Sunday’s Matchup Features NFL MVP Favorite vs. NFL MVP Upstart
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is having a fantastic season. In five games, Brees, at age 39, has thrown for 1,638 yards and 11 touchdowns, without throwing an interception. Woah.
Not surprisingly, Brees’ play has put him in the NFL MVP discussion. In fact, popular online sportsbook Bovada has Brees currently at the top of its MVP predictions, with the usual suspects like New England quarterback Tom Brady and Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley sitting right behind.
However, you don’t have to go much further down the list to find a Raven. Quarterback Joe Flacco is currently No. 8 on Bovada’s rankings.
Not only is Flacco listed in the top 10, but he also made one of the biggest jumps. Last week, Flacco was ranked No. 17 by Bovada, but after the game against Tennessee, in which he completed 25-of-37 passes for 238 yards with a touchdown and an interception (should have been overturned) despite battling bad weather conditions, Flacco shot up the rankings. In fact, no player in Bovada’s top 10 moved up the rankings as much as Flacco did.
So, why is Flacco that high? No question, being a quarterback helps. Since 2007, a non-quarterback has won the award just once (running back Adrian Peterson in 2012). With the exception of Gurley, every player ahead of Flacco in Bovada’s rankings are quarterbacks.
However, Flacco being that high is also of course attributed to how he’s played to start the year. For the season, Flacco has thrown 1,788 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s fifth in the NFL in completions (164), ninth in total yardage, and 11th in yards per game (298).
As for why Flacco has upped his play, there seems to be a few reasons. He’s as healthy as he’s been in years and hasn’t been sacked a lot, but most of all, Flacco has an improved group of pass-catchers this season. The wide receiver trio acquired through free agency this offseason – Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV – has combined for 81 catches for 1,080 yards.
“It's more than that the talent has improved. The chemistry is much better this season,” ESPN wrote. “Flacco and the coaches have repeatedly talked about the increased trust in Brown, Crabtree and Snead.”
Flacco’s rise in the rankings is also a result of the Ravens playing well. The Ravens have the second-best point differential in the league (+76), behind only the undefeated Los Angeles Rams (78).
The last five years the NFL MVP has been claimed by a quarterback whose team won its division, and made the conference championship game. Every player ahead of Flacco in Bovada’s rankings is playing for a team with a winning record that many pundits think could go deep in the postseason.
The Ravens also have the look of a dangerous team after shutting out the Titans for the first time ever in their home stadium. CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco wrote “Are the Ravens legitimate Super Bowl contenders? You bet,” while Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer pointed out “When the defense is dominating against the run and rushing the passer at will, it only takes a few points to win.”
The offense did a great job against Tennessee, effectively moving the ball and converting 12-of-17 third downs, but the defense was the standout unit.
A defender hasn’t won the NFL MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986 though. If the Ravens end up going deep in the postseason on the strength of their defense, history indicates that Flacco is still the team’s best chance of winning NFL MVP.
Baltimore’s ‘Amoeba’ Approach Could Become Defensive Prototype
The NFL is experiencing a boom on offense. There have been more touchdowns, touchdown passes and total points scored through six weeks this year than in any other NFL season.
From players on offense being more protected by the rules, to having a plethora of young guys and coaches making big impacts, it looks like this offensive surge could be here to stay.
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit believes he has a simple solution to balance the scales: defenses must adjust. Benoit writes that defensive coordinators should be looking at what the Ravens’ defense has been doing this season as a blueprint for how to combat this offense-happy period in the NFL.
“When [Tennessee quarterback] Marcus Mariota approached the line of scrimmage last Sunday, he’d see Ravens defenders roaming around, defensive backs and linebackers in pass rush positions or one side of the formation overloaded with extra defenders,” Benoit wrote. “Rarely did Mariota see defenders in traditional set positions; it was mostly undefined, amoeba looks.”
Benoit points to how often the Ravens have been using safeties Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine Sr. on the field at the same time as a big reason for the defense’s success.
A trend in the NFL has been for defenses to have more defensive backs on the field for third downs because of how often teams pass then. However, the Ravens have been using those types of packages on first and second downs more frequently, which Benoit thinks is the key to their defense doing so well.
“Defensive coaches don’t like three-safety packages and amoeba fronts on early downs because it can leave a defense unsound against the run,” Benoit wrote. “This is where thinking must evolve. For decades, coaches were taught that sturdy defense began with stopping the run. … If the NFL really is a passing league—which everyone agrees it is—your defense must begin with stopping the pass.”
Benoit wants to see defensive coordinators do away with planning to stop the run and instead, embrace the confusion the Ravens defense has been creating this season.
