NFL Week 10 preview: Ravens’ offensive problems, full midseason report

NFL Week 10 preview: Ravens’ offensive problems, full midseason report
1a. A few things about the Ravens. First, the helmet/mascot design is the Corvus corax, the common raven; if you’ve been telling people it’s Corvus cryptoleucus then you’ve been sounding like an idiot—I mean, you’d have to go down to the Southwest to find those. Second, while Lamar Jackson and the offense has fallen off this year, it hasn’t fallen off that far.

Before we get into the encouraging stuff, a look at why there has, objectively, been a dropoff.

i) The retirement of Marshal Yanda, who was still playing at an All-Pro level at right guard; his replacements, Patrick Mekari and before that Tyre Phillips, have played at… shall we say, less than an All-Pro level. The line play has been worse. And, certainly, with a full season of film for opponents to study last offseason, teams are better prepared for all the misdirection built into this running scheme.

ii) They got tremendous value from Atlanta for Hayden Hurst, but the loss of that third tight end has had them slightly more reliant on three-wide sets, which defenses counter with an extra defensive back. That means the defense not only has more speed on the field, but typically their best players on the field since most rosters are now built with the understanding that nickel is the base defense.

iii) The passing game hasn’t expanded as one would have hoped. Jackson hasn’t made the kind of jump from Year 2 to Year 3 that he did from Year 1 to Year 2, and the young receivers (Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin) have not yet emerged as difference makers on the outside. Most of what they do it still in the middle of the field, and that puts limits on a passing offense.

iv) Sometimes they call the same plays more than once in a game, and some might argue they’re too predictable, as Jackson implied. Though it isn’t unusual to hear defenses calling out plays at the line of scrimmage against any offense, so…

v) One other thing to keep in mind: The Ravens were historically great a year ago. You aren’t going to be historically great on an annual basis—it’s a level that can’t be maintained (thus, the historic part).

All that said, the offense isn’t in much worse shape than it was this time last season. One of the biggest differences has been the steep drop in red-zone efficiency. Red-zone performance is fickle year-to-year to the point of being almost random (more on that in a second). In 2019, Baltimore averaged 5.45 points per red-zone trip, second-best in football. This year they’re averaging 4.85 points, 23rd in the league. If their red-zone offense was as efficient as it was a year ago, they’d be averaging 30.4 points per game—eight games into the 2019 season, they were averaging 31.4 points per game.

The other thing to keep in mind is that they’ve faced elite defenses the past two weeks, the Steelers and Colts. They still have a trip to Pittsburgh coming up, but the second-half schedule should be much easier on this offense. They’re unlikely to repeat last year’s second-half dominance—for the aforementioned reasons, and the fact that Ronnie Stanley is out for the year—but once the red zone stuff gets sorted out, the points should come in bunches again.

NFL Week 10 Preview

1b. Random stat that plays a bit into the Raven’s lack of “luck” in 2020: They’ve gotten a league-low 280 opponent penalty yards this season (the Bears, Bucs and Jets have each been the beneficiary of more than twice as many). Flags are way down this year, but 35.0 opponent penalty yards per game would be the least since the 2009 Jaguars (31.1). Baltimore also hasn’t had a single defensive pass interference penalty called on an opponent this season.

That said, the Ravens also ranked near the bottom of the league in opponent penalties last year (49.7 yards per game, fourth-least in the NFL) and had the fewest opponent DPI flags (two). Some of this is due to the fact that they’re run-heavy and, when they do throw, they don’t have big, physical receivers that draw flags.

1c. Back to red-zone efficiency. On both sides of the ball it tends to be a volatile and unpredictable stat from year to year. Among the spreadsheets that I keep and consider my children is one that measures points per red-zone trip vs. league average points per red-zone trip, on both sides of the ball. In short, based on the number of red-zone trips made and red-zone trips allowed, how many more/fewer is each team scoring and allowing in the red zone.

By this metric, the Cardinals were 28th in actual vs. expected red-zone performance last season; halfway through this season they’re first. A year ago, the Browns were 25th, now they’re fifth. Conversely, the Chiefs were fifth last season, this year they’re 18th. The Colts were seventh in 2019, this season they’re 25th. And the Ravens were second in 2019, but right now they’re 29th.

I also like to see how each team would be faring if red zone “luck” was evened out, so I have a column for red-zone adjusted point differential. It doesn’t factor strength of schedule and is not an exact science. But then, science isn’t supposed to be exact, that’s why they call it an art.

