Ravens-Raiders: The Probabilities of Going for 2, and Defending Flacco on Our Last Drive

A lot will be written this week about our putrid offensive line–deservedly so. It directly helped us lose to Oakland by letting Khalil Mack live in our backfield. But in this post I’ll try to take a more novel approach.

Yes, I’ll distribute blame. But I’m going to explore it for a Raven whose bad performance has been overshadowed by the fact our fan base loves him (for good reason) and the fact, well, he’s not an offensive lineman. After this, I’ll dissect the two most controversial figures in our loss: Joe Flacco, who led a failed game-winning drive, and John Harbaugh, who made unusual decisions that caused a 5-point swing. What did Flacco do wrong on our last drive–if anything? Do the percentages support Harbaugh’s choice to go for 2 and later accept the flag Oakland used to get a TD? Let’s find out!

Rant 1 – Kamar Aiken and His Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Since special teams whisperer John Harbaugh took the reins in 2008, it’s been rare to see anyone out-special teams us. But that happened against Oakland. I don’t recall the last time (if ever?) I’ve seen Kamar Aiken on gunner duty, but on Sunday he was out there doin’ the damn thing–and Thor’s thunder, was he bad.

In his own subtle way, he may have been one of the biggest factors in the loss. Hey, hear me out! I’m aware this sounds insane; I know Flacco was average, the receivers dropped balls, the defense was carved to bits by David Carr’s little brother. But Aiken was atrocious. I like the guy; he notched almost 1,000 yards receiving last year as the only starter spared from injury. On Sunday, though, he made FOUR costly mistakes.

Mistake #1

His first mistake was his second-biggest. Punting from our own end zone, the Ravens max protected Sam Koch–a smart move that probably saved a punt block for a safety, given there was a huge push and Koch’s punt was deflected anyway.

Aiken was the lone gunner, and after getting a free release downfield (the Raider in charge of slowing him did nothing), he found himself one-on-one with the Oakland returner in the open field, with a chance to tackle him the second he caught it at their 46-yard line. Instead, Aiken took a poor angle and lunged at the returner’s side; so he ended up grabbing air instead of jersey, and four seconds later the return man was streaking across the field, yards from scoring a touchdown if not for Koch’s tackle.

Now, I understand tackle whiffs will happen; Aiken is a receiver and not a defender, so tackling isn’t his best skill. On that note, I’m not even sure why Harbaugh would send him out to dry on lone gunner duty, when it’s been about two years since Aiken was on special teams (we didn’t use him in 2015, when he became WR1) and our opponent is just outside the Top 10 fastest teams in the NFL. But that’s simply a tackle Aiken has to make.

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The “91-yard line” means your own 9-yard line, and so on

Jalen Richard, the Oakland returner, ran a 4.60 40-yard dash. That is not fast for an NFL player. If Aiken makes that tackle at the Raiders 46, Oakland’s chances of scoring a touchdown are around 25%, as this graph shows from Advanced Football Analytics. He missed it, helped them start a drive at our 6-yard line, and those chances spiked up to ~86%. Those odds panned out instantly, with the Raiders scoring a touchdown on the very next play.

To be fair, the fact Aiken missed his tackle didn’t make our D line get no push on Carr’s TD throw. It didn’t make Webb cover his man as well as Don Draper after a drinking binge. But it did set the Raiders up for success they cashed in quickly. It was a momentum turner and a game changer.

Mistake #2

Aiken’s next error came about halfway through the 2nd quarter. With the Ravens trailing 7-3, Koch kicked a high punt that hung up long enough for Aiken to run under and catch it. Instead, Aiken either badly misjudged the ball’s trajectory (which I doubt, given he’s a WR) or let himself get faked out by the Oakland returner, who mimed like he was going to catch it until the very last second–when in reality the ball landed at least 2 yards away. The kick bounced into the end zone, and the Raiders started a drive at their 20 instead of their 4.

There is not much percentage difference, believe it or not, between likelihood of scoring when starting a drive inside the 5 and starting it at the 20. But this was a big field position turner, when half the purpose of special teams is to create opportunities for offense and defense through field positioning.

Mistake #3

Aiken’s second mistake likely caused his third one. After being too passive on the punt touchback, he overcompensated and drew a weird, needless flag. With our offense sputtering early in the 3rd, Koch punted it high from our 40, again giving Aiken a chance to make a play. Aiken raced downfield and forced the returner to call for a fair catch, but then instead of doing the usual stuff gunners do to distract fair catchers–glaring, clapping, yelling Game of Thrones spoilers–Aiken contorted around the guy like he was Neo dodging bullets, inconclusively but probably touching him.

