Ravens Pass-Catchers Through Four Games
Let’s get right to it. John Harbaugh’s decision to go for a touchdown rather than take the field goal for the lead with a little over four minutes left: right or wrong?
Let’s put ourselves in the decision-maker’s headset at that moment. You make that decision based on what you anticipate happening NEXT. How do you think your defense is going to handle their offense? If your defense has a good chance to stop or slow the opposing offense, so that they’ll have to work hard to get a FG, then you take the FG here thinking that you’re getting a tie or maybe even a win. On the other hand, if your defense is going to be shredded, has no chance to stop the other team cutting through it for a touchdown, then anything less than a touchdown here is worthless. You HAVE to go for it, or you lose.
Now let’s look into the future and see what actually did happen next.
On their next possession, the Bills stabbed thru the Ravens D like it wasn’t there, eventually getting 1st-&-goal from the Ravens 2 with ~35 seconds left to play. The touchdown was a foregone conclusion. The Bills didn’t elect to take the TD because they could win without it. But they definitely HAD it for the taking. Knowing that, we can look back and know that the Ravens actually would have needed a touchdown on that last possession, just to get to overtime.
And that means Harbaugh was right.
Don’t twist that into some kind of nerd-bait “analytics”-based decision. A 3-pt lead with 4+ mins to go is *NOT* a safe lead in the modern NFL. The Bills would have been in four-down mode the whole way. Taking the Field Goal there is a great way to lose 27-23. The way the Bills drove down after the play illustrates it perfectly.
Another important point is that usually on a “fail” there, you expect the Bills to take over at the TWO yard line. That’s a great place for the defense to get a stop, and the offense to get the ball back with a chance to make a short drive for a game-ending field goal (so NOT with 4+ mins on the clock). The interception and touchback was just about the worst possible outcome there: not just no points, but the opponent not backed up either.
I said it wasn’t a nerdy “analytics” decision. But of course the analytics DO support the call. Here’s The Athletic’s 4th-down decision bot:
—> BUF (20) @ BAL (20) BAL has 4th & 2 at the BUF 2
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Go for it (+2.1 WP)
Actual play: (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short right intended for D.Duvernay INTERCEPTED by J.Poyer at BUF -6. Touch pic.twitter.com/8AhUoz77oC
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) October 2, 2022
Here’s the Football Outsiders model:
Our FO model had this decision as
63.5% WP run
63.0% WP pass
61.4% WP FG https://t.co/u3756ul9mr
— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) October 2, 2022
A narrow edge any way you look at it, but still an edge. Beyond analytics, I liked what Mark Andrews had to say about the decision:
Mark Andrews got his coach’s back
— Sarah Ellison (@sgellison) October 2, 2022
“I’m a dog, I like to attack, I like that he likes to attack too.” Andrews looked like he was ready to attack the next guy who asked him a dumb question.
So that’s the decision. What about the play? Here’s a video of the play:
Ravens go for it on 4th and goal at the two yard line… and Poyer gets the INT pic.twitter.com/qyDbim6I3I
— Football Outsiders (@fboutsiders) October 2, 2022
Two things here. First, Mike Davis motions into the left slot and no one goes with him. This is something we’d like Lamar to notice pre-snap. Davis has a walk-in touchdown. HOWEVER. Lamar has never been super flexible about trusting just everyone in key situations. Davis has just 28 snaps on the season; 7 rushes for 15 yards, no targets. I don’t think there was any way in hell Lamar was going to Davis in this situation. Which is probably a limitation of Lamar’s mindset – defenses are more vulnerable if you will attack any opening they leave – but it’s not the reason this play failed.
Second, Lamar could have stepped up into the pocket. That would have put him in better position to put some mustard on the throw to Duvernay, and it’s a touchdown. BUT. I want you to look at Tyler Linderbaum, at about the 2-second mark of the video in that tweet.
Do you see how Linderbaum’s upper body suddenly gets shoved back? It’s just for a moment: the pass rusher shoves Linderbaum, gets his arm extended, and it looks like Linderbaum is going to be knocked back? Then Linderbaum resets his feet and controls the rusher. This is a good pass-blocking rep for Linderbaum; he maintains position on that rusher and doesn’t give any real ground. But for an instant it looks like he’s getting beat.
How do quarterbacks detect pressure and navigate in the pocket? If they’re keeping their focus downfield, looking for receivers and manipulating the coverage, then they have to be using their peripheral vision, right? Lamar is glimpsing white shirts and leverage out of the corner of his eye, and he’s using that info to determine where to move.
The instant that Lamar is deciding whether to step up into the pocket, just happens to be the exact same instant that Linderbaum’s upper body gets shoved back. If you freeze that vid and drag the slider forward and back, you’ll see that Lamar’s retreat from the pocket is tied to the sudden movement of Linderbaum’s upper body. He detects the pass rushers coming around the tackles (peripheral vision) and knows he has to step somewhere; and there’s a flash of Linderbaum’s balance being broken (peripheral vision), so he thinks he can’t step up. If he could see one second into the future he’d know that Linderbaum was fine and the space was intact, but…
So. The decision to go was fine; either “the” right decision, or one among a close group of decisions that were all just about equally “right.” The play call was fine: we had a Running Back open in the left slot for a walk-in, and Devin Duvernay wide-open in the right corner. The play “worked” from an Xs-&-Os standpoint. The Bills pass rush caused problems at just the right time to disrupt the play. Lamar should’ve thrown it away, and let the Bills take over on the two. But Duvernay was too wide-open and juicy to ignore. The Bills safety made a great play.
