The Browns and Ravens played a game for the ages on MNF that is already being labeled the game of the year.
Perhaps it should be considered for a loftier honor…
The Greatest Regular Season Game in Ravens History?
Setting aside the Mile High Miracle and several other Ravens playoff games in the definition will help us make some eliminations. I’m going to nominate one other game for consideration and we’ll make some comparisons in what I think are some important categories.
Let’s review Monday’s game against the 2003 classic 44-41 OT win over Seattle:
Drama: This MNF game had lots of back-and-forth drama, while the Seattle game had the Ravens on the ropes many times and playing from behind. Because the 2020 game was close for longer, the case can be made that it had more drama than 2003.
The 2020 game was played in a stadium with perhaps 10,000 fans that were loud. The 2003 game was finished in a half-empty stadium where the fans made as much noise as if every seat was filled. An important consideration for Ravens fans is the fact the 2003 game was played at home. Tie.
Rivalry: Because it was the Browns, we’ll have many more chances to talk about it for the rest of our lives. Magnifying the impact of the rivalry is one of the great bad-beat stories of all time with the safety on the game’s final play providing a final kick in the nuts to Browns bettors. 2020 game wins this category easily.
Playoff Significance: The 2003 Ravens were 5-5 and in danger of dropping from the playoff picture but rallied to go 5-1 over the last 6 games to win the AFCN at 10-6. Per Seth Walder, Lamar’s 4th and 5 TD to Brown increased the probability the Ravens make the playoffs from 56% to 82%. We can’t be sure about the playoff significance of this one until the season (playoffs included) is over. I’m going to call this category a tie.
Human Interest: The bathroom humor, bad fast food jokes, and comparisons to Paul Pierce will follow Lamar like video of an uncomfortable run to the bathroom. I choose to remember his return as a Willis Reed moment. But that wasn’t the extent of human interest from this game. Lamar’s inability to keep his footing due to shoes in the first half was followed by a 44-yard run with new footwear in the second half and the MNF record for QB rushing yardage.
In 2003, we had Anthony Wright leading the Ravens back in by far his greatest NFL game only to have a child born hours later. Billick gave his wife a game ball for waiting until after the game to induce labor. Trent Dilfer returned to Baltimore and entered for 1 play to throw a key incomplete pass (OT 14:34) that helped stall the Seahawks OT drive.
The iconic nature of Lamar Jackson raises the mundane above the more significant events in Anthony Wright’s life. Plus, it’s hard to ignore the cultural dynamic that poop and slipping cover 75% of the subject matter in America’s Funniest Home Videos. Advantage 2020.
Statistical Oddities: The 9 rushing TDs tied the record for any 2 teams in NFL history. The 2020 game also included the most first downs allowed in team history (33). In 2003, Marcus Robinson scored 4 TDs, the most ever by a Ravens receiver. Also against the Seahawks, Ed Reed blocked the 4th (and last) punt of his career in just his 2nd season and returned it for the TD that started the comeback (Q4, 6:56). Both 2003 teams had exactly 426 offensive yards. The Seahawks Matt Hasselbeck had 5 TDs, 0 INTs…and lost. Advantage 2003.
Analytics Moments: While not a high-value category, Stefanski’s statistically correct decision to go for 2 (to be clear, it was the right decision if the Browns had a 38.2% chance to convert) required intestinal fortitude (too soon?) very few other coaches have had. In another quirky instance, it’s possible Marquise Brown kneeling prior to the goal line would have increased the probability of a Ravens win. There were some remarkable win probability swings in the 2003 game, but no analytics moments that I can recall. Advantage 2020 MNF.
Memorable Individual Plays: It’s possible we’ll watch this game many more times and find the 20 other plays that won/lost it, but it’s difficult to imagine those will match some of the epic individual plays in 2003:
- Reed’s punt block TD
- Ray Lewis pulling the ball free from FB Max Strong immediately after Adailus Thomas’ facemask appeared to have lost the game
- Wright’s 4th and 28 conversion which was tipped by Marcus Robinson into the hands of Frank Sanders
- The consecutive short yardage (3rd and 1, 4th and 1) stops, the latter with Orlando Brown at nose tackle which gave the Ravens the ball back trailing by 3 (Q4, 0:39)
- The DPI call on Marcus Trufant as Wright threw for Robinson that put the Ravens in FG range to tie (Q4, 0:33)
- Wright’s 3rd and 15 completion to Robinson (OT, 9:13) that set up the game winning kick
I’m of the opinion we’ll remember fewer specific plays from this game in 2037 that we recall about the 2003 game today. Advantage 2003.
Overcoming Adversity: The MNF game will be special in terms of a game where Lamar Jackson engineered a comeback. He’s had few such opportunities and looked completely natural on the remarkable 4th and 5 TD. The moment when the Ravens staffer handed him his helmet had the gravity of the batboy in The Natural handing Roy Hobbs a new bat for his final swing. Equally important, he drove the Ravens down the field effortlessly for Tucker’s game winning kick, eliminating another chance for the Cleveland offense against a defense with many key injuries.