So if every team were at the league average for points scored and points allowed per red-zone trip, the Chiefs and Ravens would both be better than +100 on the season in point differential (Kansas City at +104, Baltimore at +103) while Pittsburgh would be third, but all the way down at +62. Indy would be fourth at +60. The Saints would be fifth—first among NFC teams—at +57. Some other notables:

11. Atlanta (3-6), +22
16. Seattle (6-2), +4
17. Cincinnati (2-5-1), +1
22. Chicago (5-4), -24
25. Cleveland (5-3), -45

2. The Steelers might indeed be one of the least dominant 8-0 teams in league history, but (a) They’re 8-0, so who cares, and (b) There’s room for improvement and a reasonable expectation that they’ll get better.

The Steelers have found more than enough success with a new-look offense utilizing jet-sweep motion and emphasizing more of a horizontal attack. It’s been quite the departure from the static formations and iso-routes that defined the Ben Roethlisberger Steelers for 16 seasons. (Though they still don’t use much play-action, so it’s probably time to accept that Roethlisberger just might not be crazy about turning his back to the play frequently.)

The rushing attack has been uneven, but right now the biggest element missing from this offense is the downfield passing attack. Roethlisberger is hitting only 34.8% on throws that go 15-plus air yards, 29th among the 32 starters, and they’ve connected on only 16 such throws, tied for 26th. But there’s no real explanation for it beyond, perhaps, tough luck in a small sample size (for instance, they just missed a couple in Dallas).

Considering Roethlisberger is one of the best pure throwers in NFL history, and James Washington and Chase Claypool have both flashed potential as downfield threats—not to mention JuJu Smith-Schuster’s ability at the deep-intermedia level. It’s reasonable things will get better in that area. And if it does, ultimately, the Steelers will be a better team in the second half of the season, even if they don’t replicate the perfect record.

3a. We’ve reached the actual midpoint of the 2020 season—not last week, but the time at which every team has played at least eight games, also known as “God’s midseason.” Ergo, it’s time to unveil the Football Things Midseason Extravaganza. We’ll look at the past, what made us laugh, made us cry, made us love and made us think. And, of course, we’ll steel ourselves and peer into the terrifying future.

But before we begin: Over the next three months all of us in NFL media will do our duty to fill the content hole. Thus, there will be people who tell you that they expect someone other than the Kansas City Chiefs to win the Super Bowl, or someone other than Patrick Mahomes to win MVP. Make no mistake, those are dirty, dirty lies. There is no logical argument that the Chiefs won’t win the Super Bowl. Or that, at the NFL Honors, the night when everyone in the league puts on a tux and tries to maintain their dignity through the recognition of something called the “Celly of the Year,” Mahomes won’t be receiving his second career MVP.

As for the rest of the playoff field and awards races…

3b. In the AFC, the Steelers, Bills and Colts will win their divisions handily. The Ravens will grab the 5-seed, and the Dolphins, Titans, Raiders and Browns will battle it out for the last two playoff spots. The Dolphins and Titans are objectively better than the Browns and Raiders, and both should get to 10 wins. But the Dolphins are going to be shorthanded against the Chargers on Sunday due to COVID, and if that game slips away they lose their margin for error.

The Raiders are an unusual team in that, while their point differential is an embarrassment (-11), for a second straight year they haven’t been an outlier in red-zone efficiency or taken the ball away (five turnovers forced, tied for last with Houston; last year they finished 31st with 15 takeaways). Vegas isn’t built to take the ball away, what with their lack of a pass rush, but neither is, say, Seattle, who has 46 takeaways over the past two seasons. If the Raiders get a few bounces in the form of takeaways, or go on a red-zone run, they can get to 10 wins.

3c. The game to circle regarding AFC Wild-Card race is when Miami visits the Raiders in Week 16. Then we’ll see if Jon Gruden really should’ve nicknamed his team’s new stadium after the space station that gets blown up in that movie. Or if he should have chosen a vehicle from a different movie. Like, instead of “The Death Star,” maybe call it “The Car From Dude, Where’s My Car?

3d. In the NFC, the Packers and Eagles will cruise to division titles, while the Saints will capture the NFC South and the Seahawks will barely hold on in the West. I have the Rams and Bucs as near-mortal locks for two of the Wild-Card spots. That makes the other spot Arizona’s to lose—and judging from Kliff Kingsbury’s in-game management, the lack of consistent offense that isn’t Kyler Murray scrambling, and lack of a pass rush without Chandler Jones, lose it they may.