The refs flagged him for 15 yards (correctly), and instead of the Raiders starting a drive from their 8 they started from their 22. And Baltimore collectively spat out its beer and screamed, “What the fuck are you doing, bro???” Been awhile since that happened. And it’s rarefied air, reserved for people like Oneil Cousins, Kyle Boller, and Frank Walker. Aiken needs to avoid being said in the same breath as those guys at all costs.

Mistake #4

Fourth mistake was Aiken’s biggest: the drop to end the game. To be fair, Aiken was surrounded by Raider jerseys, and he got blasted by Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson the second after he got the ball. But that’s a catch an NFL receiver needs to make. Whether Flacco should’ve thrown it to Aiken is another issue (that I’ll explore with pictures below), given Aiken was 100% cold and Steve Smith (who by then had 111 yards and a TD on 8 catches) was single covered. But Flacco delivered a 120 million-dollar throw. And in slow-mo, you can see Aiken was dropping it even before Nelson hit him.

Everybody has bad days at the office, but Aiken quietly had one of the worst.

Rant 2 – Dissecting the Final Drive, a.k.a., In Praise of Joe Flacco

elitedragonmotherfucker

Joe Flacco warming up on the sidelines before the almost-game-winning drive

My immediate feeling after watching us fall apart at the end of our should’ve-been-game-winning drive was anger. I was mad at Flacco; I felt he’d made poor throws that cost us the win. In hindsight, he is not the reason that drive failed. Au contraire. Flacco’s line let him down, his receivers let him down, and Trestman let him down. (Trestman made decent halftime adjustments to counteract the Raiders pass rush, but he lost sight of that on the final drive. There’s no reason an offense with Steve Smith, Mike Wallace, Dennis Pitta, and Joe Flacco, plus gamers like Terrance West and Perriman and Aiken, should not be able to get 10 yards in four plays.)

Our 8-play final drive started at our own 20 (someone needs to remind Hester that drives now start on the 25 after touchbacks.) It started great: a shotgun run on 1st that went for 20 yards (nice element of surprise), with the last 10 yards coming after West was first contacted. (Look no further than this play to see why we released Forsett this week.) At this point Ravens fans felt pretty good about our chances. We were on our 40 with a minute to go, maybe 20 yards away from the edge of Tucker’s range. But after completing to Steve Smith on 3rd & 4, our offense would pick up zero yards on four straight incompletions.

The first incompletion was a drop by Chris Moore, who while a fine contributor should probably a) not be on the field in crunch time, b) especially when he hasn’t been targeted or caught a pass all game. Moore started thinking about running before he caught the ball. Unfortunate, because his YAC likely would’ve moved us to at least the Raiders’ 43, at which point Something Tuckerish (i.e., a 60-yard field goal attempt) would’ve at least been possible.

The second incompletion was the near-pick by Flacco. He had Wallace underneath who likely could’ve scampered into FG range; however, with someone in Flacco’s face yet again, he just threw the ball away in the field of play, knowing he couldn’t take a sack. No, it’s not a good look that this throw was almost intercepted, but I blame this play on the O line. If Flacco’d had more than 3 seconds between snapping the ball and a Raider’s literal WHOLE BODY flying in his face, he probably would’ve found Wallace on a catch-and-run slant for nice yards.

wallaceopen

Ball is in midair. If it had gone to Wallace on a slant, he most likely would’ve run into FG range

The throw to Pitta on 3rd down was a bad one. On this play Flacco actually had time to deliver a decent ball. But with his internal clock FUBAR thanks to the D line getting in his face every other play, he short-armed off his backfoot. Again, while it’s easy to blame Joe for this, bad things will happen when an O line continually fails to protect its quarterback. One of those bad things is that even if the O line gives him a clean pocket, the QB still thinks someone is about to suplex him and makes nervous hair-trigger throws.

The 4th down incompletion to Aiken was the game killer, but fault is interesting to ascribe here. First, I’ll say the play itself was fine. Could’ve been better; for a do-or-die situation, Flacco’s options were limited to Kamar Aiken and Steve Smith, only one of whom had contributed all game (and one of whom, as said earlier, was actively sabotaging us!) But the play itself was drawn up OK, because it did actually produce an open man. That man was just not Kamar Aiken. That man was Steve Smith, which raises my second point re: blame attribution: Flacco should’ve looked to Señor for this conversion, not to Kamar.

