At first glance, you wouldn’t give it a second thought. Scanning down the final scores from Week Five of the 2020 season, you wouldn’t even necessarily pause at Baltimore 27 – Cincinnati 3 (gamebook) (summary). The Ravens, of course, were 3-1 and coming off of a spectacular 14-2 season in 2019. Cincinnati, meanwhile, was scuffling along at 1-2-1 after a trying 2-14 season in 2019 that awarded them the league’s first-round draft pick – a quarterback named Joe Burrow, who would be starting (yes, a rookie QB going against Don Martindale’s blitz happy defense). Twenty-seven to three? Nothing to see here.
But, behind the score were all kinds of interesting numbers – two of which turn out to be mirages, but tell an interesting story anyway. In no particular order, the intriguing numbers are:
- Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson threw 37 passes while the Ravens – a notorious run-first offense – ran only 24 times. And this in a game where they mostly cruised to victory.
- The Ravens – nonetheless – ran for 101 yards in the first half alone.
- They did this without any real ground contribution from Jackson, who finished the first half with 1 run for negative four yards. Lamar would finish the game with just 2 rushes for 3 yards.
- And, finally, Cincinnati, despite the loss, controlled the clock for 20:08 of the second half.
Here are the story lines behind the numbers.
First, Jackson and the Raven passing attack. There is little question that Baltimore came into the game intending to feature its passing attack. Lamar threw on his first offensive play, and threw 3 times in the 5 plays of the first series. In the second series, he threw on three straight downs at one point, and later in the drive threw on 4 of 5 plays – the only interruption in the sequence being his -4 yard run.
Baltimore ran 42 first-half plays, and called passes on 29 of them. The Ravens came to pass. The question is, why?
Thirty passes from the Ravens, who, in 2019, ran the ball on 596 occasions, while throwing it only 289 times, is usually a distress signal. Jackson’s passing has been a fallback in case the running game isn’t working or if the Ravens should fall behind. This was only the seventh time in Lamar’s career (including playoff games) in which he has thrown as many as thirty passes in a game. The Ravens are now 4-3 in those contests.
Exactly what was on Coach John Harbaugh’s mind, I cannot – of course – know. But I will weigh in with my opinion. I believe that one of Baltimore’s 2020 objectives is to prove (to the world, if not to themselves) that Jackson can run a passing game at an elite level. They are, I think, looking for a showcase opportunity – one that will make their opponents think twice about game plans that will dare Lamar to beat them with his arm. And, in the lowly Bengals, Harbaugh thought he had that perfect opponent.
The results worked out less well than Harbaugh and Jackson might have hoped. Yes, Lamar threw a lot, and Baltimore won, but the passing game wound up less than elite. Jackson finished 19 of 37 (51.4%) for only 180 yards – 4.86 yards per pass attempt and 9.47 yards per completion. He did throw 2 touchdown passes, but was also intercepted – leading to a disappointing 71.9 passer rating. Worse, still, he was lucky that two other interceptions – thrown right into the hands of Cleveland defenders – were dropped.
Two important takeaways.
Cincinnati is now seeing Lamar for the fourth time, and is starting to make some adjustments. Throughout most of his career, Jackson has made a living booting out of the pocket and threatening the perimeter. As he would do so, the defense would drop their pass coverages and rush up to meet Jackson – leaving, in their wake, any number of short receiving options (usually a tight end) with no coverage in sight.
Last Sunday, Cincinnati, for the most part, kept Lamar in the pocket. They were mostly successful in getting pressure off both ends keeping him from booting out – with the result that downfield coverage wasn’t dropped, and Jackson was forced to read, make good decisions and make accurate throws. He struggled somewhat in all of those challenges.
Takeaway number two. Cincy’s focus was on the underneath receivers, with the result that Lamar had a few up-the-field options. Jackson, in fact, threw 6 passes at targets more than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. He missed on all 6 – badly, in most cases.
To date, efforts to establish Jackson as a potentially dominate passer have been less than successful.
Moving on to the 101 rushing yards that Baltimore achieved in the first half alone, that, I’m afraid was mostly a mirage. The Ravens popped two very long runs – a 42-yard dash around the edge by Devin Duvernay, and a similar 34-yard burst from J.K. Dobbins. The rest of the team managed 26 yards on 11 attempts – far below expectations.
This number ties into the next surprising number. Jackson with 1 run for the half for -4 yards.
Even though the Ravens were emphasizing the pass, I don’t believe they put Lamar under orders not to run. Even after his disappointing outing, Lamar is still the team’s leading rusher (238 yards and 5.8 yards a carry). Jackson’s incomparable ability as a broken field runner is the element that transforms the Ravens’ offense into one of the NFL’s scariest. There is no reason to believe that Baltimore would willingly shelve the most frightening part of their offense.
I believe that Cincinnati took it away from them.
The foundation of the Raven running attack is the read-option. The quarterback takes the football and sticks it into the stomach of the running back. As he does so, he reads the backside defensive end. If the end crashes down on the runner, the quarterback pulls the ball back and spins into the void the defensive end left. If the end stays wide, playing the quarterback, the QB releases the ball to the back for the quick hitter up the middle (that the end will now be unable to help contain). When the defense cooperates, this can be run to devastating effect – especially when the play involves the skill sets of players like Jackson and Mark Ingram.
