The 2023 regular season is officially in the books and the Baltimore Ravens are on bye for the first round of the playoffs. In a recent interview with Baltimore Beatdown, FTN Fantasy analytics expert and creator of the DVOA metric, Aaron Schatz shared his thoughts on the team’s historic season, how it compares to their last that he covered extensively, and how far they could go in the postseason.
Here's where the Ravens and 49ers finish in all-time regular-season DVOA after dropping by sitting starters in Week 18. Ravens finish as the No. 5 team since 1981. 49ers are the No. 8 team since 1981.#RavensFlock #FTTB pic.twitter.com/dED9vQTNIB— Aaron Schatz (@ASchatzNFL) January 8, 2024
Context: DVOA stands for defense-adjusted value over average and according the FTN Fantasy explainer, the ultra-short explanation of it is that it “measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.”
Check out the Q&A below, and be sure to check out all of Aaron’s work over at FTN Fantasy.
1. It seems like you’ve tweeting or writing about the Ravens on weekly and sometimes daily basis throughout the season. Did you ever imagine that you’d be covering them so extensively?
Yeah, It was called 2019 dude. I’ve done this before. The 2019 Ravens were weren’t as historically good, but they were close to being as historically good. I wrote about them all the time and Lamar Jackson was the MVP and then they went and lost in this playoffs in the first game which is, frustrating for me and even more frustrating for you. I do feel like I’ve been here before but what we’ve never done, there’s never been a year where there were two teams like this. The closest was 2007 when there were three really good teams, but then the Colts and the Cowboys slowed down a bit at the end. So by the end, it was just the Patriots. There’s never been a year like this where by the end of the year there were, there were two teams that were this good. 1995 has two teams that were almost as good but of course I wasn’t doing this yet. I’ve never been through a year like this where there were two teams that were so incredibly good.
2. Given how historically good and seemingly equally matched the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers seemed leading up to their Christmas night matchup, were you surprised that it unfolded the way it did? How do you think a potential Super Bowl rematch would turnout differently?
No and I don’t think a rematch would be similar. If they rematch in the Super Bowl, first of all, a lot of advanced metrics still had the 49ers higher and my guess is that Vegas would actually have the 49ers favored in a rematch. But I would have the Ravens favored and Purdy would not throw four interceptions because there were just some weird bounces of the ball right. If they rematch it’s going to be a lot closer. I did not see the a**-kicking that game became.
3. Given that some advanced metrics still favor the 49ers in a potential Super Bowl rematch, do you believe the Ravens would relish in the role of underdogs again and make the most of it?
Given what they’ve done, if we go to the Super Bowl and they’re like two point underdogs or something, they’re gonna be like, but we beat this team. What are you people talking about and it’s gonna be great motivation.
4. It seems like no matter who the Ravens beat or how well their MVP quarterback performs, they are given new cannon fodder in the form of disrespect from the national media. Why is that in your opinion and how does the team continue to rise to the occasion to prove them wrong?
Football teams are incredibly good at finding motivation. There’s nobody who questions the Ravens at this point realistically. The only question at this point is compared to the 49ers, would they be favored in a rematch? Otherwise, it’s no question. Ravens would be big favorites against whoever they played.
5. What is the biggest difference between the 2019 top-seeded Ravens and the 2023 top-seed Ravens?
This team is better defensively. That (2019) team was a better passing. That team had a better passing game surprisingly enough. I believe that team was number one passing the ball. Yeah, that team was better passing the ball and this team is better running the ball and this team is better on defense. This team even comes out a little bit better on special teams, even though Justin Tucker is not having as good a year as he usually has, but the rest of the special teams coming up better.
6. The special teams was inconsistent and during the first half of the season but appear to have turned a corner and look like more of a strength than a liability, do your metrics reflect that as well?
Yeah, they were low early in the year and then they’ve kind of come around to the point where they’re now number two. I have them above average in every part of special teams except for punting.
7. Do you believe that some of Tucker’s efficiency numbers were hurt by some of the long kicks of 50-plus that the Ravens had him attempt this year?
I don’t ding him very much for missing something over 60 yards, but he had a couple of surprising misses this year. I think you learn a lot more about a kicker by looking at their whole careers than by looking at just one season. There’s still no kicker I would rather trust more than Justin Tucker.
8. Having a dominant run defense has been the first commandment in Baltimore for the vast majority of the franchise’s rich history on that side of the ball. They’ve given up more yards this year than they’re accustomed to but it has led to a more consistent pass defense that rarely gives up big plays or blows coverages. Is prioritizing defending the pass and willing to give up a little more on the ground a more efficient way of playing defense in the modern NFL?
