Week Eight Opponent Preview: Cincinnati Bengals

The Baltimore Ravens (5-2) are back on the road this week as they prepare to play potentially their biggest game of the season at Paul Brown Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2-1). These are two different teams than the ones that met to start the 2014 season. In that game the Bengals won 23-16 on a huge play by A.J. Green late in the Fourth Quarter to gain the advantage in the season series. Since then Baltimore has continued to improve each week on both sides of the ball going 4-1 and claiming the AFC North lead by percentage points. The Bengals have shown weaknesses after their early Bye Week and have struggled without the injured Green in the offense.

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Here’s what you need to know:

  • The Bengals ran just eight plays in Colts territory, had only eight first downs and seemingly never had a chance as they were shutout by Indianapolis 27-0. Cincy was whipped in all phases of the game. Their usually reliable offensive line allowed three sacks and couldn’t open holes in the running game either as Gio Bernard could only muster a meager 17 yards on 7 carries. That put extra pressure on Andy Dalton who was unable to respond and turned in his worst effort of 2014 (18 for 38, 126 yards). This was Cincinnati’s first shutout loss since Week 17 of 2009.
  • It seems as if the Ravens are catching Cincinnati at the right time especially offensively. They struggled mightily getting positive yards in the early downs and set themselves up for much tougher conversions on third down. This season, they have converted 62 percent of their third downs of 4 or fewer yards to go, and haven’t allowed a sack or turnover in those scenarios. However they convert just 30 percent of their third downs with 5 or more yards to go, allowing three sacks and throwing two interceptions.
  • One thing to expect is for Cincinnati to recommit to the running game using both Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Coordinator Hue Jackson admitted that he only used the run sparingly (11 carries total – sound familiar?) and more rushes would have helped with time of possession and perhaps extending drives.
  • The Bengals offense has absorbed several injuries this season with Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, and most importantly A.J. Green. Green’s status for Sunday is the most important piece of information to keep your eyes on for this Sunday. As of a few hours ago Green said that his toe was feeling better but that he was “still up in the air” for this weekend.
  • The Bengals defense is starting to look more vulnerable as well, especially against the run. After allowing just 95.5 yards per game on the ground in the first two games, in part because of getting big leads, the Bengals allowed their last four opponents to average 171.8 yards per game on the ground. Part of the problem has been both starting defensive tackles, Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, have struggled against the run almost all season.
  • Injuries have hit the defense too. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict left the first quarter of Sunday’s loss after suffering a neck injury and didn’t return.Coach Marvin Lewis said in his postgame news conference that Burfict had a “cervical strain.” Burfict’s neck injury comes after he has already dealt with concussion problems most of this season. He has only finished one game this year — last week’s — after missing parts of four others with head injuries.

 

2014 OVERALL NFL RANKINGS

PASSING YDS -241.8 (16th Overall)

RUSHING YDS-111.5 (16th Overall)

OPP PASSING YDS-270.3 (27th Overall)

OPP RUSHING YDS-146.3 (30th Overall)

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Should Zach Britton be a Starter?

If you expected BSL’s first post since the O’s were ousted from the playoffs to be us waxing poetic about the season and all that the 2014 Orioles achieved; well, you don’t know us very well at all.  If you want to know how I feel about the Orioles this season, I recommend you pick up Baseball Prospectus’ 2015 Annual where you can read my essay on the O’s 2014 season. We’ll wrap up the 2014 season for sure, but it’s never too early to start thinking about 2015, and that’s just what we’ll start doing right now.

Discuss this post and more offseason decisions on the BSL forums here.

O’s fans should be familiar with discussion around turning into starters. After all, this discussion happened nearly every offseason for at least the past five years. Let’s make Jim Johnson a starter, or not, has been a common theme to O’s offseasons. This offseason will be no different. Should Zach Britton be moved back into the starting rotation After all, Britton has a better case for being moved to the rotation than Jim Johnson ever did.

Zach Britton

There are plenty of reasons that Britton should stay in the bullpen. He was an excellent closer in his first full seasons as a reliever, recording 37 saves in 71 games while posting a 1.65 ERA for the birds. Now, his peripherals (BABIP and FIP especially) would suggest that Britton was pretty lucky this season, but that’s really neither here nor there. He did it on the back of his sinker, which he threw more than 90% of the time this season. He only mixed in a handful of curveballs, so it was really his sinker alone doing the heavy lifting.

Ironically, Britton’s signature pitch was a happy accident. The O’s coaching staff intended to teach Britton a cutter, but the resulting sinker has transformed into one of the better pitches in baseball. It’s also at the center of the debate around whether Britton could transition back into the rotation if he wanted to. The common refrain is that you can’t throw 90% sinkers in the rotation. While that’s true, it’s missing the point. The other stuff was never the problem for Britton.

His career as a starter wasn’t exactly what the O’s expected from the former Top 100 prospect. His career 4.86 ERA as a starter left a lot to be desired, resulting in the O’s giving Britton as he was left out of an already crowded rotation heading into 2014. Britton flourished, largely because of his heavy sinker usage. That sinker picked up more than 3 mph from his time as a starter, something that Britton would largely give back should he transition back into the rotation.

The difference though is how opposing hitters are handling the sinker. In 2014 opposing hitters were held to a .191 batting average and .270 slugging percentage against Britton’s sinker. Take those numbers with a grain of salt as batted ball results over a single season are extremely volatile. That said, those numbers suggest that Britton’s sinker is an elite level pitch especially among left handed pitchers. The critique here is that Britton can’t throw his sinker 90% of the time as a starter, though it’s one that is easily answered.

The chart below shows the batting average and slugging percentage against Britton’s various pitches as a starter:

Pitch AB BAA SLG
Fourseam 185 .384 .616
Sinker 492 .274 .384
Change 143 .256 .371
Slider 86 .116 .128
Curve 22 .091 .091 

As a starter Britton had two pitches that really killed him. They were his fourseam fastball and his sinker. The 2011-2013 sinker and the 2014 sinker though appear to be two different animals. Britton doesn’t need to throw his sinker 90% of the time because his offspeed and breaking stuff was never the issue. In fact, you could make the argument that Britton’s breaking balls and offspeed stuff were his best tools as a starter. The batted ball data would suggest that opposing hitters were sitting on the hard stuff, and hitting it well.

Should Britton be moved back to the rotation, it’s safe to assume he’d ditch the fourseam fastball altogether. He might also leave out the sinker, a pitch he hasn’t throw in an MLB game since 2012 in favor of the curveball, which seems to be a better pitch anyway. Adding back in the change up gives Britton three average or better pitchers: sinker, curveball, change up. That repertoire would no doubt be enough to help him excel as a starter.

Zach Britton was a starter as recently as last season, which is a hurdle that often confounded those who advocated for Jim Johnson in the rotation. It would not be difficult for the O’s to stretch Britton out given he’s recently been a starter in terms of workload. Cross off that objection.

Now there’s more to this than Britton. The O’s have six starting pitchers under contract for next season who all have a case to make for being in the rotation on opening day. They also have Dylan Bundy who will presumably be ready for a spot in the rotation by mid-season, further complicating the matter. Adding Britton to that mix seems silly given the glut of options the O’s already have.

It could make sense though, as the club could maximize their resources in doing so. Suppose the O’s resign Andrew Miller to a 3/$24MM deal to be their closer. Britton moves into the rotation, and the O’s could then trade some of their controlled starting pitching for upgrades at other positions of need. If Britton struggles in the rotation the O’s could replace him with Bundy, and move Britton back into the bullpen with O’Day and Miller.

It’s a possibility. Is it a probable scenario? No. There are reasons to believe though, that Britton could excel as a starter once again. The idea has to be enticing to an O’s front office that can clearly see its starting pitching talent is almost entirely right-handed and generally very flyball prone.

Should Zach Britton be stretched out as a starter for 2015? Realistically, no. It’s not as crazy a notion as trying to make a starter out of Jim Johnson was though.

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Posted in Baltimore Orioles | 4 Comments

Ravens take over first place with 29-7 win

Baltimore is making football look easy of late, as the defense took care of business in front of the home crowd, 29-7 over the visiting Atlanta Falcons. A Falcons team with a history of having an explosive offense in the Matt Ryan era, could only muster the one score against the Ravens and it came with the Ravens already well ahead, 20-0 at that point.

Discuss your thoughts on today’s game here, on our message board.

In the last two weeks, Baltimore has outscored their opponents 77-24. After three games, they have outscored the NFC South 115-34. The Ravens will travel to New Orleans in four weeks, and it will follow the Ravens bye week.

It wasn’t the perfect game that it was a week ago as the Ravens did lose the turnover battle (2 INts, 1 fumble) and they were penalized nine times. Jacoby Jones continues to have his struggles with his hands. But they continued to be efficient on offense averaging 6.0 yards per play, and 9.5 yards per pass attempt while possessing the ball for over 33 minutes. Efficient would be the best way to describe their decent day as the Ravens only went three and out once, on the second drive of the game (not counting the three plays before a field goal to end the first half).

On the defensive side, the pass rush is back. We saw it against the Bucs last week when they sacked Mike Glennon five times, and hit him 15 times of 49 drop backs. Today, Matt Ryan was sacked five more times, and hit nine times total. Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee got two apiece, and Terrell Suggs put “the hay in the barn” with a sack for a safety in the final minutes.

Most important thing to take away from today’s action, the Ravens move into first place atop the AFC North. They accomplish that feat after the Bengals go winless in their last three games (loss @ NE, tie vs. CAR, loss @ IND) to drop to 3-2-1. Great win, but focus must quickly shift to the upcoming matchup against…you guessed it…Cincinnati at their place.

First place will indeed be on the line next Sunday afternoon as a Ravens loss will place them percentage points behind Cincy. That tie is really saving the Bengals from not being a full game and a half behind the Ravens right now.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are still a factor sitting there at 3-3, with a chance to go 4-3 as they face the Houston Texans on Monday night. Pittsburgh cannot move into first place next week as even in a best case scenario for them, being 5-3 after next week, a tie favors the Ravens currently. It would be even more important for the Ravens to win next Sunday to avoid the sweep from the Bengals, giving Cincy any tie breaker advantage. However, it’s unlikely that Baltimore and Cincy finish with similar records as it’s a longshot to assume the Ravens will notch a tie sometime down the road.

The Bengals were without the services of all-pro receiver A.J. Green for the last two weeks, and the absence was certainly felt by the Bengals as they failed to score a single point against the Colts in a 27-0 shutout. Cincinnati amassed just 135 yards of offense, most of that even in garbage time. Andy Dalton was 18 for 38 without his go to guy in Green. He leaned heavily on Jermaine Gresham completing 10 passes to him.

Make sure to keep an eye on A.J. Green’s status this week as he instantly makes Cincinnati a better team. Keep in mind, it won’t be easy regardless. They did run up 37 points without Green a week ago at home against the Panthers.

Also keep in mind, the 23 points the Ravens allowed to the Bengals in week 1 is the most points they have allowed in a game all year (best in the NFL).

Final thing to keep in mind, A.J. Green is the one who buried the Ravens in that week one loss with a 77-yard TD grab with under five minutes in that game. It was a bit a fluke as the ball was tipped to him, but not so much a fluke as the coverage could have been better, and an open field tackle attempt was completely botched. It was the only TD allowed by the Ravens defense that day, combined with five Mike Nugent field goals.

The Ravens are a much different team just six weeks removed from this previous meeting with the Bengals as it seems like the kinks from installing a new system have worked themselves out when they struggled to score 16 points in that game. Justin Forsett has been a pleasant surprise and is possibly a top five back in the NFL. Steve Smith is exceeding expectations every week and is a top five receiver right now. Torrey Smith is getting involved and they aren’t missing a beat without Dennis Pitta. Despite the two INT’s Joe Flacco threw today, he is on pace for his best season statistically to date, in all categories. The defense is one of the top units in the NFL and getting better with the aggressive pass rush we have seen lately.

With first place on the line once again next week, the Ravens will no doubt enter the game just the way you would like them to; red hot. All of the pressure is on the Cincy Bengals this week as they will need to answer the umpteen questions that stem from getting goose egged. A feat in my opinion that is completely unacceptable in this day in age when scoring is at an all time high.

Falcons Stats

(2-5)

Ryan: 29/44 (65.9%) 228 yds (5.18 Y/A), 1 TD, 5 sacks
Jackson: 8 att, 33 yds, 1 rec, 3 yds
White: 9 rec, 100 yds, 1 TD
Jones: 5 rec. 56 yds
 
 

Ravens Stats (w/gRBZ, 0.0 is average, over 1.0 is good)

(5-2)

Flacco: 16/25 (64.0%), 258 yds (10.32 Y/A) 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 1 sack. gRBZ: 0.6376
Forsett: 23 att, 95 yds. gRBZ: 1.2562
Pierce: 8 att, 21 yds, 1 TD. gRBZ: 0.6007
T. Smith: 6 rec, 81 yds, 1 TD. gRBZ: 1.1436 (Torrey Smith’s TD grab was his 200th career reception)
S. Smith: 3 rec, 67 yds. gRBZ: -0.5228
O. Daniels: 6 rec, 58 yds, 1 TD. gRBZ: 1.1127
 
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