As you can see below, if Flacco had trusted Steve and thrown the ball so that it arrived the moment he finished breaking off his comeback, Steve probably would’ve caught it for the 1st down. The CB afforded Steve an ill-advised amount of padding given the down and distance, and was on his heels still moving backward as Steve cut off his route.

steveopen

Steve was open for the 1st down catch. Meanwhile, Kamar was surrounded by Raiders

Maybe Flacco thought going to Steve would be too obvious? After all, our 4th down conversion went to Steve last week, and we’d just converted 3rd & 4th with him four plays earlier. Either way, Flacco seemed locked on to Aiken from the start. He also understood his line would give him no chance to go through his progressions. So, even though Aiken had FOUR different Raiders in his vicinity, Flacco said hell with it and delivered the best possible ball to Aiken that he could. And boy, was that ball great.

Here is what Flacco saw at the moment of his release to Aiken:

aikenrelease

Flacco trying to complete a throw into quadruple coverage, no big deal

Look at that! If you’re playing Madden, do you make that throw??? It had to go to the right of the linebacker, over the closer CB, in front of the back CB, and to the left of the safety. That’s a monstrous throw. A Super Bowl MVP throw. And Flacco made it, knowing his line would probably collapse in the next second (it did) and he’d get crunched (he did). He put that throw into Kamar Aiken’s chest. You can be disappointed that Flacco chose to go to Aiken over Steve, but given he had no time to read the field and delivered a throw so precise that maybe 10 people on earth could make it, you can’t fault him too much.

My initial feelings were wrong. Joe did enough for us to win.

Rant 3 – John Harbaugh Has Not Recovered From 2015’s Descent Into Madness

John Harbaugh is a good coach. And last year, with a starting team full of 2nd- and 3rd-stringers (and the 11th-toughest schedule in the NFL), he turned into the best kind of good coach: an insane one!

Crazy John Harbaugh was a thing of beauty. It was like Ron Rivera and Bill Belichick had a lovechild. Crazy John Harbaugh went for it on 4th down a) from his own 40-yard line b) in the middle of the 2nd quarter c) when the score was tied. Crazy John Harbaugh put Ryan Mallett in shotgun and told him to go beat the Steelers, which Ryan Mallett did. Crazy John Harbaugh refused to punt, loved 60-yard field goals, and poached other people’s practice squads so much that teams literally started moving their CBs to the active roster, just to save them from him. The man was in permanent Fuck It mode, and it was great.

But all phases, even great ones, have an expiration date. Last year, we needed every advantage possible to win the few games we did. But this year, the Ravens’ starters are back, we’re 3-1, and we’re in the running to win our division. At this point Crazy John Harbaugh needs to step back and let Normal John Harbaugh take control. Because on Sunday, C.J.H. was on full display and contributed to our loss.

The 2-Point Conversion

After we scored a hard-earned TD to cut the lead to 14-12 (that QB sneak on 4th & Goal was some grown man shit from Flacco), Harbaugh ignored conventional wisdom–“don’t chase the points!”–and, well, chased the points. We went for two, failed, and instead of being down 14-13 stayed down 14-12. That decision looms large, given you can’t not notice we lost by one point and Harbaugh surrendered one point. But let’s dig deeper than the obvious and explore the probabilities.

2pointpercentagae

Courtesy Advanced Football Analytics

Advanced Football Analytics crunched the numbers and found 2-point conversions are more successful than the average fan probably thinks. As this table shows, passes convert the try ~43% of the time and RB runs convert ~57%. The interesting thing, though, is that passes are called almost 4x more than runs on two-point tries. This reflects the obvious move to pass-heavy offense in the NFL. And the fact these passes succeed less while being called more suggests, IMHO, that defenses have become better at stopping short passes because short passes are such a big part of the NFL now (at times replacing runs, à la vintage Brady and Pats).

For the two-point try, the Ravens called a pass play. Oakland was likely prepared for that, both given the percentages above and the fact Flacco was in shotgun, which was a big giveaway from Trestman. Also, how the try failed is key. There were five Ravens running routes and they were all totally covered. Flacco didn’t miss an open guy. There was no open guy–despite the fact Oakland is dead last defending both the run and the pass (32 of 32). That tells me we failed to convert not just because passing for two points is historically hard, but because our offense isn’t sophisticated enough. This is supported by the fact the 2016 Ravens are one of the worst teams in the NFL at getting in the end zone–which of course you need to do to get the two points.

