Sunday Night Football may has it’s most exciting match-up of the season so far with the Patriots coming into Baltimore to play the Ravens. A defense that is currently playing like one of the best of all-time is facing an offense that John Harbaugh believes could change the way offensive football is played similar fashion to how Bill Walsh’s offense changed the NFL.
I believe Harbaugh on this point. Jackson’s mobility is elite at a level never seen before, but every quarterback in the future of the NFL should have some form of mobility and what the Ravens have produced is an offense that can elevate QB play via strong rushing principles, plus throwing efficiency increasing play action passes at a high rate.
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For a long time now, we’ve watched countless spread style and/or mobile quarterbacks come into the NFL and be placed into offenses that don’t suit their skill sets. Offenses that ask them to do things that they’ve never done before. But over the past few years, we’re seeing an NFL that is finally implementing the schemes and strategies that top quarterbacks have been running since they were in high school.
Much of that can be attributed to the Andy Reid coaching tree, of which Mr. Harbaugh is a part of, albeit as a special teams coach, rather than an offensive coordinator.
Fellow “tree branch” Doug Pederson is quoted in his book as saying he took plays and principles from Carson Wentz’s offense to make him more comfortable, while also taking the run pass options from Chip Kelly’s college based scheme to give Nick Foles plays he’d already had success running. Sure, the Chip Kelly experiment in Philadelphia was a failure, but I think the league has further integrated a lot of what he was doing in the time since as teams learned from things he did that worked.
Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman had been running his offense with quarterback run based principles back to 2011 in San Francisco. First with Alex Smith, then with Colin Kaepernick. After he was sacked following the 2014 season with head coach Jim Harbaugh, he moved onto Buffalo where he helped the team go 8-8 with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback and Rex Ryan as the head coach, no small feat. He was unceremoniously fired just two games into the 2016 season as if he was the problem with the Bills.
In three games against the Patriots with Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor under center, Roman coached teams have gone 1-2.
Kaepernick beat the Patriots 41-34 in 2012. He went 14-25 (56%) for 221 yards with four touchdowns to one interception, plus seven rushes for 28 yards and an incredible four fumbles.
In two games in 2015, the Taylor led Bills lost 40-32 and 20-13. In the first game he went 23-30 (76.7%) for 242 yards with three touchdowns to three interceptions. He ran for 43 yards and a touchdown on five carries. His second game was not as successful with him completing 20 passes on 36 attempts (55.6%) for 233 yards with four carries for just one yard.
With Lamar Jackson, Roman has something much, much better than both of those quarterbacks. Offensive coordinators are more important to an NFL franchise than we as a collective give them credit for, they’re also more important than the market gives them credit for. Josh McDaniels signed a five-year contract, which is unheard of for an offensive coordinator, and pays him like a first time head coach with his salary eclipsing $4 million at one point during the deal.
By comparison, Jon Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million contract with the Raiders after almost a decade out of the NFL.
Roman has been running his offense in the NFL since 2011, but he finally has the right man to lead it with the skill set as a runner and passer to make it work to it’s most elite capabilities.
I’ve gone over a few times here how this Ravens team has been built. Offensively, you’ve got a team based in the concept of running the football with the best pass blocking in the NFL according to PFF, further increasing Jackson’s ability to be efficient.
Over the last few months, I’ve really been considering how I’d allocate draft resources if I was a GM. I know I’m being extreme when I say this, but why not just draft quarterbacks and offensive linemen with first round picks until you secure what you need there? Quarterback is the most important position in the game and the offensive line is what really makes the entire offense go in terms of potential efficiency.
Of course, you don’t have to do that as interior offensive linemen can be found in the late rounds as the Ravens offense proves. The 6th overall pick in the 2016 draft, Ronnie Stanley, mans the left tackle position. 2018 third round pick Orlando Brown plays right tackle after falling the draft due to something that has nothing to do with playing the offensive line: his 40-time. Guard Marshall Yanda was drafted in the third round of the 2007 draft, while other guard Matt Skura was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Bradley Bozeman is in his second year, drafted out of Alabama in the sixth round of 2018.
When you consider the pressure that the Patriots are putting on every quarterback they face, the Ravens offensive line is a valuable chess piece that might allow this team to get past them come playoff time.
According to Josh Hermsmeyer, heading into the Browns game the Patriots ranked seventh in the NFL in blitzes with 82 and first in defensive expected points added on those plays at 30.2. The high EPA in large part is due to their league-leading five interceptions off the blitz. It’s not just that though, they have a positive EPA on 70.7% of blitzes, which is 17% over the league average.