While the Bears might appear to be a lifeless husk of a team, they do have five wins in their pocket. The difference between the 2018 and ’19 Bears was turnovers—they led the league with 36 in ’18, fell to 19 last season, and have just nine through nine games this year. If the takeaways come in the second half of the season, they can steal the No. 7 seed. Nine wins might be enough, and they get Detroit and Houston at home, plus a trip to Jacksonville. They’re going to need to steal at least one (maybe two) out of the home-and-homes with Minnesota and Green Bay. That Vikings game is Monday night.

Speaking of Minnesota, they only have three wins but they’re favored at Chicago on MNF and then should be heavily favored in three straight home games (Dallas, Carolina, Jacksonville). If they hold court, a home win over the Bears and road win at Detroit would push them to 9-7 and push it to a tiebreaker scenario with Arizona. A tiebreaker in my mind.

3e. Mahomes will win MVP and Chase Young will be Defensive Rookie of the Year. Offensive Player of the Year should also be Mahomes seeing that he plays offense, but will go to Dalvin Cook as it evolves into an award that excludes quarterbacks (which is good since there will never be another non-quarterback MVP). Offensive Rookie of the Year will eventually go to Joe Burrow due to his inferior supporting cast (though Justin Herbert’s group really isn’t that much better). T.J. Watt will stake his claim to Defensive Player of the Year, while Myles Garrett will fall to the second tier—he’ll never in his life face the run of incompetent offensive line play he saw in Weeks 2 through 5 this season. But by January Aaron Donald will have established himself as the best defensive player on the planet again. It will just be a matter of whether folks are sick of voting for him.

4a. While it’s not necessarily a good time to look back at last offseason’s blockbuster trades—the teams involved plan on having their acquisitions for more than eight games—it is a fun time to look back.

There were three deals involving a star player going one way and at least one first-round pick going the other way. First, we have DeAndre Hopkins, who … wait, the Texans got a second-rounder and a running back Arizona was desperate to unload? Is that right? O.K., never mind. But a look at the three star players who were dealt for significant draft capital:

Buffalo gets Stefon Diggs, Minnesota gets 2020 first-round (No. 22), fifth-round and sixth-round picks, plus 2021 fourth-round pick: In the true spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, this is a trade that worked out for both sides. The Bills needed a true No. 1 receiver and there was no better fit, anywhere in the NFL, than Diggs, a ball-tracking virtuoso. Josh Allen and Diggs are indisputably one of the elite QB-WR combos in football; while Allen is likely to set career marks across the board, Diggs is on pace for 112 catches and 1,445 yards, both of which would be career-highs. As for the Vikings, they used that first-round pick on Justin Jefferson, who is already a high-end No. 2 with a chance to emerge as a true No. 1—and having him locked into a rookie contract is a big deal for a cap-strapped team. Plus, they’ll have the rest of that extra draft capital to play with. (Also, this trade was made around St. Patrick’s Day, which is why I used that feeble opening line.)

Indianapolis gets DeForest Buckner, San Francisco gets 2020 first-round pick (No. 13): There’s no doubt that the Colts are thrilled to have Buckner wrecking stuff up front, which more than anything has elevated this defense from good to elite this season. It’s understandable why the Niners made the move (money) and easy to assume that they probably wouldn’t have if they’d known they would lose Nick Bosa and Dee Ford by the end of September. In the long run, they’ll probably be fine with Javon Kinlaw as a solid-to-very good starter on an affordable contract through at least 2023.

Seattle gets Jamal Adams, N.Y. Jets get 2021 first- and third-round picks, 2022 first-round pick, Bradley McDougald: This one looked dicey at the time for the Seahawks, and Adams’s injury issues and underwhelming all-around play through eight games haven’t helped since. The biggest criticism of the deal from Seattle’s perspective is that they desperately needed a pass-rushing presence and could have presumably had Yannick Ngakoue for a fraction of the price (who knows, maybe they just don’t like Ngakoue as a player).

Adams has made an impact with blitzing, but safety blitzes aren’t a path to a sustainable pass rush. He has been a liability in coverage, but (1) part of that could be the knee issues he’s been dealing with, and (2) they’ve asked a lot of him in coverage. Frankly, there aren’t many safeties who will hold up one-on-one with Stefon Diggs or Julian Edelman, who are among the receivers Adams has drawn on occasion and been thoroughly toasted by this season. Adams is a big-time talent, but did the Seahawks simply miss on their assessment of what Adams would bring to their defense?

