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Shades of 2009: Ravens defense cracks top 5

After a flawed but overall strong showing at Cincinnati, the Ravens defense cracks the top 5 in advanced metrics.

Al Bello

The Ravens defense finally pushed its way into the top 5 in DVOA rankings through week 8. While our lasting memory of the defense's performance that day leaves something to be desired — namely, the deep ball to Sanu — the defense overall had a slightly above average day. After all, they did produce two key fourth quarter turnovers. The Ravens defense continues to be stronger at pass defense (seventh) than run defense (10th) but you probably don't need me to tell you that losing Jimmy Smith complicates that for a few weeks.

The offense had, as you might expect, a slightly below average day, dipping to seventh in the NFL from fourth.  While the passing game felt off target all day against the league's second best pass defense, the running game performed reasonably well against the league's worst run defense (as it should have) with Taliaferro turning in two end zone visits.

What is most bothersome watching football as an analytics type is seeing the team unable to capitalize on an obvious weakness revealed by those advanced metrics.  The strength of Cincy's defense is its pass defense while it is very weak in run defense. Unfortunately, the Ravens trailed most of the game, forcing them to the air in less than ideal circumstances. This is the great benefit of playing with a lead: the ability to run the ball and otherwise not become too one-dimensional. Had they got out to an early lead instead, they might have produced huge rushing day and, more importantly, the "W". It became moot when the defense handed over two clutch turnovers to setup quick touchdowns and keep it close, but until that point, the game hadn't gone as hoped.  You can't capitalize on a porous run defense if you get behind.

Shades of 2009

With the Ravens still second in DVOA (comfortably, too), the sweep by the Bengals has me thinking of the last time a Ravens team dominated in DVOA and was yet swept by a divisional foe:  the 2009 team.

Like the 2014 incarnation, the 2009 team was great in all three phases of the game, finishing top 10 in all three.  More specifically, they finished first in overall DVOA, ninth in offense, fourth in defense, and eighth in special teams. Teams that finish first in DVOA tend to do quite well, by the way, given that the Seattle Seahawks were first in DVOA in 2012 and 2013. DVOA correlates exceptionally well to strong real-world teams.

However, the 2009 team finished 9-7, needing tiebreakers to win the Wild Card. What gives?

The 2009 team was criminally underrated

The 2009 team actually finished with 11.6 Pythagorean Wins, a statistic invented first for baseball and which I wrote about from a Ravens perspective a few months ago. In other words, they played like an 11-12 win team.  So knowing that, it's demolition of New England that year in the playoffs doesn't seem so surprising does it? Maybe a 33-14 score was surprising, but when your team is third in points allowed and ninth in points scored, it is hardly implausible either.

Like the 2014 team, the 2009 Ravens blew several opponents out.  They crushed the Lions and the Bears. They pulled away late with a two touchdown victory over Kansas City. They killed the Browns, including a 16-0 shutout.

Close Games often hinge on the razor thin margin of a single play

Unfortunately, also like the 2014 team, they lost some painfully close games, in the final seconds, some of which were even "lost comebacks". They shanked a field goal at the gun to lose a heartbreaker in Minnesota. They produced a late fourth quarter lead against Cincy only for the defense to give it away. They played fantastic defensively against the Colts and Manning at his house only for the offense to give the ball away in field goal range with a chance at the lead. Any those things sound familiar with how our losses this year have been to Cincy and Indianapolis?

If you've read my stuff until now, you know how I feel about close games. Because the margin between winning and losing in the NFL can be so razor thin, sometimes we let whether a team won or lost that close game (or several of them) overpower our perception of the teams involved and their true performance in victory or defeat. In truth, winning or losing many close games in a row is not only hard to do, it is statistically unlikely. Better teams with better coaches and QBs do tend to win more of them given enough years of data but on a seasonal basis, it can also boil down to improbable breaks (good or bad) that wind up skewing a team's record. Look at the 2014 Jets. They went 5-1 in close games in 2013 to reach an unlikely 8-8 despite a -97 point differential. Not so fortunate this year.

So when the 2009 Ravens team lost three games in a row in the final seconds, it is not a reflection that "the Ravens didn't know how to win". When they rebounded the following year and won most of their close games in 2010 and 2011, they didn't suddenly "remember how to win". What happened was they got a few more breaks than the 2009 squad got — breaks which are simply inherent in the game of football.

DVOA disparity highlights importance of evaluating performance, not merely W/L records

That 2009 team also got swept by Cincinnati, including an annoyingly similar loss late in the game at home. After Ray Rice took a short pass to the house for the 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter, the defense forced a three and out. The offense failed to capitalize in the four minute offense leaving Palmer with two minutes. He converted a fourth down QB sneak to extend the drive and needed three penalties (illegal contact, defensive pass interference, and unnecessary roughness) to get the ball down the field before throwing the game winner with 0:27 left, leaving no time for a feasible comeback. The similarities with last week's loss are both annoying and all too real.

The Bengals would finish well below Baltimore in the final DVOA rankings at 19th and no top 10 rankings. Because of that sweep though, Cincy would take the division at 10-6 leaving us to scrape out the Wild Card over Pittsburgh. But given the high disparity between the team's performance, perhaps it is not surprising that the Bengals would go on to lose to the Jets in the first round while Baltimore killed the Patriots on the road. The following week, Baltimore actually played a better game than folks remember against the Colts but the offense gave the ball away at such inopportune times that the defense's play was for naught.

On to Pittsburgh

The 2014 Ravens are following a similar path to the 2009 team so far — big blowouts against inferior teams and some very closely fought losses to quality teams. I like what I see from this 2014 team even if its flaws in the secondary are cause for concern, especially with Jimmy Smith out for a few weeks.

What remains to be seen is whether the Ravens can rise and conquer a hot Pittsburgh team and keep itself very much in the hunt for the division. The Ravens still have a great shot at the playoffs; however, without this win, they may have to follow the arduous path that the 2009 team carved out for itself. Week 2 was a must win of the highest order. This week's game is pretty close to it.