submitted by Dan Rees (@DPRees8)
The 2019 Baltimore Ravens had a historic rushing offense. In a pass-centric league, they seemed to zig while the rest of the league zagged. But what about the 2019 Ravens rushing offense allowed them to be so successful?
While there are several ways to analyze the success of a rushing offense, the “Series Success Rate” (SSR) is an important indicator. The SSR is defined as the percentage of series that results in a new set of downs or points. This allows us to measure how well an offense maintains possession and drives the ball downfield.
In 2019, the NFL averaged an SSR of 69% when running on first down with 10 yards to go (1st and 10). The Ravens were in a league of their own with an SSR of over 80%.
Designed Runs in 2019
I have analyzed the SSR for “designed runs” that were called on a 1st & 10. A designed run does not include a QB scramble but does include a designed QB run play.
In 2019, there were approximately 14,000 plays from 1st & 10 across the NFL. Of these, 48.6% were designed runs.
However, in 2019, 62% of the 1st & 10 plays for the Ravens were runs (269 out of 434). In such a run-heavy offense that may not have the “big plays,” SSR is a key measure of how well a team was able to maintain successful drives.
So why were the Ravens so successful?
Rushes for First Down on 1st & 10
The simplest possible explanation would be if the Ravens ran for more than 10 yards on 1st down significantly more often than the rest of the league.
On the 6,762 runs plans from 1st & 10, the NFL gained over 10 yards on 11.8% of these runs. Meanwhile, the Ravens were at 15.2% (41 of 216). The Ravens immediately converted on a new 1st down on nearly 30% more often than the NFL average!
This clearly explains some of the SSR differential, but what about the rest?
Rushes for less than 10 yards on 1st & 10
In 2019, 88% of 1st & 10 run plays gained less than 10 yards.
For these, the 1st down run didn’t immediately result in a success, but the performance on 1st down can still tell us a lot about the likelihood that the series will ultimately result in a success.
As you may imagine, there is a strong relationship between the yards gained on 1st & 10 and the SSR. This chart shows the SSR based on ‘Yards Gained on 1st & 10 Run Play’ in 2019.
On any series that started with a run play of less than 10 yards, the NFL average SSR for 2019 was 65%. For the 2019 Ravens, the corresponding SSR was 77%.
So, what lead to this significantly higher SSR for the Ravens?
A higher SSR rate could result from either:
- A team gaining more yards on 1st down than the NFL average; or
- A team being more successful in gaining the remaining yards on 2nd, 3rd, and 4thdowns
The 2019 Baltimore Ravens accomplished both!
Gaining More Yards on Average on 1st Down
As you can see in the chart, the yards gained on 1st & 10 have similar distributions for both the Ravens and the entire NFL. However, the limited penalties (10-yard losses) and slight increase in yardage, resulted in an average yards gained of 2.86 for the Ravens compared to an average of 2.43 for the NFL.
Being More Successful in Gaining the Remaining Yards
In this chart, the SSR is broken down by ‘Yards Gained on 1st Down Run Play’ for the Ravens and the NFL in 2019.
The 2019 Ravens had a higher SSR for nearly all possible number of yards gained on a 1st down run play.
More Success Throughout Series
This higher-than-average success rate for the Ravens continued on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th downs as well. They had a higher than average percentage of 1st downs earned on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th downs.
The Ravens were able to successfully convert on 20% of the 4th downs faced after running on 1st & 10 (11 out of 54). This compares to an NFL average of only 6%. A combination of aggressive 4th down play-calling and greater yards gained on 1st through 3rd downs allowed the Ravens to convert on eight more 4th downs than expected. This alone explains 3% of the overall SSR differential.
Below is a summary of the 2019 Ravens’ success throughout a series as compared to the NFL.
Note that this excludes plays that resulted in a penalty in order to summarize a series in the four “actual” downs. The analysis including penalties resulted in very similar results.
In 2019, the Ravens ran the ball at a historic pace. They were able to do this not just by being strong in one aspect of the rushing game, but rather by being strong across the board.
Overall, the Ravens were successful due to:
- Running for 10+ yards on 1st down nearly 30% more often than the league average,
- Running for approximately 15% more yards than NFL average on 1st down rushes of under 10 yards,
- Building on their running success by converting more often than the league average on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th