Analytics Experts Struggle to Find Weakness on Ravens
In yesterday’s Late for Work, we looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the Ravens' three possible opponents in the divisional round of the playoffs. Today's focus will be on what analytics pundits see as the Ravens' strengths and weaknesses.
Finding a weakness on a 14-2 team that has won 12 games in a row isn't easy. With the NFL's highest-scoring offense and fourth-ranked defense, the Ravens are rightfully regarded as the league's most complete team.
The one area of concern for the Ravens cited by NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund is a byproduct of their dominance: Can they adjust if they have to play from behind?
"Given the generally high caliber of competition in the playoffs, it's reasonable to expect the Ravens will have to catch up to an opponent at some point," wrote Frelund, whose model gives the Ravens a 40.8 percent chance of reaching the Super Bowl and 20.1 percent chance of winning it – the best odds among AFC teams (her assessment of NFC playoff teams comes out today). "The wrinkle is, that's not something they had to do much of – so we don't really know how they'll respond.
"Baltimore is 14-0 when tied or ahead at the half, meaning both of the Ravens' losses came when they were trailing early in games. … If they fall behind early, the advantage they get from being multiple on offense lessens, and they become more predictable (that is, forced to lean on the pass) for opposing defenses."
As outstanding as the Ravens' offense, led by likely MVP Lamar Jackson, has been this season, Frelund identified the team's defense – specifically the pressure it generates on quarterbacks – as the team's most significant strength.
"I'm not ignoring Lamar Jackson, but this highly efficient offense is complemented by a pass defense that makes it nearly impossible for opponents to earn the points necessary to catch up to Jackson and Co.," Frelund wrote. "When the Ravens have pressured opposing quarterbacks this season, they've allowed a league-low 36.7 passer rating (per Next Gen Stats) and a league-low completion percentage of 33, with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Between the pressure up front and the back limiting space for pass-catchers to work with, Baltimore held opposing offenses to a 28.4 percent third-down conversion rate in Weeks 11-16, which was the second best in the NFL over that time period."
Pro Football Focus’ Eric Eager and George Chahrouri’s analytics gave the Ravens a 26.1 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, making them the favorite.
"The reason they win: They're lack of weakness," Eager and Chahrouri wrote. "Where do we start? Lamar Jackson is the league MVP. Greg Roman has been the second-best offensive play-caller in the league. The defense has done nothing but improve since the acquisitions of Marcus Peters and L.J. Fort mid-season.
"The Ravens' offensive line has the most wins above replacement (WAR) of any group in the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley allowing the fewest pressures in the PFF era for a tackle. To put a cherry on top, kicker Justin Tucker is literally the only player at his position who is statistically significantly better than a replacement player, meaning when the offense (rarely) gets bogged down in opponents' territory, there will still likely be points."
Like Frelund, the PFF analysts believe having to play from behind is Baltimore's lone potential issue in the postseason.
"There are not a ton of holes on this team, but if the Ravens get in a position where they have to throw the ball on almost every down, their wide receiver corps after Hollywood Brown and his 0.2 WAR is a bit scarce," Eager and Chahrouri wrote. "Thus, if a team such as Kansas City repeats its Week 3 feat of getting ahead early, it might be tougher for the Ravens' offense than it usually is."
All A-Pluses for Ravens Offense
Whether the Ravens would revolutionize how offense is played in the NFL was a hot topic during the offseason. With multiple league and franchise records broken, the answer is a resounding yes.
Bleacher Report’s six NFL writers graded the Ravens' offensive scheme. Not surprisingly, it was just like what Ralphie imagined Miss Shields would give his essay in "A Christmas Story" – A-pluses across the board.
Here are some excerpts from what they wrote:
Ty Dunne: "Jackson is special, unlike anyone we've ever seen, and the Marcus Peters trade was robbery. The Ravens are constructed to compete for years."