In fact, the Ravens are in a 3-way tie for 2nd-worst team in the league at crossing the plain of the end zone; and we share that tie with teams helmed by Andy Dalton, Sam Bradford, and whoever or whatever is QB for the Rams at the moment–not a Mount Rushmore of QBs feared by Ravens fans (excluding all times A.J. Green is not covered by Jimmy Smith). The only team worse than the Ravens at scoring touchdowns is Houston and Brock Osweiler.

I don’t blame Harbaugh for Trestman’s approach: telegraphing it was a pass play when a) West was showing good burst, b) the numbers show running works much more often (which I assume Marc knows as a student of the game), c) short passing has never been our strong suit, and d) Oakland’s defense is the NFL’s worst, so deception of any kind would’ve gone a long way.

What I blame Harbaugh for is asking his offense to get in the end zone in a high-risk, low-reward situation, when he must know his offense is bad at getting in the end zone. He made that choice with 2:41 left in the 3rd quarter. There was plenty of time left, we were playing at home (despite the loud Oakland fans), we’d finally found momentum, and failure meant the Raiders would go up more than one score if their red-hot offense scored another TD (which it did immediately). I respect the call and understand why Harbaugh made it, but for these reasons I’d dislike it even if it had worked. There is a point of diminishing returns for high-risk aggression, and you get to that point sooner the better your team is. The 2016 Ravens are better than 2015’s in all three football phases, so a call like that was unnecessary.

The Accepted Penalty

But now I will defend Crazy John Harbaugh!

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Normal

A minute and a half into the 4th quarter, with us trailing Oakland 14-12, the Ravens stuffed a toss run on 3rd & 1 and put the Raiders into 4th & 6. Janikowski was almost certainly on his way out to kick a short-ish field goal. But then the refs flagged Oakland for unnecessary roughness, Harbaugh accepted the 15-yard penalty … and Oakland picked up 15.5 yards on 3rd & 16, converted 4th & inches after we entered the neutral zone, and three plays later scored a TD.

This was a 4-point swing. Big difference between losing 17-12 and 21-12. But Harbaugh’s decision wasn’t as bad as I thought. Everyone seems to think Janikowski is a demigod, but surprisingly he is only the 39th most accurate kicker of all time. (Justin Tucker is 2nd, bitchez!) That’s still pretty good, but on kicks 40-49 yards out, he is mundane: 74% accuracy all-time. He would’ve tried a 42-yarder if Harbaugh had declined. But if the Ravens hadn’t allowed a single yard on the new 3rd & 16, Janikowski would’ve had to try a 53-yarder instead, and from 50 yards+ he converts just 58% of the time.

Add to this a) Oakland is 25th in the NFL at converting 3rd downs, b) 3rd & 10+ is converted only 20% of the time, and c) a longer FG is kicked lower, and our special teams are Zeus-level at blocking kicks … and this was a fair, justifiable risk.

crazyharbs2

Crazy

Harbaugh’s decision only looks bad because it backfired. If it had worked, for example, it’s exactly the kind of call that Collinsworth and Michaels would gush over on Monday Night Football. Yes, most coaches would’ve surrendered the 3 points and just embraced the new, reasonable goal of scoring a TD and 2-point conversion to go up 20-17. But good coaches also take calculated risks, weighed against the strengths of their team. There was method to Harbaugh’s madness here, so he deserves some slack. More than slack! He deserves credit.

***

That’s all for this week! Thanks for reading, and stop by next week for an all-Maryland affair with Washington. If you’re on the ledge–step back! We’re 3-1. Keep enjoying it.

 

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4 comments

  1. Ken McKusick

    Very nice piece, Dan.

    I discussed the 2-point conversion in another post (linked below). The break-even percentage success rate is low when -2 is the starting point (as it was at 14-12). The originator of the article is a good analyst of on-field play, who produced a chart used to make such decisions. I don’t know the origin of that chart, but I did match 1 key figure exactly, so I have a high degree of confidence the chart is credible. After producing the chart, he proceeded to beat it up.

    Many analysts would tell you it is never correct to go for 1 in such a situation, but as you can see from this discussion, I tried a number of different methods to convince him and I’d have to say I was ultimately unsuccessful. Take a read if you will. Feel free to contact me if you’re not convinced.

    Ken, aka Filmstudy
    @FilmstudyRavens

    • brafootball

      Hi there, Ken! Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I’ll be sure to check out the link you’ve provided. There are certainly many ways to slice the 2-point try, and I’m eager to see what your numbers say.

      Thanks again,
      Britt

      P.S. Not “Dan.” ;)

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