a rematch worth watching after both teams took it somewhat easy in Week 18.

But this game won't feature Jackson, and so this matchup becomes about whether or not Baltimore can scrape together enough of an offensive game plan to keep up with the fourth-best offense in DVOA. Can Baltimore pull off the upset as 9.5-point underdogs and give their former MVP quarterback another week to heal up? Or will the Bengals start their second consecutive run through the AFC?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  BAL CIN
DVOA 17.9% (7) 18.1% (5)
WEI DVOA 10.6% (8) 25.0% (4)
Ravens on Offense
  BAL OFF CIN DEF
DVOA 6.6% (12) -4.4% (11)
WEI DVOA -2.2% (19) -3.4% (11)
PASS 10.9% (16) -0.5% (12)
RUSH 10.8% (2) -9.5% (14)
Bengals on Offense
  BAL DEF CIN OFF
DVOA -7.3% (7) 14.2% (4)
WEI DVOA -10.3% (5) 21.1% (4)
PASS -2.5% (11) 24.9% (7)
RUSH -14.5% (7) 7.5% (4)
Special Teams
  BAL CIN
DVOA 4.0% (3) -0.5% (18)

If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

BAL Week-to-Week DVOA

It's almost not worth getting into the weeds on the stats here, as the big question overshadowing this game is just who will be under center for Baltimore.

It almost certainly won't be Lamar Jackson, though the Ravens still haven't ruled him out. Jackson's PCL sprain was originally supposed to keep him sidelined until mid-December, but now we're halfway through January and Jackson still hasn't even returned to practice. According to Jackson himself, there is still inflammation surrounding his knee, and the knee itself remains unstable. Even if he could rush back, mobility is such a key part of Jackson's game that coming in with a knee that's less than 100% is asking for trouble.

It might be Tyler Huntley, who resumed throwing on Thursday. Huntley has tendinitis in his right throwing shoulder. He hadn't been seen throwing passes since January 1, so getting back onto the field at all is a fantastic sign. He's still officially listed as limited but seems to be trending in the right direction; the question is if there's time for him to get back fully ready for this one. If not, then the Ravens have to turn to Anthony Brown, who started the regular-season finale and finished as the 33rd-ranked quarterback in DYAR in the week.

DVOA still has Baltimore with a top-12 offense, and our numbers have been higher on the Ravens than other metrics all season long. But that's specifically due to the Jackson version of Baltimore's offense. With Jackson, the Ravens have a 15.9% offensive DVOA. With Huntley, that falls to -10.1%. With Brown, it falls to -18.2%.

It can't be overstated just how far the Ravens fall without their former MVP quarterback running the offense. Baltimore has scored only 75 points in the six weeks without Jackson. The only playoff-bound team in the Super Bowl era to end on a worse note was the 2014 Cardinals, who fell from Carson Palmer to Drew Stanton to Ryan Lindley before being washed out in the wild-card round with the fewest yards in a playoff game in NFL history. It's not a great team to be compared to.

The Ravens can probably gain more than the 78 net yards of offense the 2014 Cardinals put up, but they're going to have to lean heavily on J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins came back in Week 14 and put up the second-most rushing DYAR in the league in the four weeks he played before getting a rest last Sunday. He put up a 60% success rate and 7.0 yards per carry despite playing with an offense that was not a threat to throw the ball; Huntley has completed just three passes that travelled at least 20 yards through the air. Dobbins still says he's not fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him the 2021 season, but he has certainly looked explosive and dynamic in the last month. The Bengals are average against the run, but they let up 110 yards to Baltimore's backups last week, and Dobbins himself has had success against Cincinnati in the past. In his three matchups against the Bengals, Dobbins has averaged 10.8 yards per carry; the Ravens will need another big game from him Sunday if they're going to pull off the upset.

The other area Baltimore can attack is the short middle of the field, where Cincinnati ranks just 22nd with a 6.9% DVOA. Huntley has had success hooking up with Mark Andrews there; he has a 32.0% DVOA on passes to the short middle, and Andrews is responsible for most of that. Cincinnati is usually quite good against tight ends, fifth in DVOA against them, but Andrews had eight catches for 89 yards and a touchdown in the Week 5 matchup. Those mostly came when he got isolated with Von Bell in coverage, or on one play when Trey Hendrickson was asked to stop him, which seems suboptimal. But as a proof of concept, the Ravens have been able to scheme up matchups for Andrews that allow him to attack that short middle of the field, and that's where offense could be generated.

And that has to be Baltimore's game plan. Throw short passes to Andrews and Isaiah Likely. Give a healthy dose of Dobbins. Control the ball and shorten the game—allow Cincinnati fewer possessions. The Ravens do not have the firepower to get into a shootout. If they can shorten the game, they have a chance. If not, then this is going to be a long afternoon.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

CIN Week-to-Week DVOA

The Ravens haven't scored more than 17 points in a game since November. The fact that they finished 3-3 and were able to hold on to a playoff spot is a testament to their defense. They have managed to hold Cincinnati in check, limiting them to an offensive DVOA of 4.4% in their two matchups. Baltimore's range and athleticism have managed to hold Cincinnati's high-octane offense in check, if not shut it down entirely.

The key matchup here is the Ravens pass rush against the Bengals offensive line, which is now missing both Alex Cappa and La'el Collins on the right side. Cincinnati already ranked 30th in pass block win rate before losing Cappa and Collins; setting Max Scharping and Hakeem Adeniji against Justin Houston and company is not an ideal matchup. Ben Muth has been covering the Bengals' offensive line all year long, and his most recent piece talks about how the line still isn't equipped to hold up against the league's best pass-rushers. And when Cincinnati has fallen this year, it has typically been because the line has caved in. Joe Burrow has been sacked five times or more in three games this season; the Bengals lost all three.

