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John Harbaugh’s Aggressiveness Works

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It’s fourth-and-1. Baltimore has the ball on their 43-yard-line. With 65 seconds left in regulation, Baltimore leads by one. They just got possession back after a miraculous forced fumble and subsequent recovery by rookie Odafe Oweh. It’s decision time. Do you punt, or do you go for it?

You have to punt here, right? Going for it is too risky. What if you fail?

If you fail, the Chiefs get the ball inside your territory. It is not quite a foregone conclusion that Kansas City scores, but they have lit up your defense for over 400 yards. The passing offense is averaging over 11 yards per play. Kansas City’s kicker is the most automatic in NFL history, aside from the one nervously pacing on your sideline. Even if you hold Kansas City to just a few yards, Harrison Butker has not missed a 50-yard kick since 2019. You will lose.

Punt then. You have a good punter; Sam Koch is a former Pro Bowler. Your defense has been lit ablaze tonight, but a good punt might force Kansas City to go 50 yards to get into field-goal range. The Chiefs have no timeouts. Sure, they have Patrick Mahomes, but he is not invincible. Right?

John Harbaugh had no interest in willingly putting the ball in Mahomes’ hands. If the Chiefs want to win the game, they need to stop Lamar Jackson.

Harbaugh asks the world’s most rhetorical question.

Do you want to go for it, Lamar?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 25: Quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens waves from the sidelines during the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 25, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Yes. Duh. Jackson is the ultimate competitor. He has been initiating contact, carrying Baltimore to this spot. Once down 35-24 at the start of the fourth quarter, Jackson has led Baltimore to a 36-35 lead. This is the largest comeback of his career. He isn’t going to turn down this opportunity.

To the surprise of no one (other than Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, perhaps), Jackson and the offense return to the field. Everyone who has watched Baltimore in the last 2.5 seasons knows what is about to happen. Jackson is going to take the snap from the shotgun, blast into the trenches like a sledgehammer, and reach for the first-down marker. Kansas City knows this.

Jackson plows forward. He gains two yards. After a kneel-down, Baltimore has won.

This is not the first time that Baltimore has been given a life-or-death decision, and it will not be the last.

Since the beginning of 2019, the Ravens rank eighth in fourth-down attempts and fourth in conversions. Including playoffs, they convert on 60.4% of their fourth-down plays. Not all of these means as much as Jackson’s designed run to beat Kansas City.

Some do; Jackson energized the Ravens with a similar run against the Seattle Seahawks in 2019. Jackson scored on a fourth-and-2 from inside Seattle’s 10, opening Pandora’s box of destruction. Baltimore was a less than impressive 4-2, a good record, but they were far from the cream of the crop. After the fourth-down decision, Baltimore outscored Seattle 17-3. After a bye week, they beat the undefeated New England Patriots by 17. They fired off three consecutive 30-point wins, humiliating a pair of teams that would end the season with winning records. They knocked off two more playoff teams in close wins before stomping the Jets, Browns, and Steelers by multiple touchdowns.

Coming Full Circle

Baltimore was unstoppable on fourth down in 2019. They converted on 17 of 24 attempts, a mark of 70.8%. It was the best in the NFL, but it was a nearly unprecedented volume of success. In the last 30 years, only the 1996 Chicago Bears had as many attempts and a higher conversion rate.

Baltimore was particularly dominant on fourth-and-short. They were perfect in the regular season on fourth-and-1. Even on plays that went as aborted snaps, they made it work. Jackson converted on all three of his runs and his lone pass attempt. Gus Edwards similarly converted on both of his rush attempts. Six for six in total.

In Baltimore’s biggest game in five years, none of the above mattered. Jackson was stuffed on both fourth-and-1 plays. As a whole, Baltimore went 0-for-4 on fourth down against the Titans in the 2019 playoffs.

2020 was much of the same. Baltimore did not go for it as often as they had in 2019, but they converted at a 63.2% clip. Very good. In the playoffs, they once again failed to convert when it mattered, going 0-for-2 against the Buffalo Bills. Of the 19 teams to make the playoffs in the last two seasons, Baltimore is the only team with more than four failed attempts and zero successful attempts.

Verdict:

It seems almost fictional. Baltimore has been devastating on fourth-down plays in the regular season. Since the beginning of 2019, they are successful on 68.1% of attempts, within a fraction of a percent away from the league’s best (Arizona). In the playoffs, they are dead last. 0%.

At a certain point, the evidence is circumstantial. The failed fourth-and-1 plays against Tennessee are plays that will generally be beneficial for Baltimore, but they lost the coin flip twice. Against Buffalo, the fourth-down conversions were less than ideal. Without Jackson, Baltimore faced fourth-and-8 with seven minutes left and fourth-and-10 with three minutes left. Both of Tyler Huntley’s passes fell incomplete.

Sometimes, miracles are answered. Just one week after Jackson’s clutch run, Baltimore needed to convert on a fourth-and-19. This was not an analytics play; it was a must-win play. From 1994 to 2020, 341 fourth-down attempts needed at least 19 yards. 41 prayers were answered, including three of Baltimore’s 19. Another prayer was answered as Jackson hit Watkins for 36 yards. (Ironically enough, teams are 3-for-3 on fourth-and-19+ so far in 2021).

At the end of the day, John Harbaugh and the Ravens will continue to play on the cutting edge of analytics. Yes, they have a good punter. Yes, they have the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Yes, they have had a defense that has ranked in the top 10 of both scoring defense and total defense in nine of Harbaugh’s first 13 seasons. It won’t work every time, but Harbaugh has confidence in No.8’s ability to say eight words:

Hell yeah, coach, let [us] go for it!

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – DECEMBER 12: Head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 celebrate a touchdown in the third quarter of the game against the New York Jets at M&T Bank Stadium on December 12, 2019, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

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Ryan Potts is an avid football and baseball fan. He covers the NFL and Major League Baseball, focusing on the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Braves.