submitted by Matt Pyne
When it comes to going for it on 4th down, there has been no better team than the Baltimore Ravens this season, considering the game scenario. In fact, the Ravens only trail four teams in 4th down attempts: the Colts, Bengals, Dolphins, and Giants. All four of these teams are non-playoff teams, which likely means they are playing like they have nothing to lose, and have been trailing more often than not.
The Ravens, too, play like they have nothing to lose. Sometimes that mentality can lead you to accomplish more than you thought possible, and that mentality has helped land the Ravens the #1 seed for the first time in franchise history.
Their 70.8% conversion rate also happens to be the best mark among NFL teams. So I took a little deeper dive into the numbers to see what the Ravens called on each 4th down attempt to see which plays had the most success.
It was somewhat surprising to see that no one play call had a conversion rate under 50%, which says Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman and the analytics staff know which plays are most efficient in a 4th and short situation.
What’s astonishing to me is that a run of some sort has worked 100% of the time for the Ravens on 4th down. Even the fake special teams plays (fake punts) were runs by Anthony Levine on a direct snap. To me, this shows the ability of the Ravens to run against any defense in any scheme or package. Both of the running back runs happen to be from Gus Edwards, who leads the NFL in percentage of positive yard carries with over 88%. This is a Ravens team unlike any we’ve ever seen. They are working smarter – not harder.
Highest % of carries gaining yards this season (min. 100 carries):
1. Gus Edwards: 88.4%
2. Ezekiel Elliott: 88.3%
3: Raheem Mostert 88.2%
4. Royce Freeman: 86.9%
5. Mark Ingram: 86.6%
6. Latavius Murray: 85.3%
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 26, 2019
It’s also interesting to see their reliance on the pass as an option for a 4th down conversion. Thirteen of their 24 attempts have been passes, with a 61.5% success rate (counting the fake field goal pass). My guess here would be that defenses are expecting a run and are stacking the box. The Ravens are taking advantage and passing when they need to, to sustain drives.
It’s also worth noting that the Ravens not only lead the league in 4th down efficiency, they also lead the NFL in 3rd down efficiency and number of total first downs. This speaks to their season-long offensive domination and no matter the opponent, the offensive game plan has been executed.
The second big component of the 4th down decision-making is actual field position in deciding whether it is prudent to go for it based on ‘expected points.’ Obviously, the further down the field you are, the likelier it is for your team to score.
The above table shows the field position of each attempt this season. As a rule of thumb, teams typically would only go for it on 4th down when on the opponent’s side of the field. The ratio is fairly balanced, but the Ravens are distinctly choosing to go for it more when they’re past midfield. There are a few outliers here of course because of the Kansas City and first Cleveland game where the Ravens made decisions out of desperation.
But generally, having a 14-2 record gives a pretty good indication of the Ravens’ 4th down success patterns. It’s also interesting to point out the Ravens have gone for it on 4th down this season when they’re on their own 25-yard line or worse only once. This was the fake punt last week against the Steelers, in a game with nothing on the line for Baltimore.
That’s probably because teams have a negative expected points when they have to go 80 yards or more (per AdvancedFootballAnalytics.com). Expected points refers to the average potential points a team can expect to attain given a certain situation such as field position. The Ravens analytics staff have to be all over this, since apparently they relay the percentages to Head Coach John Harbaugh before an attempt.
Look for the Ravens’ 4th down aggression to continue into the playoffs. Not only because of the success they’ve had with it so far, but because they have the personnel to find success come January.
January football is often about running the ball because of the cold elements, and that plays to the Ravens’ strengths.
A 4th down decision could very well make or break a playoff game this year, but Ravens fans should have full confidence that their team can – and will – get the job done.