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Late for Work 1/15: Offense, Not Defense Could Be the Main Attraction for Free Agents


Offense, Not Defense Could Be the Main Attraction for Free Agents

When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, you think of hard-nosed, smash-mouth defense. That's the foundation the franchise was built on since its inception.

It's the reputation of Hall of Fame defenders like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed that have attracted free agents to Baltimore over the years. Just ask safety Earl Thomas III, who signed a four-year contract last season. Or cornerback Marcus Peters, who signed a three-year extension to stay in Baltimore this season.

While that reputation still holds today, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio believes the offense, not the defense, could be the main attractor for free agents this offseason.

"Now that they have a team that is regarded as special, [with] a quarterback that other players are in awe of, that could prompt free agents to want to come to Baltimore and take less to go to the Ravens than they would want to somewhere else," Florio said. "Remember last year they couldn't get any free agent receivers, because of the perception it was going to be a complete and total run-based offense?

"Well, the ball is being thrown, maybe not as much as it is elsewhere. … There could be plenty of guys who say, 'I want to be part of this. I want Lamar Jackson as my teammate for the next three, four, [or] five years.'"

The perception that the Ravens are a run-first team isn't wrong. They did set the NFL single 16-game-season team rushing record and led the league in rushing attempts (by a large margin), but the offense was more balanced than you think.

Jackson still passed for over 3,000 yards and led the NFL in touchdown passes (36). He's one of the most dynamic talents in the league, and the Ravens' offense was one of the most efficient units in all of football.

Jackson took a big step as a passer from Year 1 to Year 2, and pundits believe he still has more room to grow. With first-round pick Marquise "Hollywood" Brown coming into his own and a talented tight end group, there's definitely a draw for potential free agents to come to Baltimore.

It's too early to predict who will be available on the free agent market. Still, NBC Sports' Peter King expects General Manager Eric DeCosta to think outside of the box.

"I'm really, really interested to see what the Ravens do," King said. "They're definitely not a finished product … I will guarantee there will be a surprise in the Ravens' offseason. I don't have any idea what it is, but this is a team that prides itself on doing things a little bit differently, and that has resulted in a winning formula."

Analytics Show Just How Improbable Ravens' Loss Was

If you're still getting over the shock from Saturday's loss, you're certainly not alone. Pundits tabbed the Ravens as heavy favorites and the numbers show just how much of an upset it really was.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s pregame win probability, it was the most unlikely playoff victory in the Super Bowl era. The metrics gave Tennessee only a 13.1 percent win probability.

For a team that put up 530 total yards of offense, it was unprecedented for the Ravens to be on the losing end.

"The Ravens had such bad/unlucky offensive efficiency," FiveThirtyEight's Michael Salfino wrote. "They scored 12 points on over 500 yards of offense, becoming just the second home team in playoff history to gain 500 yards and lose. The Steelers did it in the 2017 season, in a loss to Jacksonville, but they scored more than 40 points. And only two teams since the merger (in the regular season or playoffs) gained over 500 yards and scored fewer points than the Ravens — the Bucs last year and the 1986 Niners."

Based on their offensive production, the Ravens should have scored at least 34 points, Salfino wrote. On the flip side, the Titans scored on touchdown drives of 20, 35, and 45 yards, with just 300 total yards.

"It's always difficult to reverse engineer a single game and figure out the meaning," The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker wrote. "What if Jackson's pass hadn't bounced off Andrews' hands to end a promising first drive? What if he hadn't been stonewalled on fourth-and-short with a chance to tie the game at the start of the third quarter? If either of those plays had gone differently by a few feet, we might be talking about how the Ravens staved off a tough opponent on Saturday night."

Two of the most significant turning points in the game came on fourth-and-1 plays the Ravens ultimately couldn't convert. Despite criticisms that the NFL's best team on fourth down should have taken the points, Salfino and colleague Josh Hermsmeyer both agreed that Baltimore made the right decision analytically.

"It was a bad day for doing the analytically sound thing," Hermsmeyer wrote.

Weird seems like the perfect definition to describe this game, but Salfino expressed confidence that the Ravens will bounce back next season.

"I mean, they have 12 Pro Bowl players, most of whom should be returning, so it shouldn't be as hard as it is for most teams to get back," Salfino wrote.

Jackson 'Proved the Doubters Wrong' As a Passer Against Titans

It may not seem like there are many positive takeaways from a 28-12 defeat, but ForTheWin’s Steven Ruiz found the truth lies within the tape.

"Jackson's stat line doesn't look great, but this performance was not an indictment of his passing ability," Ruiz wrote. "Far from it. If anything, this performance serves as proof that Jackson has already developed into the kind of passer the doubters said he'd never become."

Even before Saturday's game, the narrative that Jackson wasn't one of the NFL's best passers this season was silly. While three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble) didn't constitute Jackson's best performance, Ruiz still found plenty of positive takeaways.

"Jackson's accuracy has been questioned for years now, and it was an issue on Saturday night at times," Ruiz wrote. "But I don't think it was as big of an issue as the numbers suggest. Yes, he completed just 52.5 percent of his throws against Tennessee (not good!) but there were six drops, eight pass breakups and a couple of mental mistakes by receivers that led to incompletions."

Ruiz praised Jackson's ability to process the Titans' defense. Against Dean Pees, who Ruiz called "one of the craftiest play-callers in the NFL," Jackson found success, throwing for 365 yards.

It's easy to assume Jackson is a run-first quarterback in the pocket, but he led the NFL in touchdown passes on straight dropbacks with no scrambles this season (25).

That, as Ruiz put it, is a sign he's ahead of other quarterbacks on the developmental curve, "and the gap seems to be widening."

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