But, what if the defense doesn’t cooperate? What if the defense realizes that the “option” in the read option belongs to them? As the play unfolds, isn’t it actually the end that decides which option will be employed? And if the end decides that having Ingram (or Gus Edwards, or some other running back) plow up the middle is preferable to seeing Jackson on the edge, then he has merely to stay wide to keep the ball out of Lamar’s hands.
Cincinnati did this over and over and over again – consistently inviting Jackson to leave the ball with the back. Baltimore’s final rushing tally was a very healthy 161 yards, but 96 of those yards came on 3 long runs (Ingram did break one of those line bucks for 20 yards in the second half). Baltimore’s other 65 yards were earned at the cost of 21 carries (3.1 yards per carry) – and only 3 of the yards came from Jackson. Of all of the things that the Bengals achieved in this game, this is the one that I wonder if other teams will pick up on.
Serving up 27 points never looks like a terrific job by the defense. In this case, though, I believe that Cincinnati’s defense should almost take a bow. They largely muffled the passing attack that Baltimore tried to unleash on them, and they withstood the Raven running attack far better than the numbers indicate – even to the eliminating Lamar Jackson from the running attack.
The Ravens’ final total of 332 yards is modest, and their offensive achievements show just one touchdown drive of over 50 yards. Baltimore’s other two touchdowns were a function of the defense.
Wink Martindale’s unit scored one touchdown outright (a 53-yard fumble return from Patrick Queen) and set the offense up on the Bengal 16 yard line after a Marcus Peters interception. In and of themselves, the offense had very little reason to beat its chest.
Which brings us to the final interesting number – the 20:08 of possession time that Cincinnati maintained in the second half. Yes, that is a mirage, too. But not entirely.
Trailing 17-0 at the half, Cincy coach Zac Taylor decided on a ball control game plan. This is counter-intuitive, but was the right decision to make. He realized that having his rookie quarterback wind up and throw the ball 30 times in the second half would only lead to disaster. But, if he could settle the game down, hold the ball, keep Jackson on the sideline, and maybe put together a long scoring drive or two, Cincinnati might just hang around long enough in this game to catch a lucky break at the end.
So, the Bengals came out running the ball and throwing short passes. The running worked very little, but they kept at it. They ran the ball 19 times in the second half, even though they were never closer than 17 points, and even though the 19 rushes only netted 48 yards (2.5 per).
The short passing worked out a bit better. Burrow completed 10 of 11 second half passes (90.9%), but for just 96 yards. But the 20:08 of second half possession wasn’t quite as dominating as it sounds.
With 11:23 left in the game, and trailing 20-0, Cincy began its penultimate drive on its own 23-yard line. Four plays – and not quite three minutes later – the Bengals had a first-and-ten on its own 47. Burrow, at this point, found receiver Mike Thomas on a short curl for 9 yards down the left sideline. There, cornerback Marlon Humphrey punched the ball free. It bounced right to Queen who scooped it up and ran down the sideline for the score.
Thereafter, the Bengals took the ensuing kick and ran off a 14-play, 55-yard, 7 minute 49 second drive that resulted in a field goal for the game’s final points, leaving just 37 seconds on the clock. Cincinnati’s large time of possession advantage in this half was a product of having the two back-to-back drives (which totaled 10 minutes and 51 seconds) with no Baltimore offensive possession in between.
The Bengals were, however, outscored 7-3 during their almost 11 consecutive minutes of possession. Additionally, as the game wound down, it was obvious that Baltimore was more than content to let Cincinnati run out the clock.
Even so, it was a plan that came close to succeeding. They fell short because of the fourth quarter fumble and the fact that they never did find a way to halt the pressure – even when they were only throwing short passes. Joe Burrow was sacked 4 times in the second half and 7 times in the game. Every time they would seem to pick up a little offensive momentum, an untimely sack would disrupt the drive.
This half of the contest is still a clear mismatch. But Cincinnati looks like a team that has more than a little clue of what it needs to do to become relevant in this division again.
Crazy Second Halves
In the second half of the Tuesday night contest between Buffalo and Tennessee, the Bills were a perfect 8-for-8 on third down. They scored all of 6 points in the half and lost to the Titans 42-16 (gamebook) (summary). Since that is enormously difficult to do, let’s look at their second half possessions and figure out how this happened.
Coming out of the half trailing 21-10, Buffalo opened the second half on defense, where they forced Tennessee’s only punt of the half. The result could have been better, as the Titans downed the punt on Buffalo’s three.
Converting a third-and-two, a third-and-one, and a third-and-ten, the Bills found themselves in a second-and-four on the Titan 33. But, on the fourteenth play of the 6 minute, 45-second drive, quarterback Josh Allen underthrew Gabriel Davis, and Malcom Butler intercepted.