It’s this line that could protect Jackson and potentially even give him the time to execute on play action, which he’s used on 31.0% of drop backs, the sixth highest total in the NFL for regular starting quarterbacks. The pressure generated on blitzes does become a concern. Play action passes need to get out of the pocket quickly from shotgun, well times screen passes in situations where the Patriots are highly likely to be blitzing is important as well.
A weakness in the Patriots defense is a run defense that’s ranked 20th in the NFL according to PFF, tied with the Chargers with a grade of 66.8. While the Patriots rank fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed at just 85 per game, they’re 21st in yards per carry at 4.6. They have the least rushing attempts against them in the NFL at just 18.5 per game, a sign of their playing from ahead and teams passing the ball more because of situation, rather than effectiveness. Playing from ahead, this defense also forces teams into passing the football, which is something this Patriots team does at a historic level.
The team now has one more sack (31) and one more interception (19) than the team had last year, during a Super Bowl winning season. Their 25 takeaways are just three less than the 16 game pace.
The match-up this weekend is the newest attempt to dethrone Belichick. It’s Harbaugh, Roman, and Jackson bring what they think is the future of offense against Belichick’s very team building philosophies that have been the cornerstone of his dynasty.
Looking at the Patriots team texture section at Over The Cap, they again have the most players on low-cost veteran cap hits and the highest percent of their spending going to these players in the NFL. Low-cost veteran cap hits are classified as at $4.45 million or below and the Patriots have 21 of them with 23.3% of the cap going to these players. Those 21 players consume an average of 1.1% of the cap, which is about $2.1 million per player.
Cornerback Jason McCourty has a cap hit of $4.25 million this year as PFF’s 7th rated cornerback through eight weeks, Jonathan Jones consumes $2.7 million and is ranked as the second best cornerback in the league. That’s the cornerback situation before we even consider Stephon Gilmore who has drawn praise from around the NFL for his play this year who ranks 20th per PFF.
With the safeties, they lead the best pass coverage unit in the NFL with a 93.2 PFF grade.
The pass rush is sixth in the NFL despite trading Chandler Jones away and letting Trey Flowers walk in free agency. Belichick has frequently shown he believes what the analytics community has recently adopted after research through the way he spends his money: pass coverage is more important than pass rush.
Gilmore was signed to a deal worth $13 million per year in a stagnant cornerback market that hasn’t really been pushed since Josh Norman’s $15 million per year deal with the Redskins in 2016. Devin McCourty was signed to a five-year deal worth $9.5 million per season in 2015 at a time when the safety market was severely undervalued.
Jamie Collins accounts for $3 million of this year’s cap, he’s PFF’s fourth highest graded linebacker. Defensive end John Simon is PFF’s 26th rated edge rusher on a two-year deal worth $4.15 million. Special teamers like Matt Slater and Brandon Bolden have cap hits of $2.9 and $1.7 million this year.
Belichick’s belief in this era of limited practice time, but even before then, that a team needs experience and he’s always found that experience via keeping cap costs at the top of the cap low outside of Tom Brady and a couple other key players, all on reasonable contracts, then building out the roster with the experienced and talented players he finds on the proverbial scrap heap.
Parcells is quoting as saying that Belichick has an encyclopedia in his head of past players and how a current player compares, which allows him to slot players into roles that they excel in.
He utilizes free agency heavily to do this by seeking those cheap players. It might be easier for him in terms of predicting his return on investment because so many of these low-cost players have low-risk, but have already proven worthy of a role in some fashion in the NFL. And, with Belichick’s crazy film habits, he has seen with his own eyes them doing what he thinks they can do for him. He’s been doing it since his first championship rosters. That 2001 team was filled with low-cost veterans like Roman Phifer, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Antowain Smith, Otis Smith, and more producing results that outpaced their cost.
It also helps when your own players come back after seeing money elsewhere like a Collins or Bolden, he’s phenomenal at targeting players undervalued because of age, injuries they can recover from, being used in the wrong system, or other reasons.
The other thing about this philosophy is that he can kick the tires on a Demaryius Thomas to see if he’s worth it with very little risk comparatively. He’ll cost $1.8 million in dead money against the cap and the team has an unusually high $21.5 million in dead money this year with $5.75 million on Antonio Brown and $3.6 million on Michael Bennett, but these risks provided higher potential for value. It’s calculated by an understanding of economics that stems back to Belichick’s college major at Wesleyan University.
