Are the Ravens so money, and they don’t even know it?
Welcome to “The Dossier” a weekly look across the aisle at the Ravens’ opponents, and how they stack up on paper as a matchup.
This Week 1 edition takes a look at the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Matchup: Baltimore Ravens @ Las Vegas Raiders, Monday Night Football
The Setting: Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada
The Forecast: N/A for an indoor game
The Stakes: 1-0, or 0-1?
The Spread: Baltimore is a –4 road favorite
Are your fantasy drafts complete? Have you noticed the vaguely discernible chill in the air? Did you just spend yet another August pretending to enjoy the half commercial-half puff piece programming that “Hard Knocks” has devolved into? Good, because you all know what that means – football is back, baby!
It’s been one heck of an offseason for the Ravens. It got off to a tumultuous start with an up-and-down free agency period, leveled back off with what looked like a home run draft in April, and has seemingly turned sour again. The positives that we did get in training camp and the preseason were drowned out by injury issues up and down the roster, which reached their zenith with the consecutive losses of Gus Edwards and Marcus Peters.
We also saw very little of what the final product of this team is supposed to look like throughout the preseason (understandably so), which leaves us in a bit of a lurch as far as predicting what to expect from them in Week 1. This is even further complicated by the fact that they’ll have a different starter at running back and cornerback than we were expecting.
Are the Ravens so money, and they don’t even know it? Well, it’s hard to say. With that in mind, let’s head to Vegas, baby (Vegas!) to take a look across the aisle at their opponents, and how they’ll stack up on Monday Night Football.
This is “The Dossier, Week 1.”
It seems that every offseason (or at the very least, every other one) the Raiders find themselves ensnared in the rumor mill that suggests they’re ready to move on from quarterback Derek Carr. On the surface, it’s easy to see why. Carr is (in many different senses) an easy target for both fans and media alike. From a personality that’s at best described as somehow simultaneously vanilla and standoffish (remember the one substitute teacher that everyone actually didn’t like?), to a playing style that’s anything but electrifying, the Raiders longtime signal-caller exists in a strange state of limbo as far as how he’s perceived.
There’s no question that Carr is a pretty good quarterback – he was 12th in completed air yards in 2020 (which cuts against his reputation as a so-called “checkdown Charlie”), 72.3% of his throws were on target, and he was eighth in PlayerProfiler’s “Money Throws” category. This accounts for passes requiring exceptional skill or executed in clutch moments. As such, the discussion of his long-term future is irrelevant here, as we’re really talking about the threat he poses to Baltimore’s defense on Monday Night. The answer is that he (and the entirety of Vegas’s supporting cast) pose a pretty decent one.
It all starts with a player Ravens fans will be very familiar with. Darren Waller has ascended to the NFL’s elite ranks thanks to his incredible athleticism, perseverance, and work ethic, but also because of his perfect fit with Carr in this Jon Gruden/Greg Olson offense. He’s listed as fourth in the NFL in PlayerProfiler’s excellently named “Hog Rate” stat — which accounts for passing game utilization — clocking in at 15.5% of Carr’s targets. This isn’t just as a tight end either.
As Raiders’ blogger B.D. Williams — a contributor for SB Nation’s Siver and Black Pride — pointed out on the Baltimore Beatdown Podcast preview episode (shameless plug), Waller is sometimes lined up as Vegas’ X wide receiver. This means he’s facing (and beating) press coverage on the outside, like so:
Empty set, 21 personnel. Pro Bowl TE Darren Waller split out wide to bottom. Dolphins in base personnel, single high. Carr throws fade route to Waller who is matched up with safety. Nice job high pointing catch. Need to do this in redzone every week.#Raiders #RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/NR9CjfJLBN
— Ryan Holmes (@Rholm22) December 27, 2020
This is a big part of where the Ravens are hurt by the loss of Marcus Peters in this game, and it’s not simply the production that Waller will provide with looks like this. If Baltimore has to worry about the threat Waller poses in this respect and blankets him with Marlon Humphrey, that leaves the other side of the field open for other playmakers the Raiders possess. Namely, Henry Ruggs (No. 6 in yards per reception in 2020), Bryan Edwards (a towering outside option), and Hunter Renfrow (an incredibly slippery slot man who’s tape shows him to be a true threat moreso than his numbers).
For all of this to go according to their plan, though, Las Vegas will assuredly need more from their running game, which was 24th in the league in 2020 rushing DVOA. That type of efficiency doesn’t nearly underscore how legitimate of a bellcow Josh Jacobs is. Last year, Jacobs ranked ninth in the NFL in yards created, despite the fact that he ran behind a line that caused him to be rated 46th in the league in run blocking efficiency. And ultimately, that’s what this game may come down to for the Raiders offense vs. Baltimore’s defense.