In the modern NFL, stopping the pass is the most important thing on defense, more than stopping the run and it’s not like they’re bad at stopping the run. I have them seventh against the run so that’s good. Compare that to Kansas City, right. Kansas City is fifth against the pass, but 27th against the run. That’s a problem. Seventh against the run is not really a problem. It’s only a problem in comparison to other things.
9. Is having a strong stout run defense essential to making a deep playoff run or has that been dispelled by in the modern NFL?
I know people want to believe that in January, you need to be able to run the ball and stop the run like there’s something about the playoffs or there’s something about the colder weather that makes that more important. It’s good to have a balanced offense and it’s good to have a balanced defense. It’s good to have balance everywhere but passing is more important than rushing. That’s just the modern NFL and it doesn’t change in January.
10. Some Ravens fans are weary and even afraid to potentially have to face the Joe Flacco-led Cleveland Browns in the divisional round in the playoffs given they ran for a season-high 178 yards against them in their last true loss at full strength. Should they be concerned?
The Browns running game is not good. That was a real outlier game and that was before their tackles got even more injured. Not only do they not have Nick Chubb now but they don’t have their starting tackles. They still have the interior part of the line but the Browns don’t have the starting tackles anymore. They’re just not a good offensive team. We can talk about well, isn’t it neat that Flacco is doing these things, but even with Flacco, there are an average offense at best. I know that the Ravens fans are a little scared of the Browns because it’s a rivalry and because you lost to them earlier this year by two points, but in reality, the Browns are not anywhere near as good as the Ravens. They’re still gonna give you more of a game than the Indianapolis Colts would give you but it’s not something to be super afraid of.
11. Who are the Ravens biggest threats to making a Super Bowl run in the AFC?
I would be more afraid of Buffalo or even a rematch with Miami. Buffalo is not a team that likes to throw over the middle. Baltimore’s defense is not necessarily built to beat Buffalo. Josh Allen is much better throwing to the sides of the field than he is over the middle. I think Roquan would be more useful as a spy than worrying about passes over the middle against the Bills. But to me, like if you look at DVOA right now. In the weighted numbers that give more weight to recent games, the AFC teams are just higher. Buffalo is three, Miami is four, and Kansas City is six. The only team that’s up there with those guys in the NFC is Dallas. So San Francisco has an easier path than Baltimore does. Baltimore has harder teams that they have to beat but again out of Buffalo, Miami and Kansas City, at least one of those teams doesn’t make it out of the wild card round. And then the other two would have to face each other, they wouldn’t face Baltimore. It’s unlikely they would depending on what happens with the Bills in the wildcard. We’ll see what happens. But that being said, those teams are better than their equivalents in the NFC. They’re better than Detroit. They’re better than Philadelphia.
12. How has the Ravens roster construction strategy of focusing and loading up on non premium positions such as safety, off-ball linebacker, and interior offensive line helped make them one of the top contenders and a tough schematic matchups for most teams?
It’s so interesting for those of us in the analytical world because we’ve talked a lot about the Ravens spending money on positions that analytically seem less important. But they’ve built this fantastic team by doing that. They went out and used their (2022) draft picks on a safety and a center and then they spent all this money on an off ball linebacker instead of edge rushers and cornerbacks. They’ve gone out and they’ve built this great team by doing that. The other fascinating thing is they have these young edge rushers and the young edge rushers have barely done anything because of injury, (David) Ojabo especially has done nothing. Instead, they’re getting all these sacks out of freakin’ Kyle van Noy. I mean Jadaveon Clowney having a good year, it’s not like the guy wasn’t the number one pick once upon a time. It’s not that crazy but like Kyle Van Noy at this point in this age, that’s pretty awesome. And then of course, the interior pass rush where (Justin) Madubuike is an All-Pro.
13. In 2019, the Ravens zigged when everyone else was zagging in terms of how they attacked opposing teams offensively with a revolutionary running game. Because of how they construct their defense through the strength of the spine, do you believe that they are built and better equipped to give the top offenses in the league problems, as they did in the last few weeks of the regular season with back-to-back wins over the Dolphins and 49ers, who like throwing over the middle of the field?
I agree with you on that. They are built to do well against those teams. Kyle Hamilton is a Swiss Army Knife man, he can freakin’ go anywhere. So outside or inside, it doesn’t matter. He can cover and do all kinds of things.
14. What inspired you to get into analytics and create DVOA?
It’s been 21 years. I started out as a Patriots fan and I had some questions about the way that people reported on the team back in 2002 and they missed the playoffs after the first Super Bowl. I had some questions and I was like I’m gonna get some answers and I’m going to just add some stuff up from some box scores and try to do some analysis. Nobody had ever really done anything like that. There was a book called “The Hidden Game of Football” that I used as an inspiration but other than that, no one was doing football analytics in 2002 and 2003. So I just started doing it and then I was like, Oh, I’ve kind of got something here. So I started creating stats, I started creating metrics, and then we launched my old site Football Outsiders in July of 2003.
