Zebras Can’t Change Their Spots Baltimore Ravens/Shawn Hubbard

Filmstudy Zebras Can’t Change Their Spots

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The Ravens’ loss to the Saints had numerous frustrating details, but ultimately a good defensive effort fell short in terms of the variation required to end drives.

To make matters worse, the officials failed the Ravens with missed spots and calls long before Tucker’s missed extra point cost the Ravens a chance to go to overtime.

The Drive to Nowhere

The initial Saints drive was a microcosm of the game. The Saints drove 64 yards on 20 plays (3.2 YPP) before ultimately turning the ball over on downs/by fumble at the Ravens 6. Why complain about a drive that ultimately stalled?

Let’s start by looking just at the 3rd and 4th down plays:

— (Q1, 14:09) 3rd/3: Brees hit Kamara on a pass over the middle with 0 YAC. The officials generously spotted the ball an extra yard in the Saints favor so New Orleans faced 4th and 1 rather than 4th and 2.

— (Q1, 13:30) 4th/1: Taysom Hill took a direct snap in punt formation and the Saints used good blocking to exploit the naked A gap (you can’t line up over center on a scrimmage kick) for a gain of 3. Would the Saints have made it from 4th and 2? Probably. Would they have tried it? Maybe.

— (Q1, 11:32) 3rd/6: Watson caught a pass and was stood up by Carr. The play was originally spotted as a 7-yard gain to convert. Harbaugh challenged the pay and won, which denied the 1st down and brought up 4th and 1. Was it a worthwhile challenge? Maybe not, but if the officials had spotted it correctly, the Ravens would not have had to use it.

— (Q1, 11:00) 4th/1: Brees ran a QB sneak and appeared to come up short again as he tucked the football, but a generous spot again gave the Saints the conversion. Harbaugh did not challenge.

— (Q1, 9:41) 3rd/12: Brees completed a 15-yard pass to Watson (12 + 3 YAC) by the right sideline with Mosley trailing.

— (Q1, 8:37) 3rd/10: Brees threw a screen left to Kamara for a gain of 8 (-3 + 11 YAC). Terrell Suggs had a bead on him, but was blocked in the back (or held, take your pick) by LT Terron Armstead. A spot (it’s not even funny at this point) foul would have brought up 3rd down and between 15 and 18, but the result of the play was 4th and 2.

— (Q1, 7:52) 4th/2: Ingram ran up the middle for 5 yards with good blocking and a missed tackle by Michael Pierce, which would not have prevented the conversion.

— (Q1, 5:47) 3rd/2: With the ball at the 5-yard line, the ravens jammed the middle effectively with Williams, Urban, and Judon. Ingram was taken down in the melee for a gain of 1 to deny conversion.

— (Q1, 5:02) 4th/1: With Taysom Hill again in the shotgun and Brees split wide left, Hill pitched right to Kamara, but Onwuasor stayed at home and Kamara was unable to handle the pitch, which was recovered by Pierce. From the moment the ball hit the ground, Hill was the only Saint who could have advanced the ball, so New Orleans had lost the ball on downs, but Pierce fell on the football at the 6 before it rolled out of bounds. A small point…I believe the ball should have been returned to the spot of the original fumble on 4th down, which was either the 8 (where Hill pitched it) or between the 9 and 10 (where Kamara was unable to collect it).

What did the Ravens lose on this drive where the Saints ultimately did not score?

— They had to endure 20 defensive snaps, which cost them in terms of defensive fatigue. This would be an important factor in any game, but was magnified by the fact the Saints were coming off a Week 6 bye. The drive was a little like having your starting pitcher throw 50 pitches in the first inning.

— They may have forced the Saints to reconsider their 4th and 1 punt fake had they received a yard better spot (Q1, 14:09), which would have resulted in better field position and 17 fewer defensive snaps.

— Had Brees’ sneak been ruled short (Q1, 11:00), the Ravens would have taken possession at the Saints 47 or 48.

— They may have lost some field position, and may have had to play 6 extra snaps based on the missed flag on Armstead (Q1, 8:37).

— They used a challenge which turned out to be important as the game progressed. Some of that is on Harbaugh for challenging a play that may not have been worthwhile, but it was a play that should not have required a challenge.

Unfortunately, the Ravens nightmares with spots were not over. As the Saints were driving for the go-ahead score, they faced 4th and 1 at the Ravens 18 (Q4, 7:03). Brees leapt as if crossing the line to gain was the goal line. It’s not clear he achieved his goal, but he retracted the football prior to contact and was at least half a yard short when first touched. The ball never advanced from that point. Unfortunately, the Ravens had already used both challenges (not entirely due to their own poor judgment) and when this situation developed, they were unable to trigger a game-saving review.

Lack of Defensive Variation

As significant as the officiating would be, the Ravens defense failed to generate the variation necessary to get the Saints off the field regularly. They held New Orleans to 4.8 yards per offensive play, which in the absence of other information should have been good enough to beat the Saints. However:

— They didn’t generate any turnovers that impacted possession. It’s true the Ravens technically recovered the 4th-and-1 fumble by Hill, but that was on a 4th-down play that appeared DOA with the position of Onwuasor. That play was effectively turned over on downs.

