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13 Oct 2015

Any Given Sunday: Browns Over Ravens

by Andrew Healy

Before the season, the Baltimore Ravens were considered by most NFL commentators to be right on the doorstep of the NFL elite. They were tied for eighth in odds for winning the Super Bowl. Sports Illustrated chose the Ravens to win it all. Former FO writer Andy Benoit called the Ravens "the most complete team in football."

After Sunday's 33-30 overtime loss to the Browns, Baltimore fans can forget a Super Bowl run for now. The Ravens' playoff hopes are on life support. Whether the Ravens will make what once seemed like an inevitable playoff run depends on how much the alarming signs from Sunday are a short-term problem versus a long-term catastrophe.

On Sunday, the Ravens were torched for a second time by an offense that has long been among the league's worst. When the Raiders hung 37 on the Ravens in Week 2, it was Oakland's largest point total since 2010. The Browns had not hit 33 points without help from a defensive touchdown since 2010, either.

Giving up 457 yards passing and a 75 percent completion rate to Josh McCown sounds dire, but we can make a case for the Ravens bouncing back.

The Ravens are Not Dead Yet, Point 1: in-game injuries destroyed the Ravens on Sunday.

The Ravens played the second half without starters Elvis Dumervil and Lardarius Webb. After losing Will Davis to another first-half injury, the Ravens were down to just two healthy cornerbacks in Jimmy Smith and Kyle Arrington. The Browns' gains came in doses large and small. Taylor Gabriel obliterated Arrington on a deep post for a 56-yard gain early in the fourth quarter on the game's longest play. Gary Barnidge racked up 139 yards on eight catches.

McCown set the Browns' franchise record for passing yards, and all of that success came after the injuries came home to roost. After posting a -6.0% DVOA in the first half, McCown had a DVOA of 44.2% in the second half.

Buy or Sell Point 1?
Buy, but the outlook is still cloudy for now. Secondary injuries may have cost the Ravens a spot in the Super Bowl a year ago. The injuries are spread out more across the roster now, but the list of limited or sidelined major contributors might just be too long with the margin for error now gone completely.

The Ravens are Not Dead Yet, Point 2: the Ravens have played better than their record, even after Sunday.

Baltimore has lost three games by less than a touchdown. Despite their 1-4 record, the Ravens still have a DVOA of 0.6% (ranked 16th) even after Sunday's loss. We would expect them to win more of their close games going forward.

Buy or Sell Point 2?
Sell. The Ravens' DVOA gives them credit for beating a highly ranked Steelers team (currently at 20.2%, ranked fifth) on the road in Week 4, but it does not adjust for them getting to face Michael Vick instead of Ben Roethlisberger. So the Ravens' DVOA is a bit inflated.

The Ravens are Not Dead Yet, Point 3: crazy plays and penalties went against the Ravens on Sunday. Luck will even out.

A killer hands-to-the-face penalty against Jason Babin extended the Browns' first touchdown drive late in the third quarter. A second-quarter interception by Webb was wiped out by a silly (and borderline) roughing the passer call on Lawrence Guy. And, most incredibly, a tight end with 48 career receptions before his 30th birthday caught an alley-oop touchdown when the ball landed on his left calf and then was fortuitously squeezed by his right knee. It was a slightly more improbable version of Terrell Suggs' Thighmaster interception from last year's playoffs.

Buy or Sell Point 3?
Sell. While the Ravens may have a propensity to be involved in Thighmaster plays, that awaits confirmation. The play still says something about the Ravens' defense, however, forgetting the Thighmaster aspect. Against most good offenses, the Ravens would have given up a first down or touchdown. On the play, they rushed seven against five blockers. Advanced analytics tell us one guy will be uncovered in that scenario if the defense is playing man. Duke Johnson was that guy on the play. With Johnson coming across the middle and nobody within 5 yards of him, a flustered McCown just made the wrong read. Other quarterbacks would likely have scored a touchdown there at a much lower degree of difficulty. Even if the Ravens' defense gets luckier in future games, performance and injury issues loom large.

A Factory of Offense

The Browns have not had many good offenses since Bernie Kosar was flinging curly-haired sidearm passes to Brian Brennan and Webster Slaughter. Sunday's game marked just the second time since 1986 that the Browns exceeded 500 yards of total offense. Yes, they needed overtime to get there, and the Ravens were probably getting Chris McAlister on speed dial at that point to come back and play corner, but let's not ruin the party here. The Browns had a very good day on offense.

