The Ravens fly into Foxborough high off a Wildcard Round win. Reading the Ravens Numbers looks at how the Ravens have landed in the Divisional Round by using a rejuvenated running game, a stout defensive front, and a little help from the zebras.
After a hard-earned first-round bye, the New England Patriots return to action with a divisional round matchup against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. The Ravens boast both a top-10 offense and defense this season, presenting challenges to the Patriots on both sides of the ball.
Controlling the Run Game
The addition of Justin Forsett has been a boon to the Baltimore running corps. More than offsetting the loss of Ray Rice to a season-long suspension, Forsett provided more than 1,000 yards of rushing offense (1,266), boosting the Ravens’ run totals from 1,328 yards (30th in NFL) in 2013 to 2,019 yards (8th) this season. For the Ravens, 43.8 percent (10th in NFL) of their plays called this year were running plays, up from 38.8 percent (24th) in 2013, providing much-needed balance to a formerly pass-happy team.
Sitting at ninth in rushing yards allowed at 104.3 yards per game, the Patriots will be the second-strongest run defense Baltimore has faced this year, behind Pittsburgh. The Ravens are 9-1 when running for more than 120 yards, and 2-5 when held to less than 120 yards. Likewise the Patriots are 10-1 when limiting opponents to less than 120 yards on the ground, and 2-3 when allowing more than 120 rushing yards. Winning this battle will be one of the keys to winning this game.
January Joe and the Yellow Flags of Doom
Joe Flacco has recorded a passer rating over 100.0 for five consecutive postseason games, becoming the first quarterback to accomplish that feat in the NFL. Most of his recent postseason success can be attributed to three factors: at least two touchdowns each game, no interceptions, and averaging 9.0 yards per attempt. Prior to this streak, he threw eight touchdowns, eight interceptions, and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, for a passer rating of 70.4. Interceptions seem to have factored in the Ravens’ four losses, as Flacco threw seven, including at least one in each loss.
Flacco and the Baltimore receivers have developed a knack for drawing defensive pass interference (DPI) calls. Since the site started tracking infractions in 2009, NFLPenalties.com ranks the Ravens first in total yards gained from DPI calls in four of the last five seasons. This year, their DPI numbers include a 32-yard penalty on the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs that enabled them to convert a third down and move from their own 37-yard line to the Pittsburgh 31, leading to a field goal. For the regular season, the Ravens have benefited from 14 DPI penalties for 283 yards, an average of 20.2 yards per penalty. Eleven were from “deep passes” – plays with the ball traveling 15 yards or more in the air
In 2014, 15.3 percent of Flacco’s pass attempts went 15 yards or more in the air. Pass plays resulting in penalties are not counted in these numbers, so if DPI calls were included, Flacco’s deep pass attempts would account for 17.4 percent of his overall pass attempts. If the DPIs were called incomplete passes instead, his deep-pass completion percentage would drop to 32.3, lower than New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (33.3%), for example. If the DPIs were treated as completed passes (the effect on the games), it would rise to 43.8, moving him closer to Rodgers.
Torrey Smith and Steve Smith, Sr. account for all the DPI penalties, so the Patriots will need to take special care covering those two receivers. New England has been whistled for nine DPIs, tied for third-most in the league. The secondary may make a bigger impact snatching passes, as they are 10-1 this season when they intercept at least one pass.
Braving the Ravens’ Defense
The strength of the Ravens’ defense remains in the front seven – they are fourth in rushing yards allowed (88.3 yards per game), and third in rushing yards per carry (3.6). They also have a ferocious pass rush: 49 sacks, which ties them for second, and 362 total yards) lead the NFL. In DVOA, Football Outsiders has them ranked fifth in run defense and 15th in pass defense, but fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate. Linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs lead the way with 29 sacks between them.
The Ravens’ weakness is in their secondary. They have surrendered 248.7 yards per game through the air, 23rd in the league, and intercepted just 11 passes on 595 attempts, a 1.8% clip (27th in the NFL). When they surrender more than 300 passing yards, they are 2-4, including last week’s 30-17 wild card victory in Pittsburgh. This favors the Patriots, who are 5-0 when they rack up at least 300 yards in the air.
This AFC Divisional playoff should be a struggle between evenly matched teams. The Patriots have the advantages of home field and an extra week of rest. If they manage to keep the Baltimore pass rushers at bay, Tom Brady and his receiving corps should lead the Patriots to the AFC Championship Game.
All statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise cited.
Follow Douglas Storms on Twitter @stormsorama.