The Baltimore Ravens keep a paid analytics department – one of the few NFL teams to do so.
In perhaps the most striking visual of the 2016-17 season, punter Sam Koch – informed by the coaches via the analytics department – stalled for time as the special-teams units grappled and clawed to a stalemate. A few Bengal defenders appeared to give up on the play, realizing that beating a blocker meant being dragged down from behind. After all 11 seconds expired, Koch calmly trotted out of the back of the end zone. Flags flew, but it didn’t matter – the Bengals scored a safety but lost the game, 19-14.
The Ravens used a similar gambit to run the final 8 seconds off the clock in the 2013 Super Bowl, resulting in a 34-31 triumph over the 49’ers.
Purists will assert that cheating violates the basic integrity of the sport. NFL officials could have ruled Baltimore guilty of a “palpably unfair act” and restored the time on the clock in either instance, but only if the Ravens used the tactic twice in a row.
However, the most important analytics still look at regular football played fair and square. Between the 20s…and especially inside of them. As the Ravens prepare to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football, the visitors’ propensity to score whenever they can could be the most old-fashioned yet most crucial trend line in 2018-19.
Baltimore has been the best Red Zone offense in the league through 3 weeks. Not only that, they’ve been perfect, scoring touchdowns on all 12 of their trips inside the 20 this season. That one vein of success has sustained the team through a 2-1 start.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has actually been playing pretty well, but he’s getting very little help from the ground game. Baltimore’s 3 running backs (Alex Collins, Buck Allen, and Kenneth Dixon) are averaging a combined 3.05 yards per carry (192 yards on 63 carries). That puts a lot of stress on Joe Cool Y2K (there will only ever be one bona fide Joe Cool). The Ravens are 2-0 when Flacco doesn’t turn the ball over and 0-1 when he does.
Meanwhile the Ravens yet again sport one of the best defenses in the league. Per DVOA defensive efficiency metrics, Baltimore is 5th in the league at total defense (top 10 against both the run and the pass). The Ravens lead the league in fewest yards allowed per drive at 18.89.
Baltimore is also hopeful that C.J. Mosely will return for this game after missing last week with a knee injury. Getting Mosely back would help the 2nd level of the defense, critical in a match-up against a Steelers offense that uses all levels of the field efficiently.
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns was benched last week in favor of journeyman Coty Sensabaugh, amidst an ongoing struggle within the Steelers secondary.
The same DVOA ratings that have the Ravens as the 5th best defense in the league have Pittsburgh at 19th. In truth, both accounts could be inaccurate – Baltimore’s defense might be one of the NFL’s very best, while the Steelers are still playing top-half D. But with shakeups on the back end, the Steelers are going to need even more help from the front-7 to get after Flacco. Look for Pittsburgh’s young outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree (a combined 5.0 sacks and 18 tackles) to try to step up in this game.
James Connor has been remarkable thus far filling in for All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell. But the Steelers have been missing some of their best offensive linemen. Mike Tomlin hopes to get David Decastro and Marcus Gilbert back this week which should help Big Ben along with aiding Connor in getting through the holes.
Vegas is giving Pittsburgh and Baltimore about equal credit for size, speed, skill-set and coaching as the teams prepare for battle on SNF. That’s reflected in the point spread, with the Black, Gold & White giving (-3) points on the basis of home-field advantage.
I’m liking the Ravens based on their Red Zone play, which is now proven over too large of a sample size to be a fluke. The roar of the Steeler faithful is a weapon when the opponent is backed up – not so much at the end of long death marches.
Baltimore may not be as explosive a football team as they have been in the past, which will frustrate Flacco in a shoot-out with Tom Brady or Deshaun Watson. But the Ravens match up well against the Steelers, especially in prime-time when execution and nerves are as important as brute force when it comes to winning the LOS and moving the egg.
I’m talking the Ravens and (+3) points on Sunday night.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.