— They had only 1 sack.

— They didn’t force Brees into any strings of incompletions with pressure, batted passes, or great play in the secondary. Unlike many other QBs in the league, he’s too good to depend on unforced errors. At no point in the game did Brees have incompletes on consecutive plays.

— The most serious offensive penalty for which the Saints were flagged was a delay of game that started them 1st and 15 (Q4, 2:25). The Saints had help in terms of avoiding costly fouls, but ultimately the Ravens were unable to impose their will.

Even with below-average YPP results, offenses can move up the field effectively in the absence of turnovers and penalties. That’s essentially what the Saints did Sunday.

Ravens Play Thin at Corner

Marlon Humphrey suffered a hamstring injury in Thursday’s practice and was inactive. Anthony Averett, who played well in the preseason and in the win over Buffalo, resumed limited practice from his hamstring injury, but was unable to dress. That left the Ravens with Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Tavon Young, and Cyrus Jones as the only 4 active corners.

Entering an NFL game with 4 healthy corners in a difficult position under any circumstances, but Cyrus Jones just joined the Ravens and Jimmy Smith played poorly in his first game of non-rotational play. To summarize:

— (Q2, 15:00) Smith held the arm of WR Michael Thomas on a well-thrown ball down the right sideline. The 25-yard DPI converted 3rd and 7.

— (Q2, 5:22) Thomas again beat Smith for a 32-yard catch (23 + 9 YAC) down the left sideline. That moved the ball to the Ravens 33 on what would become the first score for the Saints.

— (Q2, 2:00) Smith wiped out Thomas on a rub route in the end zone for his 2nd DPI to set up 1st and goal at the 1.

— (Q3, 0:39) Brees was pressured left from the pocket, but Smith lost track of WR Tre’Quan Smith by the left sideline, who tapped in bounds for a gain of 26. This was also the only play Cyrus Jones played defensively (Young left with an equipment issue), but Jones had good coverage underneath.

Smith had played well previous to this game, but had just 33 and 24 competitive snaps respectively versus the Browns and Titans. It’s reasonable to assume some of his ineffectiveness was due to fatigue.

Unusual Dime Usage

The Ravens played 16 snaps of dime in this game (23.5%), but it was Martindale’s choice of game situation which was a little odd.

Specifically, the Ravens played dime for the first 5 plays of the 4th quarter, which the Saints began 1st and 10 at the Ravens 16. With less field to cover, the impact of Levine could have been greater, but the Saints ran the ball 4 times for 16 yards to score (wrapped around 1 pass for no gain) with the Ravens playing light to cut the lead to 3.

Undaunted, Martindale returned to the dime when the Saints reached 1st and goal at the Ravens 6 (Q4, 5:46). Based on his observed fear of having his defense being pushed around in the run game, I’ll guess Dean Pees would rather been slathered in honey then dipped in a vat of fire ants than insert the dime in such a situation. In any case, the Saints took just 2 plays to score the go-ahead touchdown.

Martindale was not forced to play dime in either of these instances as can occur against the no huddle.

Pass Rush Notes

Thinking back to the 2006 win over the Saints at the Superdome, the Ravens executed a rare 1-man pass rush where they dropped 10 into coverage. I expected a measured approach to rushing Brees with numbers in this game, but Martindale continued much as he had against the Titans:

I don’t see any statistical pattern in this data, but I’m a little surprised we didn’t see a greater prevalence of 4-man rushes.

Martindale called 6 deceptive blitzes, which is a little above his average for 31 pass plays. For the game, he used 13 blitzers from off the LoS, called 3 stunts, and dropped 2+ from the LoS on 7 occasions. Those elements are all in line with 2018 averages per pass play.

The Ravens’ highest-risk pass rush of the game (Q2, 6:04) included a blitz from both outside corners, Smith and Carr. Smith got pressure, but was unable to take Brees down and he completed a pass to the vacated left flat for a gain of 10 to TE Dan Arnold. Arnold is a converted WR who had his first 2 career catches for 35 yards in just his 2nd game.

Brees had ample time and space (ATS) on 14 of 31 drop backs and he unloaded the ball quickly on 5 of the other 17.

In words: Numbers remained a primary method by which Martindale attempted to pressure Brees, but the Ravens had far less success moving Brees than Mariota and were unable to force errors when they did.

Defensive Stars

  1. CJ Mosley
  2. Terrell Suggs
  3. Tavon Young

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Ken McKusick

About Ken McKusick

Known as “Filmstudy” from his handle on area message boards, Ken is a lifelong Baltimorean and rabid fan of Baltimore sports. He grew up within walking distance of Memorial Stadium and attended all but a handful of Orioles games from 1979 through 2001. He got his start in sports modeling with baseball in the mid 1980’s. He began writing about the Ravens in 2006 and maintains a library of video for every game the team has played. He’s a graduate of Syracuse with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Math who recently retired from his actuarial career to pursue his passion as a football analyst full time. If you have math or modeling questions related to sports or gambling, Ken is always interested in hearing new problems or ideas. He can be reached by email at filmstudy21@verizon.net or followed on Twitter @filmstudyravens. More from Ken McKusick

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