The decision to go for the TD on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line will be debated for as long as it is meaningful to the Ravens playoff push.
The Ravens commitment to “analytics” (in this case meaning simple decision-tree math) creates lots of high-leverage situations which invite examination when they go wrong, but do not seem to be weighed properly by fans and the media when they go right.
Since you have dozens of other sources to tell you why Harbaugh’s decision was wrong, I’ll give you some reasons why it was right although I am personally on the fence about the decision to kick or go for it.
Obviously, the outcome of the play was an extreme version of failure, given an incomplete or run stuff would have pinned the Bills back at the 2-yard line instead of starting the game-winning drive from the 20. In either case of failure, the Ravens would have been defending 3-down offense.
A successful FG would allow the Bills to run a 4-down offense and start at approximately the 25. Given how the Buffalo offense looked in the second half, a stop would have been a tall order and probably would have allowed the Bills to burn the clock almost all the way down while trying for a TD (and settling for a FG). That exact situation occurred in the loss at Pittsburgh on 12/25/16.
Qualitatively, scoring a TD is significantly more valuable because teams are exceedingly reluctant to try to time a game-tying TD, so the score might come at any time. Had the Bills trailed by 7 when Singletary broke into the open field (Q4, 1:50), the RB would not have been trying to go down to milk the clock. That means the 7-point lead had “redraw value” for the Ravens to drive for a winning FG after a tying Bills TD. In fact, that exact situation occurred when Lamar returned from the bathroom at Cleveland on 12/14/20.
I’ll finish with 2 pieces of advice. First, it’s good practice to inspect the assumptions to see if they are not valid for the circumstances or situation. Second, anyone who discounts the use of math for football entirely is ignoring a vital component of optimal decision making.
So, when someone’s tweet or article contains language like “screw the analytics…” or “I don’t care about the math…” they’ve lost me already.
Inability to Contain Allen
The Ravens lost containment of Josh Allen on 7 occasions when he initially dropped back to pass. Let’s review:
- (Q1, 11:42): RM8
- (Q2, 1:30): RM9
- (Q3, 13:49): RM20
- (Q3, 11:19): RM4
- (Q3, 10:40): RL4, converts 4th/1
- (Q3, 3:32): RL11, TD
- (Q4, 2:53): RR7
With the frequency and severity of damage, the Ravens might have improved their chances by spying Allen more often rather than depending on zone defenders to move up to make a play. Considering the defender sacrificed could have been Patrick Queen, it would have been interesting to see trial of the strategy.
Aided by Drops
The Ravens benefitted from several dropped passes, including:
- (Q1, 11:04): WR Crowder slant goes through hands, tipped incomplete
- (Q1, 1:04): RB Singletary drops swing left 4 yards 
- (Q2, 3:06): RB Cook drops -2 yards 
- (Q2, 0:21): WR Diggs drops TD at goal line 12 yards 
- (Q3, 9:59): WR Davis bobbles then catches OOB 7 yards 
- (Q3, 5:11): WR Davis drops 3 yards  in front of Humphrey
It was a game where the wet conditions were one of the Ravens best defenders.
Roughing the Passer
I watched the play many times and the problem I have with the call on Stephens is entirely the post-game explanation from referee Jerome Boger.
No specific explanation was given over the field microphone, which is not unusual. However, Boger was quoted as saying:
“What I had was forcible contact in the head/neck area of the quarterback with the helmet.”
Asked if he was confident about head/neck contact, Boger replied, “Yes.”
Looking at the play, it’s clear there is no contact to the head or neck area and I think Boger would agree given an opportunity to rewatch the play prior to answering questions.
In looking at the play I thought there were 2 potential bases on which the RTP could have been called. The first was for being late, because Stephens appeared to take 2 very small steps from a near-stopped position after the ball was out. The second was for driving the QB into the ground, which is primarily used to protect QBs from larger pass rushers (think Siragusa/Gannon) than SCB Brandon Stephens.
Gene Steratore tweeted that he did not think a penalty was warranted and also said the hit was not late.
Officials are going to make occasional mistakes, but more accountability is required to balance what appears to be an overused flag. A reasonable starting point might be to require the referee to explain the reason for RTP over the field microphone so officials cannot craft an explanation to match the facts after later review of the video. A further step would be making the play reviewable.
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 Bills ran 60 such snaps.