Interestingly, the one exception was the Week 5 Baltimore loss. The Ravens only managed four pressures against Cincinnati that week, and just six in last week's matchup. Baltimore's strategy has been not to send extra rushers at the Bengals, because Burrow will find the one-on-one matchup and exploit it—Baltimore has blitzed Cincinnati just four times in their two matchups, and it results in a pair of touchdowns. Instead, Baltimore tends to just send four pass-rushers, but disguise where they're coming from, sending second-level defenders up to crowd the line of scrimmage and then dropping them back into coverage. Perhaps flustered by this, Cincinnati spent most of Week 18 throwing ineffective screen passes rather than attacking Baltimore deep.

And that's exactly where Cincinnati should be looking. The Ravens rank 31st in DVOA against deep passes and are weakest along the boundaries. Getting Marcus Peters and Brandon Stephens back this week should help, but this is still a significant weakness. If Cincinnati's offensive line can hold long enough for Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins to get deep, big plays will be available. Burrow only throws deep on 14% of his passes, third-lowest in the league, but he has the sixth-best DVOA on those throws when he uncorks them. And he nearly connected multiple times against Baltimore just this last week—he barely underthrew Chase on a 45-yard touchdown pass, missed Higgins badly on a downfield shot in the second quarter, and saw Higgins drop a perfectly placed deep ball early in the second half. These aren't throws Burrow normally misses. With a little cleaner execution, that 27-16 win could have been a much, much larger blowout.

Baltimore was also surprisingly effective at stymying the Cincinnati rushing game in Week 18. Cincinnati had just 20 carries for 55 yards, which is very unusual—the Bengals' rush DVOA since Week 5 is 13.1%, second in the league behind Philadelphia. The Ravens took advantage of the depleted Cincinnati line and repeatedly hit Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine at or behind the line of scrimmage. This has been a key to stopping Mixon all year long; he has just 1.5 yards after contact per attempt. That's 11th-worst in the league, and three of the players below him are quarterbacks. If Cincinnati's offensive line replacements can't hold up, and Mixon's repeatedly hit in the backfield, the Ravens could easily make Cincinnati one-dimensional in this one.

It does help that that one dimension is "Burrow throwing to Chase." The Bengals might have more explosive potential than any other offense still alive at this point—remember the Atlanta game, where both Chase and Boyd had 100 yards receiving and a touchdown before the first half was over? I suspect that some of the reason for the relative floundering against Baltimore in Week 18 was not wanting to show their hand. The Bengals switched their passing game up some after the Week 5 matchup with the Ravens, adding more RPOs and more pre-snap adjustments, giving Burrow and company more control on the field. That saw Cincinnati's pass DVOA jump from 15.2% to 34.2% as the tweaks helped open up the Bengal pass attack and helped spark those explosive halves.

That wasn't present at all in Week 18, when Cincinnati ran a more vanilla scheme. It's one thing to see an offense on film; it's another to get reps playing against it. The Bengals knew their most likely wild-card opponent was going to be the Ravens and may have intentionally soft-played that one, especially when they scored off of three quick turnovers. And it should be noted that despite the running game getting shut off and the passing game uncharacteristically off base, the Bengals did beat the Ravens handedly. If they did that going half-throttle, imagine what it will be like when they unleash everything this week.

SPECIAL TEAMS

There's a significant advantage for Baltimore here. A lot of that is Justin Tucker, second this year with +8.8 points on field goals and extra points. Tucker has had a couple uncharacteristic misses in recent weeks, with his lowest field goal percentage since 2015. There's still no kicker you'd rather have lining up a game-winner than Tucker. The Ravens also boast the sixth-highest kickoff return score this season, but Justice Hill hasn't been quite as effective as the injured Devin Duvernay.

On the other side, Cincinnati has had trouble with their punting all year long. Their -3.8 points of punt value ranked 25th, though a lot of that came from the since-released Kevin Huber. Switching to Drue Chrisman has added 6 net yards per punt to Cincinnati's punting unit.

OUTLOOK

Without Jackson, the Ravens are outgunned and outmanned. Even if John Harbaugh and Mike Macdonald can scheme up enough confusion to slow down Cincinnati's offense, it seems unlikely the Ravens will be able to capitalize enough to come out on top in this one. Getting Huntley back should at least raise the floor of the Ravens offense to a certain level of competence, but it's hard to imagine Baltimore cracking 20 points for the first time in a month and a half against a Bengals team that has been on fire. If the offensive line is a disaster, and the Ravens' defense creates multiple turnovers, maybe there's something here. It's more likely, however, that the Bengals win this one running away.

 

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2023, 4:04pm

#1 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 13, 2023 - 1:59pm

BAL DEF: -25% against pass, ranked 11th?

Points: 0

#4 by Vincent Verhei // Jan 13, 2023 - 4:04pm

Oops. Missing a decimal point. Should be -2 POINT 5%. Fixed now.

(The missing decimal point is the premise of a great joke in the original Muppet Movie, BTW.)

Points: 0

#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 13, 2023 - 2:16pm

If Baltimore is able to make it a rock fight, I would tend to take them in rock fight games.

\take the pig when you're wrestling in shit

Points: 0

#3 by KnotMe // Jan 13, 2023 - 2:45pm

This also a weather game (like Sea @ SF )?  That is probably Baltimores only change to make it interesting. 

Points: 0

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