Learning from the Champs
The Baltimore Ravens didn’t have an elite defense during the regular season. While Seattle’s unit ranked fourth overall according to Football Outsiders, Baltimore came in at #19. The Seahawks had the third best pass defense, Baltimore’s was 13th best. And despite the presence of Haloti Ngata up front the Ravens only ranked 26th against the run. Seattle finished 12th.
For years they had one of the league’s most daunting defensive unit’s. Yet in the year Ray Lewis finally crumbled and chose to retire, Ed Reed looked human and Paul Kruger became pretty overrated, they finally won another title.
We’ve gone over Seattle’s need to improve defensively this off-season. And yet here are the Baltimore Ravens, with their rank average defense from weeks 1-17, becoming World Champions.
The thing is, they were anything but average in the post season. They recorded nine sacks — four more than the second best playoff team (Washington had five). The Ravens had an incredible SIX post-season interceptions, forced five fumbles (four were recovered for turnovers) and had 308 total tackles. In all four key defensive categories, they ranked #1.
It helps that they played more games being a wild card that won it all. Even so, they came up against some high power offenses along the way. Indianapolis at home, Denver (Peyton Manning) and New England (Tom Brady) on the road. Then the 49ers fresh from destroying Atlanta and Green Bay. That’s not exactly the route you’d pick to win a title.
So how did they turn a middling defense into a Championship?
On reflection, they played without a hint of erraticism in the post season. They didn’t lurch into big deficits, they didn’t put too much pressure on either side of the ball. They remained balanced and took their chances.
San Francisco and Seattle are often compared favourably. And they both seemed to suffer from the same issue — they were both patchy in the post-season. The Seahawks put themselves in a hole with a slow start against Washington, but managed to overcome a 14-point deficit (just). A week later they trailed 20-0 at half time in a game they had no business trailing 20-0 in. The 49ers similarly made hard work of their meeting with the Falcons, going 17-0 down almost immediately. They also put themselves in a gigantic hole in the Super Bowl before launching a late but ultimately fruitless comeback.
The Ravens never encountered such problems. Sure, they trailed in games. They faced uncomfortable and even fortunate moments. Without the worst defensive play in recent post-season history against the Broncos, they don’t even make it to the conference finals. But by playing it close in every game and minimising huge momentum swings, they put themselves in position to get maximum benefit out of any fortune being offered.
Seattle still won eleven games in 2012 and if the offense continues to grow there’s no reason why 12-14 wins isn’t achievable next season. Yet even if they win just ten games — like the Ravens in 2012 — they just need to find a way to mimic Baltimore’s post season. Play things tight. Avoid great big deficits and the need for brave comebacks. Play solid football.
Baltimore appear to have been built to compete with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That seemed to be the starting point for that franchise. If they wanted to win it all, they first had to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the Steelers in the AFC North. Neither team is flawless, but they are balanced. And it’s no surprise that over the last few years their rivalry has been the catalyst to Championship wins. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have both won Super Bowls. And they’ve both spent a lot of time kicking the crap out of each other.
Rather than contemplating how the Seahawks can improve this off-season to get back those agonising defeats to Detroit and Miami, perhaps the best thing to do is focus closer to home? What are the moves that will help the Seahawks beat the 49ers in order to have a shot at not just a division title, but multiple home games in the playoffs? Own the NFC West first. Without doubt Seattle’s best chance at making another Super Bowl is to play as many games at Century Link in the post-season as possible. The team is good enough now to win a certain number of games in a regular season. So are the 49ers. Divisional records within the NFC West are going to be crucial going forward, particularly the two games against San Francisco.
They could go out and make moves to try and improve the pass rush, but neither the Ravens (37 sacks) or the 49ers (38 sacks) dominated in that area during the 2012 season. The team at the top of the sack rankings — St. Louis with 51 sacks — blitzed all year and that comes with a consequence too. The Seahawks could use an extra pass rusher or two but the Ravens got by without any stars. They also got by without an elite run defense. And when the post-season came around they played the percentages. The Seahawks didn’t beat the 49ers 42-13 because of pass rush and they didn’t lose the earlier fixture 13-6 because of a lack of pressure. The way both teams are set up, it’s always likely to be a physical battle won equally in the trenches and with the speed of the offensive and defensive playmakers.
