The whole success story of the 2019 Baltimore Ravens —
please disregard playoffs. always disregard playoffs. playoffs are dumb. cancel the playoffs
/upbeat music resumes/
— hinges on four game-day factors your Seattle Seahawks could never duplicate. But if they ever got it in their thick skulls to try anyway, the list of prescriptions is short and mostly attainable. Did I mention four things? These four.
- A commitment to treating third down as an extension of second down because fourth down is right there begging to be an extension of third down.
- A quarterback you can trust to pick up two yards when you need one, four yards when you need three, and not be a complete dolt with the football on other plays.
- Run when it’s smart and pass when it’s smart.
- Leverage the supporting cast, as in, get yourself an offensive line that can do what it’s asked most of the time, and a defense that doesn’t suck most of the time.
One by one, with feeling this time:
The Ravens were unafraid to go for it on fourth and short. Not just in Seattle in Week 7, when Lamar Jackson knifed through the defense on consecutive plays to transform a logical field goal attempt into a go-ahead touchdown, but during the other weeks too.
It’s 3rd and 15. Baltimore elects to run the ball, a cautious playcall that will almost certainly set up a high-percentage kick for Justin Tucker.
When Jackson picks up 13 of the requisite yards, coach John Harbaugh sends the offense back onto the field. It’s likely you remember the next play, or will re-remember it in a second:
When you’re prepared to treat third-down failure as a bridge to fourth-down success rather than a dead end that requires some sort of kick to follow, you’re also putting your mobile, savvy, elusive quarterback in a position to run more effectively on passing downs and pass more gainfully on running downs.
In 2019, the Ravens converted 17 of 24 fourth downs. That was the most makes in the league and the sixth-most attempts.
Baltimore was completely unafraid to give Jackson the authority to run the ball whenever, late in the series, and throw it in high-leverage situations. Did you know Jackson led the league in quarterback rushing and in TD percentage? If there was a play that needed made, Harbaugh put the ball in the Most Valuable Hands And Feet, and trusted away. He did, to an extent, what Seahawks fans have been begging Pete Carroll to do. It has to do with cooking, if you hadn’t caught on.
Maybe Letting Russ Cook is as devilishly simple as giving him an extra down to work with sometimes.
You don’t have to pass 70 percent of the time to go 14-2. The Ravens had an actual commitment to running, accumulating more than 3,200 yards on the ground, 204.8 per game, 51 yards per game beyond second-place San Francisco. They lapped the field.
The Ravens didn’t just run to establish it, however — they ran because it worked, and they had the right weapons.
Let Pro Football Focus writer Eric Eager put it plainly. “It helps to have Lamar Jackson, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry on his five fourth-down rushes during the regular season. Three of his four designed fourth-down runs during the regular season resulted in a first down or a touchdown.”
I’m going to throw in a chart from russellstreetreport.com that quantifies Baltimore’s ground success rates. It’s hard to read at first, and not terribly intuitive, so feel free to skip ahead for the takeaways. (Hint: they were a lot better than average.)
A) Typical teams for 4.6 yards on first down, but the Ravens got 5.6.
B) Typical teams earned a new series 69 percent of the time after running on first down, but the Ravens managed 81 percent.
C) The Ravens weren’t that great at converting on third down, but then on fourth down they were far superior, so third down didn’t matter all that much in the end.
I could go on, but the summary is that the Ravens were far better, in almost all situations, at running, which means they could do it whenever.
So as this relates to “establishing the run,” it appears to me the Ravens weren’t running the ball more so they could get the run to work more. They were running it more because it was already working. There’s a giant difference. Think the Seahawks-Giants game from 2014. Seattle made almost all its offensive hay on the ground, with 350 rushing yards out of 510 total. There was little reason to pass extensively that day when you could go —
When a team can acquire 9 or 10 yards on 2nd and long, when it can run OR pass on third down, when the coach can freely go for it on fourth, when the running backs are tough enough in the red zone, and when the quarterback can bail everyone out with his legs, you have a championship formula on offense.
Guys, we’ve already watched the 2019 Ravens. Six years ago, right here. The 2014 Seahawks made Russell Wilson into Lamar Jackson before the Ravens made Lamar Jackson into Lamar Jackson. The QB keepers were working, so the low-volume, high-efficiency pass offense didn’t need to be high-volume. Go with what works. In 2020 that was Baltimore’s run game. Maybe in 2020 it’s their deep passing game, just like maybe in 2020 it’s Seattle’s intermediate routes.
The key is: go with what gets you first downs with the team you have, not what gets you first downs with the team you wish you had. The 2014 Seahawks lost Golden Tate, Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice and Zach Miller during the off-season or actual season. So they switched to the run. Over, and over, and over. Until the final yard left to earn, and then...
