I went against all reality.
I fought the power....and won?
Instead of just agreeing with the tidal wave of opines that the Ravens' secondary is a self-destructed electromagnetic pulse, flat-lining all energized hopes of future playoff progression, I asked the question: is this truly the fault of the defensive backs? Is their play really as bad as everyone is automatically spouting right now, or could there be another, more subtle culprit back there? This week's Fact Check is not on a specific member of the media, but the popular basis being currently reported: the Ravens' DBs are awful. Let's see if this is true.
In order to find my hypothesis, I pored through every defensive snap of the San Diego contest where there was a completed pass by Phillip Rivers. I monitored the immediate d-back whose clear responsibility was the receiver targeted, and made a judgment call on whether the outcome was a positive play or negative play, a la Pro Football Focus. I also had a category called "Normal," which means that the play was not the fault of a DB's talent, but the precipitate of a scheme. I'll explain more on this thought later.
Here is the table of results. Click on it for a larger view.
What do we learn? A couple of interesting points, actually. Of these 34 completions, 13 were deemed negative play/execution by the man in coverage. But, of those 13, 3 were from the linebacker corps, so that brings the number down to 10. And of those 10, 2 were from quasi-illegal plays that were not called: a push off by San Diego TE Antonio Gates, and a pick play that clipped Raven Brynden Trawick. I'm not going to count these against the players; you may. Thus my number of negative plays whittled down to 8. That's roughly 25% of completions, and 18% of the 45 pass attempts. So, 1 out of a little more than 5 pass attempts resulted in a good-to-great result for the offense. Sometimes the result was 6 yards. Once it was 59 yards. Is this "terrible"?
Personally, I think not. The answer that emerged is scheme. It's so interesting to me, after observing a tonnage of football over these 35-plus seasons, that current reporters and broadcasters put so much stock in the first drive of the game. I have learned, especially on the pro level, that the first drive of the game is when the strategy of the other team is largely revealed, and defenses tend to be "feeling out" the other team. They are more vulnerable here and sometimes give up a score. Many times I have seen this reported as a 'slow start' or 'early problems,' but I do not see it that way. I see it simply as the small adjustment period.
Not only do people misread this phase, but they misread underneath passing. This is a huge portion of what I have concluded on this matter: the Ravens have a philosophy, under Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees, of Bend But Don't Break: give up underneath completions, but do not give up big plays and solidify in the Red Zone. While it is true that the Chargers got one big play Sunday, look at how many plays on the chart are in the "Normal" range--attributable to the scheme and not the player: 17. Twice as many as negative plays. These completions go for positive yardage and can help the opposing team, sure. Yet it seems like the consensus is that the players should stop these plays from happening. Schematically, this is just not possible. Let's look at why.
In the third quarter, there was a 5 yard completion to Keenan Allen that falls into this paradigm.
The original setup of the play looks like this:
San Diego is ten points behind, in the 4th; in catch-up mode. Keenan Allen is split left, Gates is tight left. The down/distance is 2nd and 1 (find it on the chart!). Now, let’s take a look at the general movement of the defense that I transposed to a play diagram:
Without moving the offense, you can see that the general scheme of the defense is to give the underneath yardage. Again, while the field position isn’t exactly the same in my rendering--it's an approximation of the real ratios-- you can ascertain that there is a buffer underneath coverage. And this is on 2nd and 1. Look at the general buffer (the yellow oval):
This is where an experienced QB like Rivers makes his living. And the Ravens strategy is to let him. Therefore, the fault lies in the SCHEME. Sure, the ethic of Playing Like A Raven also seems to stress "flying to the bal"l and dissuading the other team from taking the underneath for granted. This is illustrated here, in the full animatic of the play:
For comparison's sake, here is the play itself, Watch the defensive backs with the animatic in mind:
So, I cannot fault these players. While it is true that in the few plays that were given up (Negative on the chart) lies the balance of the game--the expectation and thrust might be that these are the plays where the DBs have to shine in order to win--throwing all of the players under the bus of scheme seems erroneous to me. Here is another example from the game, where Rivers decides to dump the ball off to the HB. Notice the underneath layer given up (white arc) and the subsequent "flying to the ball" that ends the threat of the play:
What the Ravens would need to decide, after a game like last Sunday, is if this approach is what Raven football will continue to be. It won a Super Bowl. Yet, it is decidedly different than the storied Ravens defenses of the early 2000's--except for in the Red Zone. For me, this is when the true genius of the defense comes out, because Dean Pees is excellent at mixing up coverages and responses and is able to confuse many a quarterback.
Of note, too, is that Phillip River did perhaps the best job of any QB all season at baiting the defense into jumping before the snap and revealing their attack. He orchestrated the offense around those revelations and short passes. Even with all of that, it took a pass interference call to make this a winning strategy for him. Take that call away, and he has a lot of yardage, but a probable loss to go with it.
And in the end, it's all about winning, is it not?
This week, Asa Jackson will return and bring athleticism and experience in the scheme. Jeromy Miles will start at SS and bring his experience. I feel that Anthony Levine is playing solid football in that he is a solid tackler and contests the passes that he should contest. He is a hair away from a huge game. Danny Gorrer also is very competitive and was the victim of a questionable call last week. He is a legitimate starter, too. And of course, FS Will Hill virtually won the New Orleans game with his INT TD.
While others are calling the back end the Achilles heel and weak spot, I have confidence that these men are playing the scheme given to them, make plays, and are good enough to go all the way.
Perhaps we could all slow down with the nay saying and pay attention to the game.
What do you think? Please feel free to leave comments below, tweet me, or comment at the Baltimore Sun Ravens forum.
NOTE: ALL FOOTAGE IS PROPERTY OF the NFL. I OWN NO RIGHTS.
P.S.: Per a Sun Forum discussion, I'm posting a GIF of Levine's 18 yard surrender of a catch, his highest yield in the game. Look at this and tell me that this isn't excellent defense, despite a push-off by the WR and an indefensible pass placement (that almost got knocked out).