Rather than trying to create the ‘perfect’ roster that includes a franchise quarterback, a dominating pass rush, elite secondary and fantastic running back — perhaps they need to concentrate on creating the perfect roster to beat the 49ers and win the NFC West? A division which is starting to look increasingly like the old AFC North. While we agonise over pass rushers and three techniques, the thing most likely to help the Seahawks beat their greatest foe might be size up front to combat San Francisco’s power running game, speed at linebacker to limit Kaepernick and the read option, plus more offensive fire power.
You can’t expect to dominate every game. You can’t expect the pass rush to be fantastic every week. Perhaps a little more creativity in certain situations is needed, or at least some better production from specific role players. But more than anything, the Seahawks have to win their division. And when they get to the post-season, they have to play less erratic football. This team will win more close games than it loses. This team will pulverise certain opponents, just like we saw in the three game stretch against Arizona, Buffalo and San Francisco. They can beat anybody. They just can’t necessarily do it if the other guys get a 20-point head start.
The key to emulating Baltimore might start with finding a way to top the Niners for the divisional crown. And that might lend some strength to going for size over pure pass rush at defensive tackle. It might mean focusing on increased speed and playmaking at the WILL. It might also mean continuing to top up the playmaking element of the offense too — because this is a rivalry that will compliment graft with plenty of big plays.
What Vick signing in Philly means for the draft
Michael Vick agreed a new contract with the Eagles today, giving him a chance to be a starter in Chip Kelly’s offense. I suspect Kelly has decided he can begin to install his offensive vision with Vick acting as a place-holder. And with both offensive tackles returning from injury and a few good weapons remaining at the skill positions, it could push the Eagles towards defense at #4 overall. They have a complete dearth of talent in the secondary so could look at Dee Milliner. But perhaps more likely is a stud pick up the middle, particularly if they plan to switch to a 3-4. Star Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd are unlikely to last long because of their upside and diversity. There’s a pretty good chance one of those two will be playing for the Eagles next year.
Welcome to silly season
Here’s a polite warning. We’re entering the time of year where everyone is a draft expert. Pundits and bloggers who barely watched any college football last season are suddenly putting together big boards because their editors are asking them to. Or because they know the draft sells and a good old rankings piece or mock draft generates hits.
We also start to see outrageous projections and opinions as people battle to be loudest among many voices. When the 2013 draft is long in the past, nobody will remember what is said at this time of the year. Nobody is ever held to account. So while someone gets placed in front of a camera to do this years version of ‘Russell Wilson is the worst pick in the entire draft’, rest assured that person will not need to justify such a lousy opinion in the future.
Today I noticed this Tweet..
RT @joeluu8 What about Matt Barkley? Where do you think he’ll go? … 3rd-round talent. Suspect he’ll go mid/late 2nd as clear backup.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) February 11, 2013
… and nearly fell off my chair. This opinion on Barkley is typical for the time. We’ll see where he goes in the draft. I’d beat against it being the late second round.
A great example are the two Oregon games from 2011 and 2012. Last year it was Barkley’s performance against the Ducks that generated talk of a top-ten grade. This year he scores 51 points against the same unbeaten opponent, throws for five touchdowns and 484 yards and loses because the Trojans defense allowed 62 points. And it’s Barkley’s stock that takes the hit?
I’m willing to wager that most people knocking his stock this off-season haven’t even studied the tape. They’ve looked at the fact he returned to USC, not accomplished what he set out to and just offered a thumbs down. After all, why concentrate on the way Marqise Lee gave up on a route for a costly pick in the first half? Or that Barkley’s response on the subsequent drive was to throw a long downfield bomb to the same receiver for a touchdown? He lost, his team had a bad year, so he falls as a consequence.
How about another perfect downfield pass to the corner of the end zone was dropped poorly by Nelson Agholor? Or at 4:17 in the first video below where he does a great job extending the play before throwing a perfect touchdown pass to the opposite corner?
Matt Barkley was not worse in 2012. The USC Trojans defense had an atrocious year, but Barkley did not. Don’t take my word for it either, check out this detailed piece which brings metrics to the discussion. Negative hype reigns just as supreme as positive hype at this time of the year. He threw more picks, but then he was being asked to chase more games. He would’ve beaten his touchdown total for 2011 had he not picked up a shoulder injury. And Max Wittek’s performance in relief shows what he was up against.
There are too many teams in the NFL who need a quarterback like Matt Barkley. Not all offensive schemes will suit him, but some will. And within those offenses, he will prosper. Don’t trust my view? The two Oregon games are below. You tell me what the difference is. It’s certainly not the difference between consensus top-ten and the third round.