All the adverse circumstances from MNF can’t match the late 17-point deficit in 2003, nor the many precipices the Ravens faced down the stretch in that came. Edge 2003.
Ultimately it will be your memory, the availability of video, and the oral tradition related to these games that will decide which was greater. I’ll stand by my analysis (opinion) and give a narrow edge to the 2003 game based on the fact I think the analytics component is much less compelling than the other categories.
Going Short at CB
The Ravens made a puzzling roster decision prior to the game when they declined to activate either Anthony Averett or a CB from the practice squad and played the game with just 4 CBs and 4 safeties. The situation was more dire given the fact Anthony Levine and Jordan Richards are special teams players.
After injuries to Smith and Peters, the Ravens were forced to use Levine as the SCB for 5 snaps.
The Ravens may have made the decision based on weather in Cleveland, which was forecast for winds of 25+ mph. Based on passing and kicking in the game, I don’t believe that ever materialized.
So how did the Ravens use the extra roster spot?
Mark Ingram started the game, but played just that 1 snap at RB. In terms of special teams, the Ravens might have gone without Kristian Welch (19 snaps would have meant replacing a core player) or James Proche (2 punt returns).
After the risk endured in this game, I think it’s possible Ingram will be a healthy scratch until injuries dictate otherwise.
Note: all snap totals exclude penalties resulting in no play, kneels, spikes, and specials team plays resulting in a run or pass. As such, they will be lower than other published totals.
The Browns ran 76 such snaps.
Jumbo (0): The Ravens never lined up with just 3 DBs. The Browns never had a goal-to-go situation inside the 5-yard line.
Base (24): The Ravens used their base 3-4 defense with 2 ILB and 2 OLB versus 21, 12, and 13 personnel, primarily on 1st down, but also on short yardage. The Browns frequently split a TE wide, which forced Clark into man coverage. 24 plays, 144 yards, 6.0 YPP.
Jumbo Nickel (6): The Ravens used this package with 3 DL, 2 OLB, and 1 ILB primarily against 11 personnel on 1st and 2nd downs of medium distance. Bowser’s interception was such a play where Mayfield tried to exploit Harris in coverage of Higgins. 6 plays, 24 yards, 1 INT, 4.0 YPP.
Standard Nickel (26): The standard nickel includes 2 down linemen, 2 OLB, and 2 ILB and Martindale again used it primarily as a response to 11 personnel on early downs. The Browns used 2.49 WRs per play, which meant 11 personnel was used approximately half the time. Included in these snaps are Levine’s emergency fill-in as the SCB. 26 plays, 148 yards, 5.7 YPP.
Alternate Base (1): This package includes Board as a 3rd ILB with 2 DL, 2 OLB, and 4 DBs. Because Board is used as a proxy safety in dime packages, this package is also similar to big nickel (with Board replacing the safety). The Ravens used this package only on a 2nd and 10 play vs 12 personnel where big nickel would be a better pass defense than base. 1 play, 9 yards, 9.0 YPP.
Rush Nickel (6): Martindale inserted packages with 1 lineman, 3 OLBs, and 2 ILBs (or 2 linemen, 3 OLBs, 1 ILB) on some 3rd downs, a 1st and 10 on the final Browns TD drive, and for the end-of-half drive. 6 plays, 34 yards, 5.7 YPP.
Racecar Nickel (11): This package includes 1 DL, 1 ILB, and 4 OLBs (or 2 ILB, 4 OLB). Martindale deployed the package on 3rd down, 4th down, a 2nd and 10 play, and for 3 plays on the final Browns TD drive. Chris Board was again included as a proxy dimeback with Bowser, Judon, Ngakoue, and Ward. In an interesting twist, Pernell McPhee was taken out of this package the first 8 times the Ravens ran it. That was a concession to the need to have him on the field as an edge setter on early downs. Patrick Queen was not included on any single-ILB snaps, but was on for all 3 of those with 2 ILBs. 11 plays, 132 yards, 12.0 YPP.
The racecar nickel fell apart on its last 5 deployments:
- PM12 converted 4th and 4
- PR21 TD on the next 4th and 4
- PL30 on 1st play of final TD drive
- PL22 TD to tie the game
Dime (2): The Ravens inserted a 3-safety dime for 2 plays total. Levine was the safety added for the final play of the half. Richards was added for the final play of the game. Each was effectively a special teams play with 1 and 0 players rushing. 2 plays, 2 yards, 1.0 YPP. Officially, the final play was a 2-yard pass play with all of the remaining yardage lost attributed to fumbles.
Martindale used a combination of numbers and scheme to generate pressure.