The Raiders’ offensive line was the 18th most efficient in the league last year per Football Outsiders. There’s plenty of concern for the Silver and Black that this may be another lean season along the line. We do have confirmation that Richie Incognito will be out at guard on Monday Night. This leaves the Raiders starting ofense line as follows, from left-to-right (PFF grades included): Kolton Miller (73.0), John Simpson (45.8), Andre James (60.0), Denzelle Good (56.7), Alex Leatherwood (rookie). That’s not at all ideal for a team that’s hoping for a renaissance at this position group, and especially not against a defensive coordinator like ‘Wink’ Martindale.
Traditionally, we might see Tyus Bowser lined up over Miller, and Justin Houston on the rookie Leatherwood with combinations of Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe (who will be out for this game), Brandon Williams, and Justin Madubuike attacking inside. However, don’t be surprised if we see Wink get creative in this one. With the addition of Odafe Oweh into this group, the range and athleticism the Ravens have infused into the outside linebacking corps will be a huge help at providing pressure off the edge. This could mean lining up Houston one-on-one with the rookie Leatherwood, where he’d logically fare pretty well, and then doubling the other side or the interior with Oweh and whichever starter his rush will be bolstering.
The 30,000 foot view on it all is this: the Ravens win the talent matchup along the front-seven here fairly handily.
There’s not much of a way to sugarcoat things for this Raiders defensive unit, which was extremely rough in 2020, and again could be pretty rudderless. In terms of DVOA, they were 28th in the league overall — , 26th against the pass and 28th against the run. In watching some of their tape last year, it appeared to be a combination of a lack of talent and a lack of adherence to basic fundamentals.
The talent portion speaks for itself, as their highest rated player by PFF grading is K.J. Wright with a 75.7 — and he signed with them six days ago as I’m writing this. Ravens fans will of course be familiar with Yannick Ngakoue, who provides an interesting athletic foil to Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby. Another big-time addition is their starter at free safety, the rookie Trevon Moehrig. But again, it’s hard to imagine these additions making a huge collective impact if the Raiders defense doesn’t bring on a new mentality that emphasizes the basics, such as tackling (which was a big issue for them last year). This is where their biggest new addition on this side of the ball comes into play.
Their new defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, most famously made his bones as the originator of what we (sometimes incorrectly) refer to as the Seattle defense, which is hallmarked by Cover 3 looks that rely on strong secondary play. There are some misconceptions about all of this, as Bradley does run other looks at a decent clip, but he’s also known as an innovator throughout the league thanks to his days with the Seahawks. However, as Ravens fans well know, there’s something else he’s known for doing that’s a bit misunderstood as well.
That would be shutting down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense in the Ravens/Chargers wild card playoff game in 2018. Bradley was hailed as the man who (among many others over the years) had finally “figured out” Lamar Jackson by going small on defense and employing seven defensive backs in their base in order to keep up with Baltimore’s quarterback in the run game.
Going back to our chat with B.D. Williams on the podcast, this was another case of misunderstanding what Bradley was doing, and also the fact that Baltimore simply shot themselves in the foot in that game more than anything else. In that sense, B.D. doesn’t expect Bradley to have a massive impact as far as slowing Jackson down in this game but rather to bring a sound, safe approach that will allow the Raiders to play more disciplined football:
If all of this is to hold true in this game, then Greg Roman needs to keep one word at the forefront throughout: patience. The basic principles of Cover 3 are to take away the middle of the field and limit the deep passing game, containing the offense’s passing attack to the flats, and the short-to-intermediate areas on the outside. So, the best approach for Roman to take will be the patient one.
Utilize Lamar Jackson, Ty’Son Williams, and Latavius Murray to keep the sticks close and when they’re close and you need a bucket, get some of your veterans involved in the short passing game to pick up first downs and keep the game rolling. In particular, Mark Andrews and Sammy Watkins have the right combination of difference making athleticism and veteran savvy to show up against Bradley’s more measured game plan.
Even before the rash of injuries we’ve seen Baltimore suffer, this game was never going to be easy. Now, it seems the Raiders (at home, no less) are set to match up fairly well with what the Ravens have to offer, at least in Week 1 with no negative momentum working against them. Often times when it’s close like this, I look to the coaching staff as a deciding factor.
In that sense, I’m still sticking with the Ravens to win here, with John Harbaugh’s steely “win-one-for-the-gipper” resolve coming in clutch for a team that could really use it after a demoralizing few weeks. It’ll certainly be tough, and by my final score, worth the price of admission. And as we all know, what happens in Vegas . . .
Jake’s Prediction: Ravens 31, Raiders 28