So then what do we complain about??
Here’s one thing I’m a little tired of. During this five-game home losing streak, Harbs has made a lot of aggressive late-game 4th-down decisions. Going for two to win rather than taking the extra point for a tie. Going for the 4th-down TD here rather than the FG for the lead. Each of these decisions is defensible, and probably correct. NONE OF THEM HAVE WORKED.
It’s time for one of these damn decisions to succeed. That’s all.
A tale of three flags
— Early in the 2nd quarter, Offensive pass interference on Andrews on a 3rd-down play that would have given the Ravens 1st-&-goal at the one. Ravens settle for a Field Goal.
— At the 2-min warning to end the 1st half, non-call interference to Demarcus Robinson on 3rd-&-5. Poyer arrived CLEARLY early but not called. Ravens punt; Bills score a TD just before half.
— On the last Bills drive, just before the 2-min warning: Roughing the passer on Brandon Stephens. Bills advance from the 41 yard line down to the 26, well in Field Goal range.
All of these rulings were wrong. (Organized Chaos from the RSR boards, @Yoshi2052 on Twitter, says the Andrews OPI looked correct to him, so maybe.) All of them were game-changing. Seriously, change two of those rulings and the Ravens probably win this game.
Pass-Catchers vs. Bills
I usually like to start at the top of this table and work down, but this time let’s start at the bottom:
— Bateman’s worst day as a pro. He had a couple games last year when he had only one or two passes thrown his way, but in terms of spent targets with no production, to me this was his worst.
— Are you curious what Andrews’ three worst days as a pro are? In three matchups against Kansas City, 2018 & 2019 & 2020, they held him below 3.0 yards-per-target. One of those was his rookie year; the other two were in seasons KC made the Super Bowl. They had great safety play. I haven’t looked at All-22 from those games, but I’d bet the Honey Badger Tyrann Mathieu was a factor. Anyway: this was Andrews’a worst game as a pro after those three games.
Honestly, that represents GREAT defense from the Bills. Remember last week, Bill Belichick and the Pats took Bateman away? But Andrews was able to carry the passing attack. Buffalo took away both of them. That’s very impressive. The Bills came into the game as the #1 yardage defense, #2 defense by football Outsiders DVOA (#1 by their metric “Dave”, which incorporates preseason projections), #5 in Pts-allowed Per Drive. They looked that good on Sunday.
The only thing that was working was Duvernay, and passes to Running Backs.
Greg Roman has never been much of a “utilize the backs in the passing game” coordinator; but it was something they were planning to add into the offense LAST year. They spent a lot of time on it in OTAs and training camp on it in 2021, specifically with Dobbins. Then injury struck and those plans were wiped out. They seem to be phasing it back in this year, as Hill and Dobbins work their way back from injury.
The thing is, without an exceptional talent catching ’em, passes to RBs are inherently less productive than passes to other positions. Running Backs are closer to the line of scrimmage than Wide Receivers & Tight Ends are, and they usually have a cloud of defenders near them. The NFL average on yards-per-target to Running Backs last year was 5.88. The Ravens were near that on Sunday, with 5.7.
You can move the ball that way. It requires willingness to dink & dunk, and patience. Does Roman have that patience? Does Lamar? Lamar likes to hang in the pocket and look deep, and rely on himself to be the checkdown. I love the drama & action of a medium-range passing game. But maybe we could stand to be a little more dinky-dunky, quick-release. At least against the really great defenses who are primed to take away the big game.
How great has Duvernay been this season? He’s more than doubled his yards-per-target from last year. The only incomplete to him on the year was the one on 4th-down in the end zone Sunday. He’s still second in the league in yards-per-target, behind the guy in Atlanta with the great name. Everything he does on the field says, “throw it to me more.” So let’s.
Bateman is still bothered by the mid-foot injury he suffered in Sunday’s game. He didn’t practice Wednesday. This is not the way I want to see Duvernay get more targets. Supposedly Bateman’s injury is not serious, and we’ll see him back soon.
Andrews has fallen off the pace for league-lead among Tight Ends in receiving yards. If you remember last year, Andrews and Travis Kelce alternated great games and took the lead back-&-forth from each other all season.
Demarcus Robinson has been less than advertised so far, don’t you think? We wouldn’t expect big volume from Greg Roman’s #4 pass catcher, but you’d think he’d do a little more with the ones thrown to him. Clearly there’s talent there, but I’m not sure he’s put it all together.
Would you like to see an interesting stat on Lamar passing to Running Backs this season?
This is a huge step forward in efficiency from what the Ravens got from RBs last year (cough, Le’Veon Bell). Devonta Freeman soaked up 42 targets last year and was at 4.5 YPT. The NFL average on passes to RBs last season was 5.88 yards-per-target. So the Ravens are getting yards when they go to the RBs. They could stand to do more.
If you can stand to see some upbeat stuff, JT O’Sullivan did another breakdown of Lamar, this one from the Patriots game, on his YouTube channel the QB School:
This one is long, 24 mins. And it’s outstanding. Full field reads, Lamar protecting himself in the running game, Patriots DBs guessing and sometimes getting burned and sometimes lucking into an interception.
Next Up: Shit gets real (pt 1). Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals come to town for Sunday Night Football!
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