Base (3): The Ravens used a version of their base 3-4 defense with 2 ILB and 2 OLB (one of which was Harrison) on 4th and 1 (Q3, 10:40 vs a 6-man OL) as well as the Bills last 2 meaningful plays from scrimmage prior to their kneels (beginning Q4, 1:02). Despite modest yardage, each of these was an important defensive loss. 3 plays, 14 yards, 4.7 YPP.
Standard Nickel (40): Macdonald used the standard nickel (including 2 down linemen, 2 OLB, and 2 ILB) as the most common response to 11 personnel. Brandon Stephens played the whole game as the SCB after getting benched against the Patriots. That was a little surprising, considering the Bills present a pair of smaller slot receivers (McKenzie and Crowder) who might be a good physical matchup for Pepe Williams who did not play on defense.
Neither team was especially successful moving the football in the wet weather, but the Buffalo usage of 11 personnel on the vast majority of snaps essentially forced the Ravens into nickel when game situation/down/distance did not dictate dime. 40 plays, 224 yards, 5.6 YPP. That included 17 runs for 104 (6.1 YPC, including 1 fumble lost) and 23 passes for 120 (5.2 YPP).
Rush Nickel (1): The Ravens played a single snap with 1 DL and 5 linebackers (Oweh, Pierre-Paul, Queen, Harrison, and the Ravens defensive debut of Del’Shawn Phillips) for 1 play. Oweh knocked down Allen for a 12-yard sack. 1 play, -12 yards.
Standard Dime (16): The version of the dime includes 2 down linemen, 2 OLB, and 1 ILB. In each case, the Ravens used 3 S and 3 CB with Hamilton added. Marlon Humphrey intercepted Allen on the first dime snap but the Bills drove down the field to end the half against 6 DBs for their first TD. That included a goal-line drop by the wide-open Diggs on which Hamilton appeared to be scolded by both Marcus Williams and Peters after the play (Q2, 0:21) and was pulled for Stone for the next snap. 16 plays, 102 yards, 6.4 YPP.
Macdonald muted the pass rush in terms of both numbers and deception.
For the game, Allen had ATS on 13 of 37 drop backs (35%) resulting in a pass or sack. He also had 11 ball out quick (BOQ, 30%) instances and the Ravens generated 13 pressure events within 3 seconds. By pass-rush situation:
ATS: 4/13 for 51 yards, 1 TO (3.9 YPP)
BOQ: 7/11 for 70 yards (6.4 YPP)
Pressured: 8/12 for 80 net yards, including 1 sack for -12, (6.7 YPP)
Summarizing by number of pass rushers:
3: 1 play, 0 yards
4: 24 plays, 145 yards, 6.0 YPP
5: 10 plays, 40 yards, 4.0 YPP, 1 sack, 1 TO
6+: 2 plays, 16 yards, 8.0 YPP
Total: 37 plays, 201 yards, 5.4 YPP, 1 sack, 1 TO
The Ravens rushed 5+ on 12 of 37 drop backs (32%) on which the Bills averaged 4.7 YPP with 1 sack and 1 TO.
Macdonald used 15 individual blitzes (.41 per pass play) from off the LoS spread across 11 plays. Allen completed 4 of 11 for 43 yards (3.9 YPP).
The Ravens used just 3 designed stuns on plays that resulted in a pass or sack, but all were completed for gains of 20, 18, and 17. Macdonald may have tried to limit stunts, including those called on the field, to keep Allen contained.
The Ravens did not have a single instance of simulated pressure, a regular staple against less experienced QBs. This was a clear nod to Allen’s ability to work with hot reads.
I define a deceptive pass rush as incorporating 2 or more of the above elements (off ball blitzes, stunts, and simulated pressures). The Ravens ran 4 deceptive rushes, all of which were paired off-ball blitzes, a 10.8% rate. 4 plays, 10 yards (2.5 YPP).
Odafe Oweh was the Ravens most effective pass rusher with contributions to 7 pressure events and a sack plus another QH. Patrick Queen also had 3 QHs, 1 of which came despite ATS.
Other Individual Notes
- Brandon Stephens was flagged twice and now leads the team (offense or defense) with 4 on the season. He was not beaten for any receptions longer than 8 yards and played all but 6 snaps at SCB.
- Travis Jones played 15 snaps, a total that should increase against opponents who play less 11 personnel. He did not generate a pressure in 11 rushes and finished with 1 tackle (a defensive win) on 4 run plays.
- Jason Pierre-Paul played 53 snaps in his first Ravens game. He had contributions to 2 pressures (1.5) on 35 pass snaps as I scored it.