Butler’s 68-yard return set Tennessee up for another short touchdown. An earlier interception had given the Titans a first down on the Buffalo 16 yard line (this became a 16-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown. Later on, a 40-yard punt return by Kalif Raymond set the Titans up on the Buffalo 30. Tennessee punched that one home, too, on an eventual touchdown run by Derrick Henry. Now they were on the 12 yard line. It took just 3 plays for quarterback Ryan Tannehill to get them into the end zone on a 4-yard toss to Jonnu Smith.
Now down 28-10, Buffalo would begin the next drive on their own 10 (after a holding call on the kickoff). Again, they would work their way onto Tennessee territory, converting a third-and-three, a third-and-one, and a third-and-seven, leading eventually to a second-and-ten on the Titan 22. Here, Allen fired a touchdown pass to T.J. Yeldon in the end zone. With the failed two-point conversion – and ten minutes even left in the game – Buffalo now trailed 28-16.
When they got the ball back – with just 3:49 left in the contest – they trailed 35-16, courtesy of an 11-play, 75-yard Tennessee drive. At least that was when they were supposed to get the ball back. But Andre Roberts fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and it was Tennessee with yet another short field. This time they had the ball on Buffalo’s 18. Six plays later, Tannehill tossed another short TD pass to Smith. There was 1:59 left, and the Titans lead had swelled to 42-16.
For the game, Tennessee was 6-for-6 in the red zone. To their credit – and in spite of the fact that they hadn’t played in more than two weeks – they converted every single short field that Buffalo gave them.
At this point, Buffalo let backup QB Matt Barkley finish the game. He also converted two third downs – a third-and-six, and fittingly a third-and-eight on the last play of the game. The final ticks of the game saw Buffalo – out of time outs – rushing to the Tennessee nine-yard line to attempt one final play.
Buffalo finished the game an impressive 13-17 on third down. But they turned the ball over three times, and Tennessee made them pay each and every time.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Browns and the Indianapolis Colts combined for 25 second-half points – in spite of the fact that neither team managed an offensive touchdown in that half.
The second half of that game belonged almost entirely to the pass defenses, fueled by furious pass rushes. Colt quarterback Philip Rivers – whose relative immobility prevented him from escaping the pocket – continued his career-long pattern of rushing decisions under pressure. While completing 13 of 22 second half passes, Rivers was not sacked. But he threw for only 123 yards and was intercepted twice. Baker Mayfield – the much more mobile passer for the Browns – had an even worse second half. He was just 2 for 9 for 19 yards with 2 interceptions of his own.
The second half scoring consisted of a 47-yard interception return from Cleveland’s Ronnie Harrison, an ensuing 101-yard kickoff return by Indianapolis’ Isaiah Rodgers, a safety called when Rivers was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, and 3 field goals – two from Indy and one from Cleveland – all adding up to a 32-23 victory for the Browns (gamebook) (summary).
Who Yells at Tom?
With three minutes left in the third quarter of Tampa Bay’s Thursday Night game in Chicago, new Buccaneer quarterback Tom Brady was seen shouting at his center on the way off the field after a failed third-down play. His coach, Bruce Arians, defended Brady to the media afterward. The general message is that this is what leaders do. And, certainly, if anyone has the credibility to call out another teammate, it is Brady – the most decorated quarterback of his generation.
I don’t know, though. It has always seemed to me that yelling at (or correcting) another player is a coaching function. You leave yourself open, you see. What happens then, when you have a mental lapse during the game – and all players are human. Even the great Tom Brady has lapses.
And sure enough, in the critical moment of his team’s 20-19 loss to the Bears (gamebook) (summary), Tom made the mental mistake that sealed the defeat.
He forgot that it was fourth down. Afterwards Brady danced around the question, and Coach Arians stated emphatically that it didn’t happen. But it did.
With 38 seconds left in the game, and Tampa Bay on their own 41 yard line trailing by one, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-six. Eschewing a shorter route that would have picked up the first down and kept the drive going, Brady threw deep over the middle – incomplete. Afterwards, as the teams were changing, Brady looked confused and held up four fingers in the attitude of asking what happened to fourth down.
Again, everybody blanks from time to time. But the whole scenario got me wondering who yells at Brady? If he had done that in New England, he would certainly have heard about it. In New England nobody’s ego is sacrosanct. Not even the (arguably) greatest quarterback of all time.
But in Tampa Bay, who yells at Brady? All I feel from the Tampa Bay contingent – from the head coach all the way down – is a sense of deference to Brady. It’s OK when he shouts at his teammates. And, apparently, it’s OK when he forgets its fourth down.
This could be more imagined than real, but Brady just seems more mistake prone in Tampa Bay than I remember him being in New England. He has already been intercepted 4 times – half as many as he was all last season in New England – and he has lost a fumble (so he is averaging a turnover a game). Two of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.
None of this is anything to panic over. Tampa Bay is still 3-2 and just getting to know each other.
But I still wonder. Will anyone in Tampa Bay push Brady if he needs to be pushed? Or is his persona considered too sacred. Remember, they did woo Tom to Tampa Bay with the promise of a gentler corporate culture (along with a boatload of money).
I wonder, though, if that won’t cost them in the long run.