Throughout this disappointing season, Ravens fans have placed blame on a number of position groups; the O-line can’t block, the RBs look slow/hurt, the secondary can’t cover anyone, etc. But if we are to follow the conventional wisdom that the quarterback is the most important player on the field, shouldn’t we review Flacco’s performance? Is he the lone bright spot among subpar teammates or is he one of the main contributing factors to the Ravens 3-5 record? I watched all 51 of Flacco’s drop backs in the Cleveland game to find the answer.
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The offensive game plan
The Ravens strategy to attack the Browns was very solid given the opponent’s strengths. The Ravens apparently foresaw their inability to run from heavy personnel and used shotgun (or pistol) on a large proportion of their plays. As is always the case, game plans change based on success within the game and the Ravens learned quickly that running behind their current offensive blockers was futile (19 designed runs for 30 total rushing yards). I give credit to the rushing game plan for attempting different run designs (Power Double, Shotgun Crack Sweep, Pistol Inside Zone) but ultimately running was not successful regardless of play-call.
Without the ability to run, the Ravens leaned on Flacco and the pass game (73% of plays were designed pass plays). Going into the game, the Ravens knew that Cleveland played primarily Cover-1 or Cover-3 and the Ravens attacked these coverages with a lot of “Mesh“, “Levels“, “All Curls” and “Flood” to take advantage of match-ups. The game plan itself was solid. Execution, however, was lacking.
Flacco from the a clean pocket
Flacco had a poor day against the Browns with time and space to throw the ball. The Ravens pass protection held up surprisingly well against the Browns’ pass rush and Ray Rice uncharacteristically provided Flacco with additional protection from the inside. Flacco took an average of 3.14 seconds to throw the football which is a fantastic average in terms of protection. What is baffling is that Flacco was less accurate in his pass attempts when he had more time in the pocket (throws < 2.5s yielded 70% completions where throws > 2.5s yielded 47.6% completions).
Flacco threw behind Jacoby Jones on short in-routes a number of times. Passes to the flat aimed at Ray Rice and Marlon Brown were off-target and didn’t allow the receiver to catch the ball in stride. Flacco appeared a bit jittery (possibly due to 40% of the snaps being blitz) and was poor with ball location.
Flacco did throw Curl routes well which was important given the number of snaps of off-coverage the Browns’ corners were playing. He was particularly accurate to Thompson and Jones. The disappointing aspect of this was using Comeback routes (that is, breaking away from the QB usually at the sideline edge). Flacco didn’t appear to have rhythm and timing with his receivers on these throws. Credit goes to Flacco for placing the ball away from the defender, but it doesn’t help when the final ball location makes an interception and reception impossible.
As a side note, Torrey Smith is not at all a complete receiver. The fact that Torrey is the team’s best receiving threat is less of an endorsement of his play and more an indictment of the rest of the receiving corps. For example, Torrey Smith does not cut at right or acute angles (i.e. bottom half of the route tree) very smoothly. This elongation of his cutting motion allows the defense’s (usually top) cornerback to drive on the ball and contest these shorter throws. Torrey still does not catch the ball in traffic particularly well (with exceptions, of course) and has problems when catching the ball is met with resistance. This inability is magnified in red zone fade routes, as well.
Flacco under pressure
Given that I just disparaged Flacco’s efforts when in a clean pocket, you could assume that his performance got worse when under pressure. On the contrary, I think Flacco handled himself in impressive fashion when under duress. Flacco avoided the pass rush by stepping laterally or climbing the pocket and he extended plays with his feet (2 scrambles, 23 yards). Flacco made subtle movements in the pocket to clear throwing lanes and completed 50% of his passes when pressured.
Flacco’s propensity to hold onto the ball (similar to Roethlisberger) hurt the Ravens at times (5 sacks) and Flacco made a small number of poor throws while on the move. But ultimately Flacco’s ability to extend the play and give his team a chance to gain first downs is worth the risk of taking a sack.
Flacco struggled throwing the ball deep on Sunday. From my notes:
- Underthrown 7-route to Jacoby Jones (lofted the ball too much)
- Ball came out too late on a comeback route (lack of timing)
- Ball thrown at Doss’ feet on a multi-level crosser (Doss deep). Flacco rolling left though.
- Seam route to Dickson. Ball too far behind Dickson’s shoulder. Dickson should’ve turned around sooner though.
- Underthrows Torrey on his long completion (post). Should have been a TD
- Good throw on Torrey’s fade. Incomplete because Torrey’s not a fade guy
- Seam route to Marlon Brown vs. Cover-1 Lurk. Route is open. Poor throw (behind WR)
- Good throw on “Sail” route to Dickson (Dickson dropped it)
- Sting/Post to Jacoby Jones picked off. Never should have throw it. Underthrown.
The last note was Flacco’s lone interception. Let’s go to that play:
Situation: 2nd and 10. The Browns are playing Cover-3 “Sky” (Safety force) but playing Joe Haden with press coverage on Torrey Smith. Haden has a long distance to cover to retreat to his deep third assignment. Importantly, FS Tashaun Gipson is sitting in the deep middle third of the field.
Torrey Smith runs a Skinny Post toward the middle of the field to attempt to grab the attention of FS Gipson. Jacoby Jones runs his “Sting” route (stem to corner, break to post) and has his coverage CB turned around entirely (there was no better angle of this because of the reviewed interception replays). Flacco has confidence that Jones can defeat his matchup with a double-move but needs to move Gipson from the middle of the field. Flacco’s eyes move Gipson toward Torrey Smith but Gipson recovers once Flacco attempts the throw to Jones.
Gipson’s return to the middle of the field, paired with Flacco’s severe underthrow (Jones is forced to peel back on his route), allowed Gipson to impede the ball’s path. This leads to Joe Haden’s fortunate interception.
This was an odd decision by Flacco. The ball may have slipped out of his hand, but the coverage was solid throughout the duration of the play, making it a bad decision in the first place.
The Browns game was an exhibition of the Joe Flacco that Ravens fans hoped was gone forever after the Super Bowl run. Inaccurate passes on short-to-intermediate throws are unacceptable, especially given the fact that the route scheme beat the defense on a number of these misthrows.
My last point is about Flacco from the line of scrimmage. Flacco appeared to have complete control of the offense at the line. He changed plays and formations fluidly throughout the game and often called the correct passing plays. Pass protection calls were close to flawless and the Ravens rarely ran into defensive fronts that held the mathematical advantage at the point-of-attack.
Did this extra burden impact his play? We can never know the answer to that.