Part 10 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 9 here: Cincinnati Bengals. Part 11 available now: Cleveland Browns.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Adj. Pass Rate|
If you look simply at results, the narrative around the 2021 Ravens is simple: They were 8-4 with Lamar, then he got injured and they lost 5 straight to finish 8-9 and missed the playoffs. But this simplified, results-based narrative is misleading. They were extremely fortunate to win against the Chiefs when Edwards-Helaire fumbled while setting up a game-winning field goal attempt. They got away with an obvious delay of game against the Lions and still needed a 66-yard field goal to win against the worst team in the league. The Colts suffered an epic collapse to allow the Ravens to win in overtime, and the Ravens even overcame an overtime interception in a win against the Vikings. They deserve credit for all of their wins, but they were certainly fortunate to be 8-4.
On the flip side, five of their six losses to end the season were decided by a total of 8 points, including an overtime game. This is why I approach my Team Study from the perspective of Effectiveness Ratings, which measure holistic performance on each side of the ball. This is much more useful and predictive than results-based analysis and comes closer to telling the true story of the Ravens’ 2021 season.
The Ravens had it tough from the opening kickoff and things just didn’t get better. On offense, they lost their two top running backs (Dobbins and Edwards) and had to implement their run-focused approach with a rotation of backs that failed to move the needle behind a mediocre offensive line. Lamar Jackson actually took a step forward as a passer early in the year but this was more than offset by the failures in the run game. After averaging 5.5 yards per carry in both 2019 and 2020, that number dipped to 4.8 yards per carry in 2021. This fundamentally changed their offense.
With Lamar Jackson, Baltimore’s offense has been all about getting chunks of yardage on the ground to set up short third downs for easy conversions with a strong running game. This forces defenses closer to the line of scrimmage, committing more defenders to stopping the run, giving the receivers and Mark Andrews single coverage to exploit for big plays in the passing game. When given time in the pocket and open receivers, Lamar has played well as a runner and passer. But in obvious passing situations, like long third downs, he loses a lot of his edge as a runner and becomes merely an average pocket quarterback, outside of some electrifying runs that have bailed his team out of bad spots over the years.
The seemingly minor regression from 5.5 yards per carry to 4.8 had a profound impact on the Ravens. They faced more long third downs, meaning obvious passing situations. Lamar has not been consistent in situations where the run game is taken out of the picture. So these long third downs killed their approach. A year after posting an impressive 48.8% conversion rate on third down, the Ravens converted only 36.4% of the third downs they faced. Their DVOA on third- and fourth-down and long (7 yards or more) was dead last in the NFL. This was the biggest hurdle for this offense. And it obviously didn’t get better when Lamar got hurt at the end of the year. Huntley filled in nicely, but this team just wasn’t built for long conversions under either quarterback.
Unsurprisingly, the Ravens’ Adjusted Effectiveness (relative to opponent) tracked the quality of each passing defense it faced. Chart A shows the Ravens offensive Adj. Eff. Rating in each game, ranking each opponent by its passing success rate allowed on the season. The Ravens almost uniformly played above average against bad pass defenses and below average against good pass defenses.
The Ravens led the NFL in the percentage of passing yards obtained through the air (as opposed to after the catch) and finished with the 2nd-highest average depth of target. These numbers typically indicate an aggressive downfield passing game. The Ravens do not feature running backs in the passing game, which takes away a lot of short throws that impact these stats. This was just their offensive style. They want to throw deep when it’s there after lulling a defense into playing close to the line of scrimmage. Lamar also is great at buying time with his mobility to find receivers downfield off-script. If a defense allowed a high percentage of successful pass plays, that spelled bad news against this offense because it meant they were converting on explosive pass plays.
The Ravens have had a strong defense and running game for years, putting them in favorable situations on offense where the defense must account for the run. In 2020 they had more wins of 14+ points than any other NFL team, because when they had the lead they typically extended it. This is why they struggled relatively in 2021. They need those leads and failed to build them. They didn’t fall apart without Lamar. Actually, their offense with Huntley (-0.02 Adj. Eff. Rating) was only a little worse than with Lamar (+0.16). But the compounding injuries on both sides of the ball led to a lost season, in which they simply could not match their typical quality of play.
