Anyone who watched the Baltimore Ravens play last season can tell you that they struggled to protect Joe Flacco. The Ravens had injuries and had to adjust. Jared Gaither’s injury in training camp forced them to play backups at right tackle, and when the backups proved to be completely incompetent, the Ravens were forced to move Marshal Yanda, their best interior run-blocker, to right tackle.
Pressure on Flacco was a key factor in every big loss, two of which were to the Steelers. When the Ravens played the Steelers for the second time in the regular season, the Steelers were able to pressure Flacco for the entire game, and ultimately, Troy Polamalu was able to cause a turnover by blitzing off the edge. That play turned out to be the defining moment in the game, which turned out to be the defining moment in the season, since the Steelers ultimately won the division on a tie-breaker.
The Ravens' troubles in pass protection haunted them throughout their entire 2010 campaign. Although they were able to find success versus average opponents, the Ravens always struggled versus good teams because those teams found ways to attack the Ravens’ weaknesses in pass protection.
Those weaknesses are most often blamed on the offensive line, and for good reason. Obviously, it’s the offensive line’s responsibility to keep Flacco upright on passing plays, and with the injury to Gaither, Michael Oher’s struggles at left tackle and Yanda playing right tackle, it’s easy to see why most people blame the offensive line.
However, offensive line play isn’t the only factor in pass protection. Many times, teams will keep running backs, tight ends and wide receivers in formation to pass block. The Ravens were notorious for “max-protecting” Flacco in 2008 and 2009, and even in the 2010 season, the Ravens would often keep extra pass blockers.
The problem with this philosophy is that the team is subtracting an eligible receiver for every pass blocker the formation adds. Obviously, there will be more protection for the quarterback, but it’s much easier to defend fewer receivers. There’s a time and place for extra pass-blockers, and if used effectively, it can be a great strategy versus aggressive defenses.
However, a team will find themselves in a very tough position if they’re forced to retain pass blockers to cover up weaknesses in pass-protection. The quarterback will have less receiving options with patch-work protection. This was a serious problem for the Ravens last season.
In a recent article, Pro Football Focus released some interesting statistics regarding pass protection in the 2010 NFL season. As one would imagine, the Ravens were ranked low, 23rd in the league in pressure-per-play percentages. The Ravens allowed pressure on the quarterback on 39.6 percent of their offensive plays for a total of 260 total pressures in 656 passing plays.
The surprising part is that the Ravens offensive line was not the weakest link. In 3,294 cumulative snaps between every offensive lineman, they only allowed 148 pressures on the quarterback. This amounts to a pressure-per-play percentage of only 4.5 percent, which is good for sixth in the league, and is shocking when considering how much heat the Ravens offensive line has been under this off-season.
The next question is if the Ravens offensive line wasn’t allowing many pressures, what on earth was the problem? The answer is clear after looking closer at the statistics. In 437 cumulative snaps, the Ravens’ skill positions allowed a terrible pressure-per-play percentage of 10.1 percent, which is 31st in the entire league. It seems that Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain were not very good in pass-protection. Rice allowed 17 pressures and McClain allowed 11. The skill positions will naturally be less effective than lineman, but the fact that the Ravens were the second worst in the league in this category is awful no matter how you look at it.
The last factor in allowed pressure may be the most overlooked. Many people assume that a blocking assignment is missed if the quarterback is being pressured, but this is simply not the case. Most plays have a set of progressions for the quarterback to go through, and it is up to the quarterback to quickly find his receivers. Plays are often scripted down to the step in which the quarterback releases the ball.
Football has become a game of precision, and the quarterback is required to release the ball according to the play design, which also dictates how long the protection will hold up. If the quarterback holds the ball to long, the pressure is his fault.
There’s no doubt that Flacco was guilty of holding the ball too long last season. In fact, Flacco had more quarterback-invited-pressures than any player in the league last season and his quarterback-invited-pressure percentage was second worst in the league.
All these numbers are interesting, but why exactly did the Ravens struggle in pass protection? It’s hard to believe that an entire season’s struggles in pass-protection can be attributed to skill positions and the quarterback holding the ball too long.
Let’s look at the big picture. The skill positions didn’t help much in pass protection, but their failures must be taken into context. Remember that the Ravens were dealing with injuries and backup players along the offensive line. The Ravens skill players, the tight ends and running backs, were desperately trying to help out along the line. Their pass-blocking assignments became more out of necessity than strategy. That will skew the numbers in the negative.
The core problem seems to revolve around Flacco holding the ball too long. This is a curious matter since Flacco will struggle and hold the ball versus some teams, but dominate and release the ball perfectly versus others. In fact, there were games where Flacco would seem to throw the ball on time one moment and hold it too long the next.
There could be a million different reasons for holding the ball on single pass-play, but if a obvious pattern is causing consistent failure across an entire season, there’s definitely an underlying factor. Either Flacco isn’t seeing the open receivers or the receivers aren’t getting open. It really boils down to that.
There’s probably some combination of both, but since Flacco has demonstrated the ability to find open receives and throw in tight windows in many games over his three year career, the most logical conclusion is that his receivers were not creating separation or getting open consistently enough.
The offensive line also plays into it, but there’s no way to explain the Ravens’ pass protection issues with the offensive line statistics alone. The injuries and backups along the line definitely had an affect, which was felt most by the skill positions that did their best to fill in the holes, but when you look at the big picture, the conclusion has to be that Joe Flacco was holding the ball too long…more than likely because his receivers simply were not getting open.