In the pre-season and early season, many (including me) had the Baltimore Ravens pegged as a Superbowl-level team. With the addition of Lee Evans and growth of Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice, the offense was supposed to offer a balanced, versatile attack to complement their top-level defense. And the defense held up its end of the bargain, it was ranked 1st by Football Outsiders' fairly reliable DVOA stat before this matchup. The offense? Not so much, 23rd overall, 17th passing, 29th rushing. Not championship numbers.
It's easy but probably correct to put much of the blame on Joe Flacco. Earlier in this season, after their stinker against Jacksonville (lost 7-12), I brusquely dismissed the chance of the Seahawks doing the same, on the basis of our defense not being as good as Jacksonville's. And it isn't, but Flacco is certainly worse than I estimated. After a strong week 1 showing and a few more good games (against the Rams and Texans), he's mostly laid low-completion percentage, low-YPA eggs, and while Ray Rice is a versatile, excellent running back, they haven't got much going on the ground most of the season, making for a poor offense overall.
I don't like the "they didn't beat us, we beat ourselves" narrative, because it undersells how close each NFL team is to the next NFL team in team quality, and that anything can happen any given Sunday, but if the Ravens fans want to use that line here they'd be fairly justified to. The Seahawks didn't do a ton to win this particular game, frequently held to field goals even as the Ravens gave up excellent field position on two special team fumbles and an unfortunate interception. Furthermore, the Ravens abandoned their running game very early even though it seemed to be doing ok. Joe Flacco had a whopping 52 attempts and all he did was dink and dunk for 4.9 YPA, with 25 of 29 completions going to tight ends or running backs. His rare deep attempts were badly thrown, which on several occasions bailed out our secondary. I think we've established very well that trying to dink and dunk this defense to death just doesn't work, so the Ravens pretty much took exactly the wrong approach to beating this team.
It was a close one at the end, with us needing a key time-consuming drive to keep their offense off the field and hang on. But while I was obviously rooting for us to win in the moment, writing as I am now I don't think I would've cared too much what the final score is. The Seahawks are well out off playoff contention, as is everyone in the NFC West except the 49ers, so the exact W-L balance isn't too important to me (I don't like casting ahead to the draft too much while in mid-season). We're a young and inconsistent team, and what's exciting about these kind of matches is that they show the team's potential, and what's more they show that the rebuild plan is working, regardless of whether or not we'd won in the end.
Now, this wasn't a perfect win. We needed a lot of luck to counter-balance our lack of scoring ability, and that's a problem. This doesn't suddenly make us contenders nor should it make you look at the team completely differently. But what's interesting is not that it was perfect but that it fit the model we know Pete Carroll wants so well. I'm guessing that's occurred to many Seahawks fans that have studied Pete Carroll's goals, so it's not a particularly original thought (Davis Hsu already posited it at half-time), but it's worth highlighting. Rebuilding is all about whether or not you have the right process, not about whether or not you win individual games. At least that's how I prefer to watch this rebuilding team, rather than sitting in on the roller-coaster for the predictable inconsistency from our young guys.
Quick notes on what worked:
- The passing offense was a nice balance of big throws and underneath stuff. Tarvaris didn't have a touchdown but he didn't turn the ball over either, and he had some legitimately good throws on the way to a good 8.0 YPA. Marshawn Lynch carried the ball a bizarre 32 times, and our run-pass ratio was kind of skewed: 28 passing attempts at 7.4 yards per play (net yardage), and 42 rushing attempts at an awful 2.8 yards per play. That looks bad, and it certainly isn't sustainable, but the raw yardage numbers don't represent too well how valuable Lynch (167 of 327 total yards came from him) and the running game were, getting dependable yardage while eating up the clock, for a total of 35:01 time of possession for the Seahawks. Try as they might, the Ravens defense had a really hard time getting the Seahawks offense off the field (and there's a top candidate for "sentences I didn't think I would be writing this season"). That kept the Ravens from feeling they had all the time in the world, and that kept them from finding balance and efficiency in their offense. The offensive line didn't exactly impose its will, and did allow some pressure which Tarvaris handled fairly well, but considering the level of opposition they had a pretty solid game. I also noted our interior line blocking well in the rungame, particularly in pull-blocking down the field.
The key thing this performance tells us is that the surrounding talents are settling down nicely, and Tarvaris is certainly doing well as the stop-gap QB (expect more up and down play from him in the future though), which is what we were all hoping for: great surrounding talent to plug our QB of the future into, one we'll hopefully get this upcoming off-season.
- I'm still unsure about this defense, and particularly their lack of ability to get to the quarterback on that many dropbacks, but they once again showed that they match up well against this particular kind of offense: run and/or dink-and-dunk your way through, and you're not getting anywhere against them. People like to say it's a passing league now, and it is, but that's not the same as saying the running game has become meaningless. Many teams, including good teams we've faced like the Falcons and Ravens, want to make the run-game and O-line the foundation of the offense and simply have the quarterback take what's given. It's not an out-dated model, but it doesn't work against this defense.
- Special teams finally woke up. Still no big returns, though Washington will get his, but two fumbles on returns on their side is nice. Hopefully a sign of things to come, special teams has been a concern. Checking Football Outsiders, I must note they have Baltimore as only one of three teams (Colts and Panthers are the other two) that are worse in special teams than we are by their metrics, so it's not a hugely meaningful victory in this segment of the game.
I never bought into the Pete Carroll and John Schneider era just for the sake of being a fan, I've never been that kind of fan. Respect's gotta be earned in my book. And the funny thing is, even though at face value an outsider would say we're worse off this year, I think this season more than last proves their process is working, and it's showing great promise for the future.