On one hand, if they improve even a little on the offensive line and get their running backs healthy, they should be back to their 2019/2020 form on offense. But even then, they excelled against bad teams. Getting the one seed is particularly important for a team that likely will not rattle off four playoff wins, and they now play in an extremely competitive division. Unless Lamar Jackson can take a step forward as a pocket passer, their limitations likely prevent them from being a Super Bowl winning team.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Blitz Rate||Pressure Rate|
Baltimore’s defense had been remarkably consistent under Wink Martindale’s leadership in the three years leading up to 2021. In arguably the most important defensive metric—net yards per pass play allowed—the Ravens gave up 5.4 yards in 2018 (3rd), 5.7 yards in 2019 (6th), and 5.6 yards in 2020 (4th). That dropped all the way to 7.2 yards in 2021, which was dead last in the NFL. That dramatic drop is extremely significant and essentially prevented the Ravens from having a good defense in 2021.
Their identity has long been clear: bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks by blitzing. It’s not a terribly complex scheme, but it is aggressive. That simply did not work this year. They blitzed at the 6th-highest rate but only pressured quarterbacks at the 24th-highest rate. That disparity creates an obvious problem. They were also bad in coverage, allowing the 11th-highest completion percentage on the 7th-highest average depth of target. So opposing quarterbacks were completing passes downfield and the blitz was ineffective at getting pressure.
This resulted from injuries, of course. Marcus Peters was out for the year. That was massive, and they also missed Jimmy Smith in several early games and Marlon Humphrey late in the year. Derek Wolfe and L.J. Fort also missed most of the year and they had already lost Judon to the Patriots in the off-season. On top of all that, they struggled with Covid at times. These would be significant absences for any defense.
But the massive fall-off the Ravens experienced shows us something about the importance of contextualizing injuries by tying them to scheme and situation. A successful blitz-heavy approach absolutely relies on strong coverage by cornerbacks. You inherently sacrifice help in coverage to force the opposing quarterback to make quick decisions. When partnered with great man coverage, this is really tough for opposing offenses. But without Peters, and Humphrey or Smith for part of the season, the entire scheme collapsed. Blitzing also requires that you actually get to the quarterback, which they did not do with a less talented front seven.
High-pressure blitz defenses are designed to force mistakes and can really go south when those mistakes are not forced. The massive regression was therefore somewhat predictable in the context of how the defense was built and the injuries they suffered. I believe Martindale’s inability (or unwillingness) to adjust the scheme to the situation cost him his job.
They did perform very well against the run. But by now it’s no secret that stopping the run does not win meaningful NFL games. Chart B shows their defensive Adj. Eff. Rating by each opponent’s relative pass offense v. rush offense in EPA/play. They consistently played above average football against teams that could run well but not pass efficiently (such as the Browns, Bears, and Steelers). But they struggled greatly against Joe Burrow and the Bengals, who were far better at passing than running.
The 2021 Ravens remind me of the 49ers in 2020, who suffered injuries so debilitating that they just couldn’t field the team they had grown accustomed to. The 49ers bounced right back in 2021 and there is plenty of reason to believe the Ravens can bounce back in 2022. But they won’t have Martindale, which makes things particularly interesting because of how strong his identity has been as a defensive coordinator. He’s also been consistently solid until this year when it fell apart. Time will tell if Mike McDonald will continue the trends or put his own identity on the defense. Harbaugh seems to trust him, so if they can get healthy on defense they could return to form.
When to bet on the Ravens: If the defense does bounce back, they should be treated as a winning team that excels with the lead and crushes big spreads against bad teams. In 2020 they won 9 games by 14+ points. With a good pass defense and a successful run-heavy approach on offense, they can be relied upon to cover these spreads.
When to fade the Ravens: However, when they are projected to play from behind they lose that edge. Lamar still has not shown elite ability in the pocket and suffers a notable downtick in production against the best teams and – in particular – pass defenses. The Ravens make a fine bet for regular season wins but should be avoided in Super Bowl and AFC title markets.
What to look for in the offseason: Obviously health is the number one issue on both sides of the ball. Running backs often struggle off major knee injuries, so there is no guarantee that J.K. Dobbins will immediately live up to his potential. It would also go a long way if they bolstered the offensive line and defensive front.
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