As for the Jets, they were surely satisfied with the return they got for a guy who was becoming vocal in all the wrong ways. Joe Douglas must be thrilled watching Adams battle through injuries and ineffectiveness three time zones away while he sits on a bounty of draft picks and cap space.

4b. Those who looked at this Seahawks roster in September and said “Legion of Boom 2.0” either (a) greatly overestimated the talents of Shaquil Griffin, Quandre Diggs and Quinton Dunbar, (b) greatly underestimated the greatness of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in their primes, (c) failed to realize the impact Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and the pass rush had on opposing offenses, or (d) all of the above.

4c. Adams’s contract situation will be interesting—well, right now it seems interesting, though it’s likely to end in the free-agency cancelation tag. The Seahawks surely can’t let him walk considering the price they paid to get him. But between Adams’s relatively disappointing play, his balky knee, the likely effect the pandemic will have on the 2021 cap, and the front office’s stark realization that they’re missing a lot of pieces on defense, a deal that pays Adams the $20 million annually he was seeking from the Jets is likely not coming from Seattle this offseason.

4d. One last note on that whole “Ngakoue shoulda been the target” thing I mentioned above: NFL writers have spent a good chunk of time the last year or two filling the content hole with the debate, “Do you build your pass rush or your coverage?” It’s a pretty pointless debate since the two things work together (a great pass rush makes a mediocre secondary better, and vice versa), but consider this: Coverage is reactionary. If, in your back seven, you have five really good cover guys, but one guy who’s average and another who’s a liability, you’re going to have coverage issues. Not to mention, reactionary positions like the defensive backfield and offensive line are not just reliant on talent, but also on chemistry. Pass-rushers, on the other hand, are the aggressors and produce largely (but not entirely) independent of their teammates. If you have four average pass rushers, and then, say, add Khalil Mack to your front four, you suddenly have a great pass rush (which, again, will benefit your defensive backfield). Was Ngakoue going to have a Khalil Mack impact? Probably not, but one star talent can be a big upgrade to that pass rush.

5. The Rams-Seahawks matchup in L.A. won’t decide the NFC West—the teams still have a December meeting in Seattle—but it could go a long way toward remining everyone how close these teams are.

A narrative of a dominating Seahawks team took off the first four weeks of the season, with everyone ignoring glaring issues on the defensive side of the ball, an unsustainable takeaway rate from that defense, and an offensive red-zone efficiency rate that would have shattered records (and therefore also wasn’t sustainable, but I wanted to find a way to avoid writing “unsustainable” twice in the same sentence). It also ignored the fact that, if not for a Greg Zuerlein miss on a Thursday night in October 2019, the Rams, not the Seahawks, would have been in last year’s postseason.

The Rams have won four of five against Seattle—the lone loss coming in that Thursday nighter—and their meeting in L.A. last December was as lopsided a game as you’ll get in this division. The Rams held the Seahawks to two field goals in a 28-12 win.

These teams are right next to each other in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (an all-three-phases metric that takes strength of schedule into account): Seattle is eighth and the Rams are ninth, but the difference is the Seahawks’ fourth-ranked special teams unit vs. the Rams’ (31st). Assuming the Rams aren’t going to turn it over four times and allow a punt return touchdown in the first half, this is the kind of game they should have, and they almost need to have.

6. Before we litigate the Brady-Belichick divorce, let’s get the terms right. Tom Brady left New England to join one of the NFL’s best rosters in Tampa, while Belichick is overseeing a roster that had a number of starters opt out after an offseason during which key free agents on the defensive side of the ball departed (the hit they’ve taken at linebacker can’t be overstated). But is New England struggling because Brady left?

Over the second half of 2019, including the playoff loss to Tennessee, the Patriots with Brady under center averaged 20.3 points per game. They didn’t make any significant upgrades to the offense, and eight games into 2020, with Cam Newton and a bit of Hoyer/Stidham sprinkled in, they’re averaging 20.8 points per game.

In the timeline where Brady stayed in New England and Belichick left to go coach in Tampa, where the roster is objectively more talented on both sides of the ball (and let’s give him Newton at quarterback), you’d likely see a team enjoying a similar level of success—it’s difficult to imagine a Belichick team being thoroughly outcoached twice in one season by their biggest division rival. In fact, a Belichick Bucs team might even have enough success that they wouldn’t feel the need to debase themselves with certain free-agent signings.

And if Brady had stayed behind to try to operate this New England offense, with that shorthanded defense complementing it? Foxboro would be hosting a lot of losing football in that corner of the multiverse.

7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Stink!

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