Can Russell Wilson suddenly not scramble on 4th and 2 anymore? He isn’t 2012 Russ, so doubt is fair. The untackleable version of himself has grown up and sacrificed a little speed for the wiles that come with age. I think he’s just as dangeruss, just in a new way. When he is set loose, or sets himself loose, he’s still a difficult one to chase down. Wilson scrambled for three first downs on one touchdown drive in Lambeau in the very last game he played. The ability is clearly still there, and the Seahawks would be foolish to, ahem, pass it up.
Then, because it has to be brought up, the Ravens can make a lot of the smart decisions above because they employ and deploy an actual offensive line. Jackson was sacked a scant 23 times last year, far less than Russell Wilson’s 601* sacks taken. Pro Football Focus ranked Baltimore’s line third in run-blocking and first in pass-blocking. They did not rank Seattle’s quite as high**.
**27th, in fact. The Seahawks gave up the third-most pressures in under 2.5 seconds. None of us imagined how porous they were. That was real.
— — —
The Baltimore model (Baltimodel?) is easy. If you have a coach with security, an elite and mobile quarterback, enough capable linemen, and a competent offensive coordinator, you, too, can be like the Ravens.
People will pooh-pooh the Seahawks’ commitment to changing anything about their ways. Carroll likes his teams to operate a certain way, the argument goes, and you can’t expect a 68-year-old hawk to change his plumage, especially not when he’s won an average of 11 games the past eight years.
Eh. Think that if you’d like. Cascadia’s a free country. I’d instead contend that many of Seattle’s offseason moves have been made with the list above in mind, and if not exactly it, then a passable facsimile thereof.
(Go ahead. Name the other Seahawks website that publishes “passable,” “facsimile” and “thereof” in consecutive order. I’ll wait.)
It’s hard to find tangible evidence Seattle will be more aggressive on fourth down, unless you dip into the regression pool. I mean, moving forward, Carroll and Schotty could hardly be less aggressive. 14 fourth-down attempts last year, with seven conversions, it sounds nice, but only five teams went for it less frequently. And from a points-per-play standpoint, Seattle left a lot of potential scores on the field. From the PFF story linked above, two succinct paragraphs slay the Seahawks:
Seattle dropped almost 10 additional expected points on qualifying fourth-down decisions in 2019, continuing to befuddle analysts of the game by going 11-5 with a plus-seven point differential, poor early-down decision making and a bevy of points left on the board on the fourth down.
The Seahawks made the right choice on only one-sixth of their qualifying fourth downs in 2019, almost 7 percentage points below than the next-worse team. If Seattle is looking for ways to increase its stature fundamentally — with the goal to replicate the 11-5 record — this is the place to do so.
There’s nowhere to go but up? And anytime you can do this, shouldn’t you?
By the way, the answer is no, emphatically no, don’t ever do that again up 10 points late in the fourth quarter, but also, I could watch that gif on loop for a solid half hour.
Much of the Seahawks-centric noise in the offseason has centered on Letting Russ Cook. Maybe not the whole meal, but at least the entree, instead of all the side dishes and the occasional dessert. Point is, where there’s smoke there’s fire, which is a terrible idiom to pull out in the middle of a cooking analogy and world events. Adding Phillip Dorsett and retaining Josh Gordon to boost a passing attack featuring two WR1 already in Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf — those are transactions that hint at completing the transition from the Seahawks being everyone’s team to at last becoming Russell’s team in every way.
The Seahawks will still run the ball. A lot. Nobody fears or hopes they will stop altogether. So that’s a paragraph.
And while some of us continue to bemoan the whiff on Jadeveon Clowney and other pass rushers (Everson Griffen was RIGHT THERE), all John Schneider did is overload on new offensive linemen who have the advantage of not being the old offensive linemen. Three-fifths of the line is redone; only the reliable left flank remains.
Gone are Germain Ifedi and D.J. Fluker, who did not inspire kind words from brooklynbeat.nyc, a site that ranks pass protecters and pass rushers. “Seattle has built this team to be a run-heavy offense and it shows with an offensive line who ranks eighth in yards per carry before contact. Their poor pass protection, however, continues to leave Russell Wilson running for his life. Germain Ifedi was the sixth-worst offensive lineman in football, allowing a pressure score against of 68 while also committing 13 penalties while guards Mike Iupati and D.J. Fluker combined for a pressure score against of 73.”
(The best offensive linemen have pressure scores in the single digits, for reference.)
Conclusionically, to be more like the Ravens, the Seahawks don’t even have to give up their precious commitment to the run (inefficient and backwards as it may feel).
They just have to refuse to concede on fourth down, and remember that they have a somewhat elusive version of RW, and Let Carroll Cook (TM) in the secondary. And they could take a page from some of their old books, if they so desired.
Plus hit on some linemen, for once. But I feel like that’s a topic that’s been addressed more than any topic ever should be. No doubt it’ll come up again, like perhaps after the first series of the first live game.