Benoit even believes the run can be stopped when a defense lines up in a formation designed to stop the pass. As he put it, “They might like running the ball even less if the defense is in an unpredictable pass-rushing look.”
Valid point. Even if the personnel on the field is out there to stop the pass, if the defense presents a unique look, it’ll create plenty of doubt for the offense. There might be a hole for the offense to run through, but it wouldn’t know where to look for it.
“This leads to running game breakdowns or, more likely, quarterbacks simply checking out of run plays and into the short passing plays that the amoeba front is designed to combat,” Benoit wrote. “At the very least, the offense feels a twinge of hesitancy when snapping the ball. Hesitancy has a way of quickly building into outright doubt and confusion. That’s what the Ravens did to Mariota and the Titans.”
Za’Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley Named Among Top Upcoming Free Agents
NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling took a look at under-the-radar players who are “enjoying fortuitously timed breakout campaigns, pushing for new contracts while playing at a Pro Bowl level.” Essentially, players who have played so well they’re primed for a big payday.
Two Ravens made the list, which is great because it shows how well this duo has played. It may cause members of the Ravens Flock to cringe, though, at the prospect of the front office trying to figure out a way to pay both.
OLB Za’Darius Smith: The No. 4 selection on Wesseling’s list, Smith will get a massive payday if he has a few more games like the one he did in Tennessee. Smith led the team with five tackles and three sacks, which earned the AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Wesseling was impressed with Smith’s play long before his breakout game against Tennessee though, writing Smith “has been perhaps the most disruptive force on a front seven that includes potential Hall of Famer [outside linebacker] Terrell Suggs and three-time Pro Bowl selection [inside linebacker] C.J. Mosley.”
“He has more combined sacks, hits and hurries than perennial Pro Bowler Von Miller, who opened the season with a three-sack performance of his own,” Wesseling wrote. “It will be interesting to see if GM-in-waiting Eric DeCosta allows Smith to reach the open market in March.”
ILB C.J. Mosley: Coming in right behind Smith at No. 5, Mosley’s contract situation has been a subject in Baltimore for a while. Wesseling points to the defense allowing four straight touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 following Mosley leaving with a knee injury as the reason why the Ravens can’t let Mosley go.
In total, the defense has allowed eight touchdowns this season, but just two when Mosley has been active.
“Mosley is the glue that holds the unit together, and he's going to get compensated accordingly in 2019,” Wesseling wrote.
It’s Baltimore’s Turn to Prepare for a Change-of-Pace Quarterback
The use of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson as a change-of-pace weapon on offense this season has been a much talked about subject in Baltimore. Jackson has run the ball 17 times for 94 yards this year. His most successful play came against Tennessee last week, when he ran 22 yards and almost got into the end zone for his first NFL regular-season touchdown
After making their opponents spend a portion of their time planning for plays with Jackson, the Ravens have had to do the same this week. Introducing New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill:
Hill, an undrafted second-year player out of Brigham Young University, is the Saints’ No. 3 quarterback on their depth chart, but like Jackson, has gotten on the field this season. He’s rushed for 90 yards on 12 carries, and hauled in a catch too.
Hill has even been utilized on special teams, both as a returner and a gunner on punts, where he’s made a tackle. Maybe that’ll inspire Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg to finally use Jackson in punt coverage this week (just kidding).
“He’s become a dynamic sensation combining running, returning, special teams, and some snaps behind center,” Last Word on Pro Football’s Dean Mullen wrote. “The experiment using Hill as a mere distraction has changed mightily.”
Jackson has gotten some rave reviews too, with ClutchPoints’ Rexwell Villas writing “Jackson always has the potential to electrify Baltimore fans with his elite speed and athleticism for a quarterback.”
The good news is that while the Ravens will have to prepare for Hill, the Saints will also have to prepare for Jackson. Maybe the two coaching staffs communicated a specific amount of time each team could allot to preparing for either quarterback to make it fair. Eh, probably not.
Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins played with Jackson for a season in college at Louisville, and has spent this year with Hill. Though he sees a couple differences between the two, there is one big similarity.
“They both present a challenge for any defense, and it's definitely tough to prepare for," Rankins said to Nola.com’s Luke Johnson.
- The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec asked various members of the defense why the group has improved so much from last season. Defensive end Brent Urban credited the group’s depth, and how the team has spread out snaps for everyone. “It’s like almost splitting reps 50-50, which has managed to keep us fresh. I know up front, I’m feeling very fresh,” Urban said. “I know guys have liked what we’ve done as far as the rotation. That’s kind of brought another element this year.”