The Ravens three losses this season have come to teams with a combined record of 11-16. If you remove the wins those teams recorded when they faced the Ravens, the record of the victorious opposition is 8-16, a .333 winning percentage. The Ravens struggles against poor teams seems truly bizarre. In an effort to rationalize their effort in losing games, some columnists have pointed to psychology claiming, the Ravens are not able to get up for lesser opponents after a big win. Others have suggested that the Ravens are a team that is not nearly as good away from M & T Bank Stadium. Both of these lines of reasoning could be true. However, team psychology is very difficult to quantify and while home field advantage is very real in the NFL, it still doesn’t explain the putridness of the Ravens offense in the three losses. Here we’ll look at a different factor, one that is common throughout all the Ravens three losses and will be present this week against the Bengals: the Ravens struggle against 4-3 defenses.
While every team has its own variation of a 4-3 defense, the term refers to a defensive alignment that has four lineman and three linebackers. This is shown on a chalkboard and in live action in the picture above. The alternative to a 4-3 defense is a 3-4 defense where one of the lineman is replaced in the second level with a linebacker. Research that has shown that 3-4 defenses are more effective in general than 4-3s (note: This may be due to better personnel playing in 3-4s). However, this year the Ravens have struggled against 4-3 defenses and thrived against 3-4s. By comparison, the Ravens are 5-0 against 3-4 teams with an average offensive efficiency measured by Football Outsiders DVOA of 11.38%. Against the 3-4 defenses the Ravens are 1-4 with an average offensive efficiency of -15.3%. Average offenses have a DVOA of 0.0, above average offenses have positive DVOAs and below average offenses have negative DVOAs.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect about the Ravens performance is the answers coming from the coaching staff. Prior to last Sunday’s game against Seattle, John Harbaugh had the following to say:
“We really haven’t done that well against that particular configuration, we haven’t done that well against (it) this year,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We need to take care of business.” Later in the same press conference Harbaugh said his offensive coaches were studying films and brainstorming this week to try to come up with plays that work better against a 4-3.
As we know the ideas resulting from that particular brainstorm were laughable. Cam Cameron rather inexplicably decided that passing five times more frequently than running was the appropriate plan of attack. Calling 81% passing plays in a close game for a team with an elite running back is bad. But what makes it even more baffling is that research has shown that 4-3 defenses have a higher interception rate than 3-4s. Furthermore, its not as if the Ravens have shown an inability to run against 4-3s. Rice has averaged over five yards a carry against 4-3s this year while averaging less than 4 yards a carry against 3-4 defenses.
Its also alarming that Rice seems to be Raven most capable of verbalizing a plan of attack against the 4-3 (albeit one that was not employed):
“You have to attack them,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “The thing is with the 4-3 fronts, different than the 3-4, obviously it’s a different structure. You can’t run the same kind of runs against a 3-4 that you are going to run against a 4-3. Blocking assignments are probably a little bit more downhill, rather than East and West. A lot of the stretch-and-cut things still apply, but … you can’t go into the game plan thinking that you are going to run the same plays you ran against the Steelers … It’s a totally different defense.”
Ultimately, this week Cam Cameron and company will face another 4-3 defense in the Cincinnati Bengals. Last year in Week 2 of the season when facing this defense, the offense was a disaster: Flacco attempted almost fourty passes, completed less than 45% of them and threw four interceptions. Hopefully, we won’t see the same mistakes repeated and the team will return to a more even run/pass mix in their plan of attack. However, until I see otherwise, I will remain pessimistic about the Ravens offense against 4-3 defenses.
For future reference the NFL teams that are using the 4–3 defense this season are: Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos.