Prior to Sunday the Ravens had a 57-1 record with a +2 or greater turnover margin, since 2000.
That record with a turnover advantage is cited weekly in the Ravens press release. It is to 2011 football statistics what the Yankees’ record entering the 8th inning with the lead was 30 years ago to baseball statistics. It’s deceptively good, because there is not a meaningful context for the typical fan.
Bill James wrote that the Yankees 51-3 record in 1981 when leading entering the 8th inning wasn’t particularly exceptional (only about 2 games better than expectation for that many leads). It really seemed less so when James revealed the Yankees were a league-worst 0-41 when trailing after 7!
The turnover relationship has a chicken/egg relationship with wins, because the trailing team takes increased interception risk in trying to catch up. For the last 12 years, the Ravens have been one of the most consistently successful franchises and one of the best defensively. That combination ensured they would frequently get 1 or more turnovers during catch-up time.
On Sunday, they faced another outstanding team and beat them by 2 turnovers, but could not close the deal. Their only other such loss came by an identical 23-20 score in OT to the Pats in Foxboro in 2010.
The Patriots had 65 competitive snaps (excluding 3 kneels):
Versus the Run: 28 plays, 99 yards, 3.5 YPC
Versus the Pass: 37 plays, 234 yards, 6.3 YPP
Overall: 65 plays, 333 yards, 5.1 YPPA
By number of defensive backs:
3 DBs: 2 play, 1 yards, 0.5 YPPA
4 DBs: 2/6 3.0 YPPA
5 DBs: 60/305, 5.1 YPPA, 1 sack, 2 TO
6 DBs: 1/21
By number of pass rushers:
3: 7/39, 5.6 YPP, 1 TO
4: 21/100, 4.8 YPP, 1 sack, 1 TO
5: 9/95, 10.6 YPP
6 or more: None
• The Ravens played almost exclusively nickel as you can see above. They played the 3-safety alignment for 3rd / 4th down and inches from their own goal line. They played their only 2 snaps of standard defense with the Patriots attempting to run out the clock (beginning Q4, 2:46). The single dime snap came on 3rd and 6 (Q4, 14:33) and resulted in the 21-yard completion to Gronkowski.
• A result of all this nickel was that the Ravens were consistently disadvantaged versus the Patriots run game having just 6 big men, but Pollard (4), Webb (2), and Williams (4) combined for 10 tackles in run support to go along with 15 on receivers. Williams in particular was outstanding moving up to make plays on off-tackle and stretch runs with stops for 2, -1, 6, and -1.
• Another result of the nickel was a tired defense on the Patriots’ long 1st-half drives. The defensive line snaps this week were not representative of rest since the Pats’ no-huddle offense kept the same players on the field for extended sequences. The defensive line snaps (long stretches) were Cody 30 (10 straight to start the game), Jones 17 (not more than 4 in a row), Kruger 25 (7 straight on 1 drive, 8 on another), McPhee 8 (3 max), Ngata 53 (22 straight spanning Q3 and Q4), Redding 27 (10), Suggs 60 (took 5 snaps off, all in the first half). As you can see, the Ravens had great difficulty getting their situational pass rushers on the field and rested.
• The Ravens were exceptionally conservative with the pass rush for the 2nd consecutive week. They only rushed 6 or more on 1 play in 72 postseason pass plays and had no such rushes in 37 plays on Sunday. Since there weren’t any really long plays to skew the data, I’d say the results with 5 men rushing were indicative of Brady’s ability to exploit the blitz. More pressure would have been nice, but Brady made his throws quickly.
• The Ravens deactivated McKinney, probably in anticipation of the frequent nickel. That left them a big body short on the goal line and Redding took the spot normally occupied by Brandon for both 3rd and 4th down (Q4, 11:33) culminating in Brady’s TD.
• I am hopeful Ed Reed will return, but if not, his diving PD to give the Ravens 1 more offensive chance (Q4, 1:56) was a signature stamp on a Hall of Fame career.
• Pollard was assigned the unenviable task of covering Gronkowski for most of the day. He did as well as might be expected allowing several receptions in primary coverage, but tackled him 3 times including the play that knocked him from the game. He lost an interception to Webb’s illegal contact, but his tip on Jimmy Smith’s interception was among the most acrobatic (not to mention important) interceptions in Ravens’ history.
• Dannell Ellerbe (38 snaps) replaced McClain as the starter and primary ILB (Ayanbadejo 13 snaps, McClain 14) until a late injury. Ellerbe was picked on by Brady, who threw 4 completions in 4 attempts for 70 yards to his coverage assignments. The 38 snaps were a season high, but he had just 3 tackles (9, 21, and 6 yards from the LoS). He missed a tackle on Green-Ellis’ 13 yard run (Q2, 14:14) and another on Hernandez’ 9-yard run left ((Q3, 14:08). Dannell was generally blocked effectively (examples Q1, 11:09 and Q2, 10:40) in the run game. His face mask penalty set up the first Patriots TD. Despite playing only 60% of the snaps, I can’t recall a worse performance by a Ravens linebacker.
• It’s difficult to say enough about Webb. I heard a fair amount of negativity about him during the preseason. I think there are some folks that have spent some time coaching football that don’t like his technique. Does he sometimes looks a little lost out there? Maybe. But he has make-up speed and make-up athleticism and I don’t think he looks uncomfortable. I think this is a case where the results speak for themselves. While he can be coached to use better technique, care should be taken to make sure additional constraints don’t hamper his gifts. This is a lot like having a great hitter with a weird stance. What would have happened if someone had told Rod Carew to stand straight up at the plate?
• The call for Webb to stop returning kicks has been broadly discussed, but I’ll risk starting a different argument. The Ravens clearly love the versatility to rush Webb from coverage of the slot receiver. He did so 40 times in 2011 with 1.5 sacks and 2 pressures. That doesn’t seem bad for a corner, but I’d argue it’s a big sacrifice to take Webb out of coverage that many times. He rushed 3 times against the Pats Sunday.
• Jimmy Smith was barely challenged despite playing 61 of the 65 snaps at LCB. He was targeted 2 or 3 times depending on how you score coverage responsibility on his interception. He allowed 1 completion for 7 yards on New England’s first offensive play (Q1, 13:33) and promptly failed to wrap up Woodhouse. The interception (Q4, 7:22) will be highlight-reel material for 20 years.
• The Ravens did not allow a play longer than 23 yards (the play on which Gronk was injured). The Ravens loss in the divisional game at Indianapolis following the 2009 season did not include any plays over 20 yards allowed.
• The Patriots were penalized just once for 5 yards (a nearly-meaningless 12-men-on-the-field flag on an extra point) the week after the Ravens went without a penalty for the first time in franchise history.
• The secondary’s heroics kept Patriots on the field defensively for a stretch of 24 of 28 snaps in the 4th quarter between Brady’s rushing TD and his final kneel. It will probably always be difficult and painful for me to believe the Ravens did not score on any of those 3 drives into Patriots territory.