- (Q1, 14:23): He had coverage of TE Knox as Humphrey intercepted the tipped ball behind the TE
- (Q1, 11:42): With no spy, QB Allen RM8 beat him to the edge
- (Q1, 11:04): He beat RT Brown inside for pressure and apparent hold (no flag)
- (Q1, 1:01): He trailed TE Knox on PM10 (6 + 4) 
- (Q1, 0:28): He closed down OLS and stripped RB Singletary at 4 yards, recovered by Marcus Williams
- (Q2, 12:29): He beat LT Dawkins inside for pressure as Allen threw PM4 
- (Q2, 3:02): He bulled LT Dawkins for pressure as WR Crowder was unable to collect bobble on Bynes hit to deny 3rd/3
- (Q2, 1:41): He bulled then beat Dawkins inside for a hard QH as Allen threw PL5 to WR McKenzie in front of Humphrey
- (Q2, 0:37): He rushed unblocked off ORS for pressure but failed to take down or contain Allen roll right. Pierre-Paul chased to boundary for throw away.
- (Q3, 10:40): He chased Allen left with pressure but did not tackle at -2 yards allowing RL4 to convert 4th/1
- (Q4, 14:54): He shed RT Brown inside to tackle RB Cook RM1
- (Q4, 14:18): On 3rd/9, he beat RT Brown outside with a dip and hit Allen for S-12 as he was being pancaked by the RT
- (Q4, 2:14): He bulled LT Dawkins for a share of pressure but Allen escaped left for PL9
- (Q4, 1:50): He tackled Singletary on RM8 as the RB was intent on not scoring despite an intentionally missed tackle by Marcus Williams. The Ravens needed the Bills to score on that play to have a chance to get the football back, but Oweh would have had a difficult time
Odafe was the most significant Ravens pass rusher by a wide margin (1 sack, 1 QH, 4.5 other pressures). His pressure rate was that much more impressive since he was used in coverage at least 8 times and as a spy occasionally. That said, his game also included a number of missed opportunities noted above. He played 58 of the 60 non-penalty snaps which is not typical for a Ravens OLB.
- (Q1, 14:23): He intercepted Allen’s pass tipped by Campbell at the LoS and returned it 26 yards to the Buffalo 8 where it required a facemask to take him down
- (Q2, 1:41): He was in position to tackle as WR McKenzie ran OOB on PL5 (5 + 0) 
- (Q2, 1:37): He was flagged for DH (declined) on PL17 (17 + 0)  to WR Diggs on which he made tackle
- (Q3, 5:11): He was in position to tackle WR Davis who dropped 3 yards 
- (Q3, 4:39): He was blocked by RB Singletary on screen left to WR Shakir PL14 (-2 + 16) 
- (Q3, 3:32): He slid past Allen on RL11 TD
Marlon has looked effective the past 2 weeks guarding the boundary and played exclusively RCB in this game.
- (Q2, 12:02): He bulled RG Bates to blow up then tackle RB Moss RM0 with assist from Peters to deny 3rd/1
- (Q2, 1:05): He deflected Allen’s pass at the LoS which fluttered to Queen who could not collect the INT
- (Q3, 12:34): He was blocked by LG Saffold on RB Singletary RM9
- (Q3, 12:01): He beat LT Dawkins across his face to tackle Singletary RM-4
- (Q3, 9:49): On 3rd/10, he deflected Allen’s pass incomplete despite being double teamed by RG Bates and C Morse
- (Q4, 2:14): He bulled RG Bates for a share of pressure as Allen escaped left for PL9
Justin continues to stack fine performances. He was 2nd on the DL with 36 snaps (Campbell 41).
I do not name defensive MVPs after a loss.
Thanks for another great analysis. I agree 100% about the use of analytics and your opinion of those who deny its value. And after having been a referee for over 30 years, I wasn’t at all surprised by Boger’s RTP flag. Although I never got to see a replay from his angle, I probably would’ve flagged Stephens too. As you mentioned, two small steps as well as the hesitation and then driving Allen to the turf could be enough. But what surprised me was Boger’s claim that there was sufficient contact to the head or neck area, which was impossible to see from the angles on tv. I’m sure it looked different from his perspective though.
Always love your content Ken. Seeing everything this way is always helpful for my own understanding of the game.
Thanks, Taka. Appreciate you!
How do you feel about requiring that the referee give the reasoning for the RTP flag over the field mic?