Mayfield had Ample Time and Space (ATS) on 13 of 48 drop backs (27%), which is below average. He delivered the ball before pressure could develop on 16 other occasions, so the Ravens generated 19 pressure events (40%, 0 sacks, 4 QHs within 3 seconds, and 15 pressures).
Summarizing by number of pass rushers:
3 (or fewer): 2 plays, 2 yards, 1.0 YPP. These were the end-of-half (incomplete) and end-of-game plays with 0 and 1 pass rusher respectively.
4: 24 plays, 241 yards, 10.0 YPP
5: 19 plays, 103 yards, 5.4 YPP, 1 TO
6: 2 plays, 9 yards, 4.5 YPP
7+: 1 play, 0 yards
Total: 48 plays, 355 yards, 7.4 YPP, 1 TO
The Ravens rushed 5+ men on 22 of 48 drop backs (46%), which is slightly above their season average. On those plays the Ravens defense allowed 4.6 YPP including their only turnover. Rushing 4 or fewer, the Ravens allowed 9.3 YPP.
Martindale used 13 individual blitzes from off the LoS. Queen and Clark shared the team lead with 3 each. Only 6 of the off-LoS blitzes resulted in pressure events, including McPhee’s first QH and Williams’ PD.
The Ravens stunted 13 times on 11 plays, 3 of which ended up as pressure events. Judon’s late QH that cause intentional grounding also included a stunt.
On 9 occasions they dropped 2+ from the LoS to cover. Those resulted in 1 QH, 1 PD at the LoS, and 2 pressures.
Of 48 drop backs, 9 rushes were deceptive as I define it by incorporating 2 or more of the above elements. Among those plays were 2 QH and 2 pressures (1 of which resulted in Bowser’s INT).
Pernell McPhee (2 QHs and 2 pressures) and Yannick Ngakoue (1 QH, 4 pressures, 1 other pressure negated by OPI) were the Ravens most effective pass rushers.
- (Q1, 10:40): Mayfield threw to WR Higgins PL9 (7 + 2) . Humphrey punched out the ball but Higgins recovered.
- (Q1, 2:02): Mayfield threw to WR Landry PL4 (3 + 1)  covered by Smith. Humphrey punched it out again but Landry recovered.
- (Q2, 13:56): Mayfield threw for WR Higgins 26 yards  but Humphrey knocked it from his arms, incomplete.
- (Q2, 1:27): On 3rd/3, he drew offensive pass interference on WR Peoples-Jones to negate PM14.
- (Q3, 11:42): He had tight coverage of Higgins 30 yards down the left sideline and Mayfield overthrew OOB.
- (Q4, 1:10): On a busted cover-3 play, he was forced up to cover RB Hunt on PL22 TD (6 + 16) . He appeared to take outside leverage, expecting inside help that never came from Board. His, palms-out gesture to Board after the play indicated disappointment.
- (Q4, 0:02): He forced the last throwback then pushed Landry OOB for the safety that ended the game.
Humphrey’s 8 forced fumbles are a team record and the 7th highest total since they have been keeping records in 1999. The record of 10 is within range with 3 games to play.
- (Q1, 14:12): He held the left edge vs. TE Bryant then shed him to tackle RB Chubb RL3.
- (Q1, 13:41): He held the left edge vs. TE Njoku then shed him to tackle Chubb RL3 after Campbell’s MT.
- (Q1, 1:35): He contained the back side on a zone run then tackled Chubb RM2.
- (Q3, 4:32): He dropped from LoS to cover the flat and made a one-handed INT returned to the one-yard line.
- (Q3, 0:32): On 4th/4, Clark signaled for underneath zone coverage from Bowser, but he was out of position as Mayfield converted to WR Landry PM12 (3 + 9) .
- (Q4, 0:02): He twice pressured throwbacks on WR Higgins then WR Landry on the game’s final play.
Tyus has 3 interceptions in his last 4 games and played the run effectively in this game versus a mammoth OL.
- (Q1, 14:56): He beat LT Wills inside for a fast QH on a 7-man rush as Mayfield threw incomplete.
- (Q1, 12:23): He delivered a hard QH on WR Landry who threw PL12 to Chubb after a throwback pass.
- (Q2, 7:49): He held the left edge vs FB Janovich and was held (no call) on Chubb RM2.
- (Q3, 4:32): He stunted through the right A-gap for pressure as Mayfield threw his interception to Bowser.
- (Q4, 7:27): He held the left edge vs LT Wills on Chubb RL1.
- (Q4, 1:38): On 2nd/3, he bulled then shed RG Hubbard for pressure as Mayfield threw PL16 to RB Hunt.
McPhee was so valuable as an edge setter, the Ravens took him out of most of their racecar (4-OLB) alignments to conserve his snaps.
- Marlon Humphrey
- Tyus Bowser
- Pernell McPhee
A case can be made for Justin Madubuike and Marcus Peters as well.