15. How cool is it to see the growth, utilization and implementation of your metrics being quoted and brought up by NFL coaches like John Harbaugh at the podium during their press conferences?
Things I never would have imagined when this was my goofy little hobby. Other things I also never would have imagined are all the things that you can do with the chips in the pads and the Next Gen Stats. I never would have imagined any of that. Coaches like Harbaugh and Pete Carol quoting me, I never would have imagined that. The fact that I’m one of the people who votes for MVP. I never would have imagined that so yeah, it’s been a pretty awesome ride.
16. A big debate in the national media when it comes to trying to quantify Lamar Jackson’s amazing MVP season is his lack of eye-popping stats. Where do stats and metrics fall short, or have a difficult time telling the full story of his dominance in 2023?
Well, so here’s where the stats run into a problem with Lamar Jackson, we know that having a mobile quarterback like Lamar Jackson opens things up for the running game. So when we attribute value to Lamar Jackson, we are attributing all the passing and then his run. But we’re not attributing the running backs running to Lamar Jackson. But we know that Lamar Jackson helps the running backs running so he has more value than the stats show because of that. That being said, even if you attribute all that rushing value to him, he still doesn’t quite come out with as much value as Josh Allen or Dak Prescott. It’s a really interesting question. They’re the No. 2 offense overall but how much do you attribute that to Jackson himself versus other players? One thing I’ll say is I don’t think that it is a diss on Lamar Jackson to believe that he might be the third or fourth most valuable player instead of the first most valuable player because there’s no award for most valuable team. There are all these awards for players, but there’s no award for best team. The Ravens are the best team but there’s no award for that. The awards only go to single players so you can only vote for single players.
17. What do you think is the most underrated aspect about this year’s Ravens team in this run that they’ve been on down the stretch?
I don’t think anything’s underrated. They are walloping good teams, and everybody knows it. I don’t have to explain an opponent adjustments to anybody. Everybody knows that the teams that they’re beating are good. Maybe the lack of (offensive) turnovers is something nobody’s talking about. They’re doing everything well, and everyone’s talking about it. I don’t think there’s anything really very underrated about it at all. It’s just really awesome.
18. The Pro Bowl can be a popularity contest most years but usually the leaders of a top counting stat category make it. Do you believe a player like Geno Stone who lead the AFC in interceptions was snubbed and does someone who barely played like Minkah Fitzpatrick even deserve to be in it this year?
You don’t want to judge guys only based on interception tokens, right? That’s only a handful of plays. You want to judge guys based on their entire pedigree, the whole resume, and not just the interceptions. I think safety is the most difficult position in the NFL to judge both based on stats and based on film because you’re never quite sure what the safety is supposed to be doing compared to what he actually does. Stats have a really hard time because these guys are often in a zone coverage or they’re the deep guy. So you don’t want to attribute a pass to them necessarily but or they’re cleaning up runs so their run tackles come after big gains, but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing their job and safety is just a tough position. I don’t feel like Stone really got snubbed. Despite the interceptions, I’m not really considering him for my All-Pro ballot. He’s had a good season, but I think that’s really it. Now if Madubuike had not made it, that would have been a snub. I’d have to look at a bunch of stuff to compare the two of them, man to man but I’m not considering Minkah for my All-Pro team either, although Fitzpatrick does a lot of that safety stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score.
19. Who is the pending free agent that the Ravens can least afford to lose this offseason?
I’d guess the answer is Madubuike given how he’s played this year and his age. He is the number one guy on this list that they need to sign. Because of his age and how good he’s been and the position that he plays. He’s the number one guy on this list that they would need to sign...I would think the guy you could let go would be (Patrick) Queen because analytic feels that off ball linebackers are not as important as other positions, but also you’ve got a stud. You’ve got one. You’ve got a super stud (in Roquan). You could go kind of cheaper on the second linebacker, knowing that your first linebacker is so good.
20. The Ravens appear to have finally found their golden goose at the wide receiver position with Zay Flowers. What kind of metrics quantify how impactful he has been this season?
He’s pretty good but DVOA actually doesn’t love him. But what he does is he draws a lot of targets, which is something that standard DVOA doesn’t really measure. There’s a lot of value in the fact that a rookie could come in and become the No. 1 receiver because I really think he’s the No. 1 receiver and not (Odell) Beckham Jr., who is fantastic. I think they definitely have better receivers now than they have in the past and especially if Andrews is able to come back healthy for the playoffs. That’ll be a big addition as well. The quality of the receivers made it easier to overcome the loss of Andrews than it has been in the past.