Hidden Areas the Baltimore Ravens Must Improve in 2014
Reflecting on the Baltimore Ravens’ 2013 season, it’s not difficult to point out where they failed and where improvement is necessary—practically the entire offense falls into that category. But what are the specific areas the Ravens need to shore up?
I dove into some of the advanced and under-the-radar stats to come up with these specific categories where the Ravens failed last season or simply where the team (or a player) needs to get better.
For some, like the Torrey Smith stat I will explore, it’s more about the system than it is the player. For others, like the curious case of Joe Flacco’s disappearing deep ball, it’s all on the player to turn things around.
We know the Ravens need to run and block better, but this collection of stats will give us an idea of how the 2014 version is faring and serves as a good frame of reference when discussing any kind of improvement.
Torrey Smith’s Catch Rate and Yards Per Catch
Torrey Smith was grossly underutilized last season—at least over the last two-thirds of 2013. Every cornerback matched up against Smith knows that he’s one of the fastest receivers in the league who can take the top off any defense.
But Smith can also do more than that, and the Ravens have to use him in more diverse ways. One way to measure if this is actually happening (in addition to the good ol’ eye test) is to look at his catch rate and yards per catch.
Smith’s catch rate (receptions/target) has been pretty terrible over his first three seasons in the league:
- 2011: 50 receptions, 95 targets = 52.6 percent catch rate
- 2012: 49 receptions, 110 targets = 44.5 percent catch rate
- 2013: 65 receptions, 139 targets = 46.7 percent catch rate
Those numbers are misleading however. His catch rates are low because so many of his targets come on deep shots (which are innately less likely to be completed). You can see this by looking at his yards-per-catch average (2011: 16.8 YPC; 2012: 17.4 YPC; 2013: 17.4 YPC), which is consistently among the league leaders.
As I mentioned on the intro slide, this stat isn’t about Smith himself, but about his role in the offense. I want to see his catch rate increase and his yards per catch decrease because the Ravens are trying to get him involved more on quick slants and shallow crosses where he can use his speed and strength to pick up yards after the catch.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has shown a penchant for getting his players the ball where they can be successful, and his West Coast background should make him more likely to use Smith in these ways.
Smith may not be a No. 1 receiver, but he’s talented enough that having him run down the sideline every other play is a waste of his time.
Joe Flacco’s Deep-Ball Accuracy
Joe Flacco’s biggest asset is a powerful arm that allows him to make downfield throws that many other NFL quarterbacks physically can’t make. Because of this, the deep ball was a crucial part of the Super Bowl-winning offense, but it abandoned him last year.
After completing 40 percent of his deep attempts (meaning passes that went 20-plus yards downfield) in 2012, he ranked as the worst among qualified QBs connecting on just 26 percent of the same passes in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
There were extenuating circumstances of course. The offensive line was a mockery and meant he was fleeing for his life on many occasions. This also meant that plays rarely had time to truly develop downfield.
Furthermore, the lack of reliable receivers meant that he didn’t have playmakers who could go up and win 50-50 balls down the field.
While those two issues certainly played a role, there were also times when he simply missed or underthrew a long bomb. This can’t happen in 2014 for the simple fact that Flacco is a very average quarterback (maybe even less than that) if he doesn’t have the long ball in his arsenal.
His short throws are erratic, and while he has significantly improved on the intermediate routes he is no Drew Brees when it comes to making perfect throws with touch and anticipation in that section of the field.
If Flacco doesn’t have his deep-ball mojo, that’s a serious issue for the Ravens—especially in a Kubiak offense that likes to take shots down the field off play action.
Keep an eye on how Flacco fares on those deep passes because it could make or break the Ravens offense.
How Many Deep Shots Is Flacco Taking?
This is related to the previous slide but focuses on two other aspects, so it gets its own slide. The last topic honed in on how successful the deep passes are, but now we’re talking about sheer numbers.
How many deep passes is Flacco attempting?
This will be a revealing stat for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it will give some indication of whether the offensive line is reliably giving Flacco enough time to even attempt deep passes, let alone convert them.
The second reason why this is a noteworthy stat is because it will show whether or not Gary Kubiak is taking advantage of his new quarterback’s best attribute.
Flacco isn’t a methodical, move-the-chains type of quarterback, so the Ravens need chunk plays to move down the field. This stat will let us know if Baltimore is incorporating the deep ball enough.
4th-Quarter Points Allowed
Baltimore made a concerted effort last offseason to rebuild the defense, and the results were mostly positive. The new defense boasted more speed and was better than its predecessor—except for when it mattered most.
The 2013 defense gave up 143 points in the fourth quarter, the most in franchise history, which cost the team more than one game.
Why did this happen? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Fatigue may have played a role as well as all the new parts who didn’t have experience playing together in high-pressure situations.
Whatever the reason, it can’t happen again if the Ravens are going to make a return to the playoffs.
Ray Rice’s Elusiveness
Ray Rice was never particularly fast, nor did he consistently bowl over defenders to make you think that somebody had used the Madden truck stick to break a tackle. No, his most useful trait has always been his shiftiness.
He just has a knack for getting defenders out of position and scrapping for extra yards. We didn’t see that at all last year.
Of the 49 qualified running backs, Rice had the lowest elusive rating according to PFF—a signature stat that tries to capture how hard a running back is to bring down. He also had the worst yards after contact per attempt (1.52) of qualified backs.
In other words, we were witnessing some Space Jam weirdness last year, where Rice looked like all his powers had been sapped by aliens hellbent on world domination.
Which Rice will we see this season?
The Ravens have other capable backs, but none of them brings his versatility to the table, so the offense will be seriously weakened if he doesn’t return to old form. The normal rushing stats (yards, touchdowns, etc.) will give us an idea of how he’s playing, but it is the elusiveness that will truly show whether he’s back to normal.
Huge Passing Plays Conceded
As I discussed before, the Ravens defense was better in 2013 overall, but one recurring issue was defending the deep ball.
The Ravens gave up a TON of huge passing plays as a result of blown coverages, miscommunication and the unforgettable tipped Hail Mary.
It’s not hard to see why this is problematic, but it’s accentuated when you consider how strong the Ravens red-zone defense was. It is tough to drive down the field and score touchdowns on a bend-but-don’t-break Baltimore defense, and the big plays repeatedly bail out opposing offenses.
With a rookie (Terrence Brooks) potentially lining up as the starting free safety, it will be interesting to see if deep passes are a problem for the defense, but that number absolutely has to decrease substantially this season.
Justin Tucker is one of the best and most charismatic kickers in the NFL, but the Ravens were WAY too reliant on his leg to put points on the board last year. According to the folks at TeamRankings.com, the Baltimore offense was second-worst when it came to converting red-zone trips into touchdowns.
That’s not too surprising considering the inability to run the ball, the lack of proven receivers and a porous offensive line, but besting only the Jacksonville Jaguars in this regard is unacceptable.
With a host of new weapons for Flacco to target, a reconstructed O-line and offensive savant Gary Kubiak calling the plays, the Ravens should be a red-zone force this season, so it’s worth keeping an eye on how effective they are finding the end zone.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter: