3TFO: Ravens @ Bengals, Week 17
In every Week 17 for Andy Dalton as the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting quarterback, his team has played Baltimore at home. Last year, starters sat for most of the game as the playoff picture was set, while the Ravens clinched the AFC North with a win in 2011, taking the tiebreaker from the Steelers. This year, the tone will be different as the Bengals are one of three undefeated-at-home teams in football, and the Ravens are clawing for a playoff spot.
Since the Bengals visited Baltimore in early November, the Ravens have eked out close, often dramatic wins against Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Detroit to stay alive in the murky AFC playoff picture. The Ravens will need to deal Cincinnati its first home loss to maximize their chances, as no one fully controls their destiny in the AFC playoff chase. Even though they’ve got the AFC North locked up, Marvin Lewis made clear this week that he will be playing to win the game. They’ve got added incentive from their oft-discussed goal to go undefeated at home, and to knock a division rival out of the playoff picture with a win. As both teams have plenty to play for, here are three matchups to watch.
Rattling Dalton in the Jungle
Lately, Andy Dalton has been on fire at home. In the Bengals’ last four home games, their quarterback has logged the three highest grades of his career. A portion of his success is likely attributable to the porous Jets and Vikings secondary units. Despite a bit of a clunker in Week 11 against the Browns, Dalton has posted Accuracy Percentages at or above 76% in three of his last four home games, markedly better than the 72% mark in all other games this year. He’s done so with 40% of his throws aimed more than 10 yards downfield, a significant jump over the 33% rate on those throws outside of the last four home games.
Perhaps the most important factor in Dalton’s recent home success is offensive line play, as Dalton has only seen pressure on 27 of his last 137 drop-backs at home. His protection has kept a clean pocket 80% of the time for Dalton in those games, compared to 73% of the time outside of those games this year. Considering that Dalton’s Accuracy Percentage falls to 57% when Passing Under Pressure compared to 76.5% in a clean pocket, making Dalton uncomfortable in the pocket was paramount for the Ravens when they held Dalton to the worst grade of his career.
When the Ravens hosted the Bengals in Week 10, they got pressure to Dalton on 33% of his drop-backs, sacking him five times. They blitzed him into submission, bringing heat 17 times leading to a -3.8 grade on blitzed drop-backs. Heavy blitzing was a successful strategy against the Bengals the week prior, too, when Miami blitzed 38.3% of Dalton’s drop-backs leading to three interceptions and a -4.0 grade on blitzed snaps. The Ravens have a true weapon in Elvis Dumervil. He now leads all 3-4 outside backers in Pass Rushing Productivity with 10 sacks and 60 total pressures on 300 pass rushing snaps, meaning he individually creates pressure 20% of his pass rushes. By comparison, Dalton has been pressured on 25.2% of his drop-backs all year. Dumervil presents a big challenge for right tackle Andre Smith, who endured a sprained ankle last week. The Ravens’ top pass rusher logged three sacks and eight total pressures the last time these teams played and should be a focal point for the Bengals protection scheme to keep Dalton clean.
The Run Defenses
AFC North teams traditionally need strong run defenses to win the division, and this game features two of the better run defenses in football with two of the worst running offenses. On the offensive side, the Bengals and Ravens rank 30th and 31st in rushing, and 15th and 30th in run blocking. Ray Rice has the lowest rushing grade of any running back in football, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ grade comes in at third-worst. Bernard Pierce’s grades look better than Rice, but he’s firmly in the negative this year, leaving Giovani Bernard as the only halfback in the game with a positive rushing grade on either side.
While there are striking similarities on both sides of the running game in terms of success rates, the teams differ in the method toward achieving run stopping results. Cincinnati relies on the second- and third-ranked 4-3 defensive ends in the run defense category to take away the edges. Runs to left tackle or the left edge, typically defended by Michael Johnson, average just 3.48 yards per carry, with 67.6% of those runs qualifying as Run Stops. Carlos Dunlap holds down the right side similarly, though after a big run by Cordarrelle Patterson last week the Bengals are surrendering 4.25 yards per carry to right tackle or the right edge. Attempts up the middle meet gap-disciplined linebacking led by Vontaze Burfict and his 9.8% Run Stop Percentage, second best for 4-3 outside backers.
Conversely, the Ravens get it done with a defense full of run stoppers, with 12 defenders boasting a +2.0 or better run defense grade. Haloti Ngata and Arthur Jones lead the defensive line, with Terrell Suggs providing the primary thump from the linebacker corps. Ngata has often controlled blockers this year, while Jones has a 10.0% Run Stop Percentage, fifth best for 3-4 ends. Suggs, meanwhile, leads all 3-4 outside backers with a 12.5 Run Stop Percentage. What makes the Ravens unique, though, is the secondary’s run support. James Ihedigbo boasts a league-best 11.6% Run Stop Percentage when he’s within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, where he lines up 37.6% of the time. At cornerback, Ladarius Webb has 11 run stops, which is fourth most for any corner in football. Put it all together and you’ve got a couple of cohesive and effective run stopping units that will make life tough for the running games on Sunday.
An Opportunity for Flacco
Joe Flacco is not enjoying his best season. A stretch of fine play over the five games preceding the Patriots debacle last week saw Flacco rise from the depths of the QB grading leaderboard at a season-low -13.2 overall grade to a more respectable -4.9 going into Week 17. Disastrous when throwing under duress, Flacco grades out at -14.7 when pressured compared to +9.3 when he has a clean pocket. He’s faced pressure 35.8% of the time, but that number could be lower this weekend. And when he has time, Flacco is a much better quarterback.
The opportunity for Flacco comes in the form of a Bengals pass rush really missing Geno Atkins. Without Atkins’ influence in the middle, the Bengals have seen their pass rush grade drop from fifth in 2012 to 21st in 2013. In the last three weeks, opposing quarterbacks have felt pressure just 23% of the time, and that includes games against some of the lower-ranked pass blocking units in the league. While the aforementioned Cincinnati defensive ends rank among the elite run defenders in the league, they have struggled to get consistent pressure, last grading in the green against Cleveland in Week 11. The Bengals are still tough in the secondary, not allowing a green quarterback grade since Week 9 in Miami despite the missing pass rush. Still, Flacco could have an opportunity to take advantage of a weakened pass rush and get back to his recent hot streak in Cincinnati.
Follow Jake on Twitter.