After reading Greg’s article yesterday (as well as the ESPN/Football Outsiders article claiming the Colts would lose big in the playoffs), I couldn’t get the question out of my head. Exactly how bad would the Colts lose if they do in fact make the playoffs?
With that in mind I have decided to breakdown each of the Colts most likely matchups in a three part series (assuming part one is well received of course; and doesn’t break the internet) I’m calling, “Josh Boeke Breaks Down Potential Colts’ Playoff Matchups.” Catchy right? Hopefully as the playoff picture becomes clearer I won’t have to guess.
While it may seem a bit early to be asking such questions (we do after all still have an entire fourth of the season left to play), the Colts find themselves with a serious advantage in the wild card race. The Bengals and Steelers are only 1 game back, but with a game still remaining to be played between them, the Colts have what is essentially a 2 game lead (we only need to finish better than one of them, not both).
Consider that the Colts also have the all-important tiebreak advantage (the Colts 5-3 conference record bests the 4-5 and 5-5 marks by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati respectively), and you’ll realize that they have what actually amounts to a 2 ½ game lead with only 4 games to play (1 of which is against NFL cellar dweller Kansas City).
Barring a 1-3 finish and a 3-1/3-1 finish by the Steelers and Bengals, the Colts WILL make the playoffs (knock on wood). This is the NFL and, as we all know, anything can happen, but the Colts missing the playoffs is pretty unlikely at this point (Football Outsiders projected a 67% chance for the Colts making the playoffs, and that was before they beat Detroit this week, I expect that to be closer to 85% now).
I know I will get cries of “JINX! JINX!” “BURN IN HELL!” and other such sentiments unbecoming discourse amongst gentlemen, but let’s be honest, if I predicted the playoffs in week 4 (yes, I will bring this up in every article I write until the end of the season) and we are currently 8-4, I don’t think doing it now is going to be any more jinx inducing. Anyway, I don’t think that highly of myself that I could turn the tide against the force of nature that is #CHUCKSTRONG.
For this first installment I will be breaking down Colts vs. Ravens.
Baltimore has a 95% chance of winning their division (again according to Football Outsiders playoff odds, though that number should drop a tad after losing that ugly game against Pitt), but their chances of finishing with a bye week are much less favorable (roughly 35% coming into this week, so probably about 20% now with Denver, New England, and Houston all winning in front of them). With the Colts likely garnering the 5th seed, it’s beginning to appear that facing the Ravens in a #4-#5 matchup is the most probable scenario.
So what should we expect if this game were in fact to occur? Obviously a lot can change in 4 weeks, but I was curious, so I figure some of you might be as well. To start, let’s take a look at some traditional team numbers (organized into a series of charts for your viewing pleasure).
As we can see from these charts, the Colts actually matchup quite favorably to the Ravens in several key areas. Indy has a significant edge in pass offense, while their run offense, pass defense, and rushing defense are all just a smidge better than the Ravens by traditional stats. Where the Colts fall flat, and what has really kept them from being taken seriously this season, is scoring.
Ranking 17th in scoring (compared to 3rd in total offense), the Colts find themselves near the bottom of the league in yards per point (27th at 17.8 yards per point scored), while on defense they rank a middling 22nd (14.2 yards per point allowed). By contrast, the top ranked offense, New England, only requires an impressively efficient 11.9 ypp, and the top ranked defense, San Francisco, forces teams to go 19.6 yards for every point scored.
Baltimore, on the other hand, has managed to score points even though their offensive production has not been great (19th in total offense). Their 13.6 yards per point scored is good for 7th best in the NFL. On defense they are even better, making their opponent move the ball 18.5 yards for every point they score (5th).
All is not lost however. In the last three games the Colts have been significantly better at maximizing scoring opportunities (their 75% red zone TD efficiency – 6 for 8 – over the past three is 3rd best in the NFL and dramatically higher than their season average of 52.63%). Indy’s 15.4 ypp over those last three games places them right in the middle of the pack during that stretch; still not great, but a good deal of improvement on the first nine games.
