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Late for Work 11/25: How John Harbaugh and the Ravens Gained an Analytical Edge 


How John Harbaugh and the Ravens Gained an Analytical Edge

Remember Lamar Jackson's 8-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-2 that propelled the Ravens to a win against the Seattle Seahawks?

That was calculated.

As the NFL trends towards aggressiveness, the Ravens are at the forefront. They've been one of the most aggressive teams on fourth down this season, and The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia profiled how Head Coach John Harbaugh and the offense have gained an analytical edge.

"In a sport where coaches constantly preach aggressiveness, many seem to prefer losing the game later over trying to win the game now," Kapadia wrote. "Harbaugh has had seasons where he's been among the most aggressive coaches in the league, but with Jackson and an offense that ranks third in overall efficiency, he's taken it to another level in 2019."

Daniel Stern, the team's football analyst, sits beside Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman during games to help decide when to go for it on specific down and distance plays.

The role that was previously held by Running Backs Coach Matt Weiss now belongs to Stern, a behavioral economics major now in his fourth year with the team.

"During the week, Stern, Harbaugh and other members of the Ravens coaching staff come up with a plan for how they want to approach each game from a strategic perspective," Kapadia wrote. "They decide on a set of rules that will give them the best chance to win, and Stern reminds Harbaugh of those rules on the headset during the game."

The Ravens made a concerted effort to bolster their analytics department this offseason, hiring three analysts. General Manager Eric DeCosta has a close relationship with Baltimore Orioles Assistant General Manager Sig Mejdal and understands the importance that analytics play.

"Analytics is a way that I see of organizing information," DeCosta said. "We have all these different pieces of information – bullet points and different things. How do we organize that information effectively? And, how do we use that information to help us make decisions?

"So, is it a growing field? Yeah, I think it is. Is it something that we'll just rely on strictly, ever? No, I don't think that's the case. Is it something that will help us make decisions? I think it can be. We would be foolish as an organization to not look at that and consider that as a way of helping us be better."

Stern told Kapadia that Harbaugh's familiarity with analytics is extremely helpful.

"It's one of the reasons he's such a good coach because a good idea can come from anywhere," Stern said. "And never assume that we have the right answer. And be open to information. He always says, 'If you don't like change, you're gonna like irrelevancy even less.' So I would just say that story to me showed he's really receptive to anything from anyone, and there's an intellectual humility there. Like we don't think that we necessarily have the right answers now, but we're just trying to do it as well as we can."

The Ravens' fourth down go-for-it rate is the highest among teams, and Harbaugh has been lauded as one of the top decision-makers this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Harbaugh is not like the two other men in this list," PFF wrote, referencing the Colts' Frank Reich and Eagles' Doug Pederson. "He's been the coach of the Ravens for 12 years, and while he's given his team an edge in unconventional ways in the past (like perennially shepherding one of the league's best special teams units), he has learned to leverage mathematics in recent years and has the Ravens in position to win their second consecutive AFC North title."

Wade Phillips Says Jackson is the MVP

Add Rams Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips to Jackson's MVP vote count.

Phillips is tasked with stopping Jackson tonight on Monday Night Football, but offered plenty of praise to the second-year quarterback late last week.

"Jackson, everybody is saying and rightfully so, he's certainly the MVP so far this year," Phillips said. "... If I didn't already, they'd give me white hair playing against teams like this, but I'm already there."

Phillips also called Jackson "this era's Michael Vick, maybe plus."

It's been extremely difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to stop Jackson, and two NFC assistant coaches told Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman they don't even think it's possible.

"When these coaches describe trying to stop Jackson, they sound like someone planning to attack Superman, knowing their bullets will bounce off his chest and their tanks will end up like twisted pretzels," Freeman wrote.

While pundits' questions about the sustainability of Jackson and the offense remain, PFF's Mike Renner squashed any doubts.

"Everyone wants to question the sustainability of a running quarterback," Renner said. "I think the only thing that's not necessarily sustainable is injury. He could get injured … but when he's on the football field, when he's a dynamic runner, we've seen for a decade now that offenses run like that are sustainable.

"He is sustainable. That offense has a very high floor with how dynamic he is as a rushing threat and how they use his legs."

Rams Mimic Jackson With College Foe

So exactly how are the Rams preparing to face Jackson? By using one of his former college opponents to mimic him.

John Wolford defeated Jackson in 2017 as the starting quarterback at Wake Forest. Now, the undrafted second-year player is playing the role of Jackson in practice for the Rams.

"The thing I'm focused on is trying to make it as realistic as possible, the way he reacts if the first receiver, second receiver, third receiver is not there and he's scrambling," Wolford told the Los Angeles Times’ Gary Klein. "I'm going to try and simulate that, so that's in the back of my mind."

Jackson's speed and athleticism present a unique challenge that opposing teams struggle to imitate. Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks said the Cleveland Browns played "Madden" to prepare, and the Pittsburgh Steelers signed a quarterback to their practice squad in hopes of simulating Jackson.

The player arguably closest to Jackson's playstyle is Robert Griffin III, who is his backup.

Klein said Rams Head Coach Sean McVay ultimately decided a quarterback would be the best option.

"It's hard to find somebody that has the skill set, in terms of the athleticism, to put the pressure on your defense, but then can also throw the football," McVay said.

Will Cain: Jackson is Paving the Way for Next Generation of Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Not only is Jackson affecting the landscape of the NFL, but he's also making strides at the college level. ESPN's Will Cain said on "The Will Cain Show" that Jackson is paving the way for the next wave of dual-threat quarterbacks.

"They're going to start opening their minds up to other quarterbacks who play the game like [Jackson] does," Cain said. "Lamar is a unicorn. No one really is Lamar … but it's a copycat league. People will try, they'll look."

Cain pointed to three current college quarterbacks who could garner more interest from teams because of Jackson's success: Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts, Ohio State's Justin Fields, and Utah's Tyler Huntley.

While Cain reiterated there's not another talent exactly like Jackson, Cain believes the success of Jackson could shift a team's focus more towards dual-threat quarterbacks.

"It's a total game-changer for a team that has a quarterback like that," he said. "In a copycat league, what you'll see is quarterbacks who can approximate that kind of model. If not exactly Jackson, in that vein. We'll see their value increase."

After the Ravens' Week 10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson told NFL Network's Deion Sanders one goal is to open the door for younger quarterbacks like him.

"There's a lot of us like this," Jackson said. "I'm going to keep doing what I do; we've just got to keep winning."

Ravens Open as Home Favorites as Matchup Against 49ers Looms

It's not even Week 13, and the anticipation is building for a matchup between the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers next Sunday.

According to SportsLine, the Ravens open as 4.5 point favorites at home, and pundits are touting it as a potential Super Bowl preview. The 49ers blew out the Green Bay Packers, 37-8, on Sunday Night Football to move to 10-1 this season.

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