Mike Freeman: "The way the Ravens handled Jackson is in itself remarkable. They let Jackson be Jackson. They didn't try to change him or make him change positions. They morphed the entire offense around him. In many ways, the entire franchise. It was brilliant."
Mike Tanier: "What the Ravens did was remarkable. It will also be hard to replicate for teams that have not maintained the same coaching/scouting/front-office structure for over a decade. … There are going to be some great imitators in the future and a lot of disasters."
Brent Sobleski: "The Ravens' offseason will be studied and dissected, even though the approach was simplistic. For some reason, a team building around its quarterback's skill set is a novel approach."
Brad Gagnon: "How can this not be a top grade? This is the new model for how to rebuild quickly and effectively. You always need some luck, but the Ravens have done nearly everything right.
Gary Davenport: "Baltimore built an offense around what Jackson does best, added veteran difference-makers on both sides of the ball (Ingram, Peters and Earl Thomas) and then reaped the rewards. What's not to like?"
Looking Back at Preseason Power Rankings
While power rankings ultimately don't mean anything, they are fun to look at it – especially this season if you're a Ravens fan. The Ravens were the unanimous No. 1 team in the power rankings for the final five weeks of the regular season in the seven publications we considered.
Baltimore enters the postseason as the clear Super Bowl favorite, but the consensus in preseason power rankings was that it was a fringe playoff team at best.
None of the seven publications had the Ravens in the top 10 of their initial rankings; they were as high as No. 11 and as low as No. 17. The Ravens were ranked behind AFC North rivals Cleveland and Pittsburgh in six of the seven power rankings. The lone exception was NFL.com, which had the Steelers at No. 8, Ravens at No. 11 and Browns at No. 15.
Here's a look at what some of the publications had to say about the Ravens in their power rankings entering Week 1:
Sporting News (No. 13): "The Ravens are feeling good about their run-heavy offense, but they will be challenged to raise their scoring enough to compensate for the losses of Terrell Suggs, Za'Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley and Tavon Young on defense, even with Earl Thomas arriving to replace Eric Weddle."
CBS Sports (No. 16): "Their season will be defined by how well Lamar Jackson improves as a passer. There is still a lot of talent on the roster."
USA Today (No. 17): "Their last preseason loss was in 2015, yet they haven't won a playoff game in that span. Team's timing should improve if Lamar Jackson's does."
Sports Illustrated (No. 17): "There's talent on this roster, but the Ravens saw lots of departures, especially on defense, this offseason."
NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus had the most optimistic outlook for the Ravens.
"I posed this question to my Around The NFL Podcast colleagues on a recent episode: What, besides a second-year plateau or regression by quarterback Lamar Jackson, can hold the 2019 Ravens back?" Hanzus wrote on Sept. 3. "The general consensus was the untested new core of Baltimore's front seven, a pillar of strength in this organization for so long.
"Free agency did a number on the Ravens this spring – longtime sackmaster Terrell Suggs joined Arizona, while star linebacker C.J. Mosley scored a huge contract and bounced to the Jets. Another impact linebacker, Za'Darius Smith, signed a deal with the Packers. That's a lot of talent to lose, but luckily for the Ravens, they have one of the best defensive coordinators in football in Don Martindale. Some teams you just expect to figure it out. The Baltimore Ravens qualify – especially when it comes to defense."
Bleacher Report had the Ravens at No. 15 in its initial power rankings, but writer Jake Rill identified the Ravens as one of three smart Super Bowl bets (Baltimore was listed at 45-1 odds to win the Super Bowl).
"After winning the AFC North last season, the Ravens have a chance to do even better in Jackson's first full season as the starting quarterback," Rill wrote. "Plus, if it gets back to the playoffs, Baltimore has a head coach in John Harbaugh who has led it to success before, including when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII."
I wonder how many people took Rill's advice. Surely not as many as those who wish they did.
- Jackson's grade of 97.9 against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10 was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded performance of the season. Jackson also ranked among the leaders in most games with grades in the 90s with four.