BAL 13.8% 19.1% 10.0% 4.6%
CLE 19.0% 11.3% 0.0% 7.8%
BAL 22.7% 17.7% 10.0% 14.9%
CLE 22.1% 10.3% 0.0% 11.8%

Not surprisingly for an overtime game, it ends up essentially a dead heat overall. Sam Koch pushed the Ravens ahead without the opponent adjustments, averaging 49.5 yards on six punts and giving up just two yards in returns to Travis Benjamin.

More importantly for the Browns going forward is what all this means for their quarterback. Josh McCown still seemed a step slow in his decision-making, but no day that good statistically falls entirely on the defense. Two of McCown's best four games by yards passing have come in the last two weeks. If McCown puts up even decent numbers in upcoming weeks, we will need to reevaluate him and the Browns offense. But the odds may be stacked against him. No team faces a tougher schedule the rest of the year than the Browns, and the league's best defenses are coming up. This week, Cleveland gets the No. 1 defense by DVOA (Denver). Then it's the Rams (ranked third), and then the Cardinals (sixth).

The Keep Looking at Wins Stat of the Week

Browns' tight end Gary Barnidge is in the midst of a stretch of production that comes from nowhere as much as McCown's stretch with the Bears in 2014. Over the first 94 games of his eight-year career, Barnidge caught a total of 48 passes for 658 yards and three touchdowns. In the last three weeks, Barnidge has equaled the touchdown output and accumulated 319 yards on 20 catches.

No tight end since the merger has broken out in Year 8 quite like Barnidge.

Tight Ends With Little Production Early and 500+ Yards in Year 8
Rookie Year Yards Yrs 1-7 Yards Yr 8
Gary Barnidge 2008 603 1197*
Mickey Shuler 1978 1704 879
Wesley Walls 1989 1167 713
Delanie Walker 2006 1465 571
Visanthe Shiancoe 2003 1738 530
* Prorated base on stats through five games.

Shuler and Walls both broke out a little before Year 8 and each had runs that lasted about five years. Shuler's emergence was particularly impressive. The Jets' tight end made three All-Pro teams in his Year 8, 9, and 11 seasons, as he made sweet music with Ken O'Brien from 1985 to 1988.

Barnidge likely will not quite keep up his current pace for the rest of the season, but he could still hit the 1,000-yard mark even if he only makes catches with his hands from now on.

Posted by: Andrew Healy on 13 Oct 2015

5 comments, Last at 14 Oct 2015, 7:06am by herewegobrowniesherewego


by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 10/13/2015 - 1:30pm

I might add that Mickey Shuler was behind Jerome Barkum for part of his first 7 years, and then Richard Todd tanked in 1983, probably effecting everyone's stats. 1982 was a strike year with only 9 games as well. Shuler did catch a huge touchdown in the wild card game against the Bills in 1981, so it's not like he did absolutely nothing his first 4-5 years.

by RickD :: Tue, 10/13/2015 - 3:39pm

Two problems: first, they are already four games behind the Bengals in the AFC North. That's a lot of ground to try to make up. I would think the most they could hope for is a wild card spot, and even that seems like a pipe dream. If they go 8-3 the rest of the way, they'll end up at 9-7 and probably out of the playoffs. They are already 0-3 in the division, which makes winning any tiebreakers unlikely.

The game at San Francisco is a must win, which is a problem given their early road woes in the West. And after San Francisco they have to go to Arizona for another road game. The double whammy of playing both West divisions in the same season is rough on East Coast teams. I'm assuming at this point they lose in Arizona. If they come back from this trip at 1-6, they're done.

by herewegobrownie... :: Wed, 10/14/2015 - 7:05am

I still think the 49ers are bad enough that the Ravens will rebound in that one. Maybe they should find a "western satellite practice field" the way the 49ers use Youngstown State's facility (due to the DeBartolo/Carmen Policy connection) during 2-week eastern swings.

The Steelers and Browns have the reverse arrangement of western home/road games that the Bengals and Ravens do - wonder how much that will affect things in the division.

by occams_pointed_... :: Tue, 10/13/2015 - 8:03pm

minor nit: The Ravens are 1-2 in the division, the Bengals and Browns are 1-0.

by herewegobrownie... :: Wed, 10/14/2015 - 7:06am

Also, McCown's big Bears year was 2013, not '14.