The result of this philosophy in 2018 is a defense filled with veterans. There are zero defensive starters under the age of 26. The defense now has 21 players with over 100 snaps (about 20% of snaps), which, as Bill Barnwell points out, is a number most teams would only hit by midseason if they were riddled with injuries. But this is by choice. Only Devin McCourty and Gilmore are playing more than 80% of snaps.
Of the 23 players who have played defense this year in 5411 potential snaps across the defense, 1261 snaps have gone to nine players on their rookie contracts, which is 23.3%. The top seven players in snap percentage are all veterans, which are essentially the players of their defensive backfield, their pass coverage: the McCourty brothers, Gilmore, Collins, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, Jones, and Duron Harmon.
Like I discuss in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, they cycle through their defensive linemen to keep them fresh and explosive throughout the game. This year, the team is doing it more than ever. Depending on how you classify certain players, the defensive line has seven or eight players playing between 22 and 49 percent of snaps.
Experience and the potential versatility created via the experience, plus talent and athleticism, of their defensive players is the base principle of this defense. There’s continuity as well, Dave Archibald pointed out to me that outside of Collins, the top 15 players in defensive snaps have returned. Ten of these 15 players have spent three or more years with the team.
The result of this has been a season similar to the strategy Belichick implemented to confused the Rams young quarterback, Jared Goff in the Super Bowl.
To stop a Rams offense that inspired teams across the NFL to hire their own attempts at Sean McVay clones, Belichick and defensive coordinator Brain Flores put six men on the defensive line with one linebacker in the middle, almost a bit of a goal line defensive front to stop a running game that was strategically crafted to take advantage of defensive boxes with six or less men. A Patriots defense that played more man defense than anyone else in the NFL during the season ran zone on 40% of plays in the game, which made the relatively inexperienced Goff more hesitant with his reads, especially because nothing about the defense was like what he had seen on film. The third year quarterback was overwhelmed and his indecisiveness gave the six-man defensive line more time to generate pressure.
That strategy of ultimate confusion has carried over into this season and it plays well against the most valuable asset in the NFL today, the biggest threat to the Patriots throne: high value, highly productive rookie contract quarterbacks. Without the experience that a veteran has, a myriad of different defensive looks can be incredibly confusing on a play-to-play basis and all the Patriots defense needs is a play or two to swing a game. They don’t make mistakes, but they’ll confuse you into making one, really regardless of experience level.
Barnwell writes that Belichick’s defense is “continuing to blend and blur the line between man and zone coverage to trick quarterbacks who are depending on differentiating between one or the other pre-snap to make post-snap decisions.” When he does go man, he’s able to rely on elite defenders to allow him to create a numbers advantage in the pass rush.
Further, Barnwell discovered that “the Patriots have allowed a passer rating of just 23.5 in zero-high coverage in a league in which no other team is below a rating of 50.0 and the league average is 104.4. No team has blitzed more frequently without safety help, which has led to eight sacks and 17 hurries out of the look, second behind the Vikings.”
Can the Ravens offense make enough plays to beat this historic Patriots defense? Can they minimize mistakes? Can they make the right play calls in the right situations often enough to catch this defense at a disadvantage?
Something we as a collective football consciousness, including myself, continuously undervalue in this sport is the value of coaching. It’s why my belief that the Browns had generated an analytics based, team building solution would solve their problem has seemed to fail. They don’t have the right coach and the coach is the key.
On Sunday night we will see if John Harbaugh with his trusted lieutenant Greg Roman and his favorite chess piece Lamar Jackson are prepared to engage in an intellectual battle with the greatest intellectual the sport of football has ever seen.
Zack Moore is a certified NFL agent, a writer for OverTheCap.com, and is the author of “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” a book that breaks down how Super Bowl champions are built in the NFL’s salary cap era. His work has created a league-wide understanding of how NFL front offices can best allocate resources to create successful teams.
You can follow him on Twitter at @ZackMooreNFL. You can subscribe to The Zack Moore Show podcast here.
Zack Moore is a former college football player at the University of Rhode Island. He received his MBA from Rutgers Business School and has written for Over The Cap since 2014. He is the author of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, which offers insight into how teams use data and analytics to create sustainable, competitive teams through the salary cap that are capable of competing for championships. Zack’s research has appeared on various platforms including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and the NFL Network.