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What is a number? Looking Deeper at the Ravens Defensive Numbers

As I am sure you have heard on various media outlets, radio talk shows and other assorted sports commentary venues, the Ravens defense is TERRIBLE. Can’t get any worse! Ranked 26th in yardage in the league, what is going on they ask? Well, there is some truth in those statements, but in reality the numbers don’t tell the entire story without some context. Many people look at “totals” when it comes to NFL stats, ignoring what is really important…..averages, or snap efficiency.

For example if Joe Flacco throws for 350 yards, but it takes him 60 attempts to do so, that isn’t very efficient use of his opportunities. Conversely if Flacco throws for 350 yards, but it only takes 40 attempts to do so, that is a vastly different circumstance. The same can be applied to team statistics, on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. If you were to take a quick glance at the stats most media and fans reference, you would see that the Ravens defense is ranked 26th overall, giving up 396 yards per game. Terrible, right? Well, kind of. A little deeper look at the numbers shows that while they are struggling compared to years past, they are nowhere near as bad as most make them out to be.

First of all looking at the overall snap counts, you will see that the Ravens have more opponent snaps than anyone in the entire league at 428. That is a significant difference, as the league average is only 351 snaps on defense. So the Ravens have faced 71 more snaps than average on the defensive side of the ball, leading to a very skewed “total” yardage number for the year. Currently the Ravens have allowed 5.56 yards per play on defense, which places them directly in the middle of the pack at 16th overall. Definitely not what we are used to here in Baltimore, but certainly not the worst defense in the league by a long shot.

The same is true when looking at specific areas of the defense, such as the run/pass defense numbers. On run defense the Ravens have been gashed the past 2 weeks, but when looking at the overall numbers for the entire season, once again it just isn’t nearly as bad as one could make it out to be. But they are ranked 28th, giving up 136.5 yards per game! Once again, very misleading. Opponents have run the ball a mind boggling 213 times vs the Ravens, with the next closest team at 194 attempts against, and a league average of only 152 attempts. In 2011 when the run defense was stout as ever, we finished the year allowing 3.5 yards per carry, good for a 2nd overall ranking. This year, we are allowing 3.8 yards per carry, which put them in a tie for 10th overall. That is right, by the real efficiency numbers we are still a top 10 run defense.

Moving to the pass defense, this is the real area of concern moving forward, but again it just isn’t as bad as the “total” numbers make them out to be. Currently if you go by the basic numbers, they have allowed a “total” of 1561 yards, tied for 26th overall. Looking deeper at the opposing snap count, The Ravens have allowed 7.6 yards per attempt, putting them at a slightly more respectable tie for 19th overall. Not a big difference, but notable nonetheless. Last year the Ravens finished allowing a stingy 6.4 yards per attempt, 3rd overall. There is no doubt the lack of a pass rush with the Terrell Suggs injury has seriously affected this unit, who is relying more on heavy blitzing to get quarterback pressure leaving the back end vulnerable to the pass.

Looking at the total overall yards per play for the entire defense, it works out to 5.56 yards per play. As I stated earlier, that puts them smack in the middle of the pack at 16th overall. If you use the league average of 351 snaps so far this year, their yardage total drops to 1,952 yards, which would put them again at 16th overall, not 28th. Last year the Ravens allowed 4.84 yards per play, finishing 3rd overall in that department.

When looking for a reason for this disparity of snaps relative to the rest of the league, there are a couple factors. The first one is offensive efficiency, yards per play ran on offense. The teams with higher offensive efficiency numbers are offenses that are on the field less, creating more snaps for their defense. in 2012 the Ravens offense has taken a giant leap, as their total offensive efficiency is 3rd overall at 6.51 yards per play. The second factor is the use of the “no huddle” offense. Teams like the Ravens who use the up tempo offense will obviously take less time on offensive drives, again leading to more opportunities for the opposing offense. The offense has used the big play ability of Torrey Smith, and a more “quick strike” approach on offense compared to previous years.

The basic point I am trying to make is that when using statistics to make judgements, totals are often very misleading when used without the context of how many opportunities a team or player has had to accumulate those numbers. When you calculate the QB rating, you don’t plug in the yards per GAME, you plug in the yards per attempt. Why? Because yards per game is useless and tells us nothing when trying to get a real idea of how well a certain player played.

The Ravens defense has some serious concerns, especially with the recent loss of Lardarius Webb and possibly Ray Lewis for the foreseeable future. Add in the absence of Terrell Suggs with his return in question, and it is easy to see why some fans are on the proverbial ledge ready to jump. But the reality is that with the way the offense has improved, a middle of the road defense might be all we need to make another deep run at a Super Bowl in 2012. And that is what they are, far from one of the worst as some would lead you to believe.

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