And while Indianapolis has been trending up, Baltimore is trending down. Their 16.4 ppg and 19.0 ypp over the past three puts them 27th and 30th in those categories respectively. Granted they’ve played the #1 ranked Pittsburgh defense in two of those three games (the Steelers are #1 in total defense but are actually only 27th in ypp with 13.6 yards per point allowed), but the fact remains, the Colts seem to be improving as the season progresses while the Ravens are struggling to maintain their hot start.
So traditional stats would have this game at about a coin toss, probably favoring the home team (which would be Baltimore of course), but what about advanced stats? This portion of the exercise could get ugly.
For this segment of the breakdown I will be employing grades provided by Pro Football Focus and using Football Outsiders various percentage based grades (don’t ask me how they’re calculated, I have no idea). I may even throw a few Cold Hard Football Facts quality stats into the mix, cover all our bases.
These numbers more or less speak for themselves. Even just a quick glance at the above charts tells us that the Colts are outperforming their ratings (Football Outsiders had the Colts at 3.6 estimated wins going into the game against Detroit; that’s worse than Cleveland, San Diego, Buffalo, and even Arizona). Before we get into what exactly the advanced stats might be missing, let’s first try to glean what we can from what they get right.
What they get right: I think we all can agree that the Colts pass protection this season has been nigh on abysmal. PFF confirms. The Colts -26.7 pass block grade is 30th in the league ahead of only San Diego and Arizona. Fun fact: Mike McGlynn, Jeff Linkenbach, Joe Reitz, and Seth Olsen are a combined -32.9 overall (McGlynn takes the ignominious mantle of worst offensive lineman, and worst player, at -13.9 for the season; granted he’s played a lot more snaps than the other guys who would likely give him a run).
The only Colts’ lineman with a positive pass block grade is Winston Justice and he hasn’t had a good game since week 6 (Castonzo thankfully has been much better lately).
Football outsiders are a little kinder, their sack % stat puts the Colts 16th in pass protection, but if you consider the elusiveness of Luck it’s not nearly as impressive (PFF rates Luck as the 5th most pressured QB but 26th in sack %; it’s not the protection). CHFF also gives the Colts O-line a relatively high grade in their Offensive Hogs Index (11th), but this rating too is based on sack %, as well as 3rd down %, both stats that have been inflated artificially by Luck’s ability to avoid pressure.
If the Colts have had one glaring deficiency in their passing game it’s the complete absence of production from their running backs (Colts running backs are collectively -4.0 on the season in the pass game), not so with Baltimore. Baltimore’s ostensibly high pass grade is largely a result of consistency at the WR position and the contributions of Ray Rice out of the backfield (49 receptions for 409 yards and a +8.6 rating in the pass game).
Where the Colts have relied heavily on Reggie Wayne (albeit less true of late), the Ravens have spread the ball around. Five separate players have graded green (green is good) in the passing game for Baltimore: Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta, Ray Rice, and Jacoby Jones. The Colts can claim that of only two: Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen.
Touching on the run game really quickly. Both the Colts and the Ravens have serviceable run games. For the Colts, they lack a true every down running back and rely on a by committee approach (Brown and Ballard have split the load more or less 50/50 with a sprinkling of Delone Carter here and there), along with a heavy dose of Andrew Luck (his rush grade is 1st on the team and 2nd among QBs overall). The Ravens conversely use a dominating fullback in Vonta Leach (+11.4 run block, 1st among FBs) and a single elite running back in Ray Rice (his +13.1 overall grade is 3rd among RBs behind Adrian Peterson and CJ Spiller). Very different styles that have so far gotten very similar results.
Where they fall down: The first thing that really jumps out at me is the massive disparity in PFF’s grading of the two pass offenses. The Colts sit near the bottom of the league with a 1.3 grade (23rd behind teams like St. Louis, Oakland, and Carolina), while the Ravens find themselves 9th (DVOA is a little more reasonable with the Colts 18th and the Ravens 17th, the teams separated by a negligible 4%). So why the huge gap when traditional stats tell us the Colts have the better pass offense? That answer is more complicated than you might think.
I love PFF, but we need to understand that PFF grades are based on a lot of factors, every player on the team contributes to the score. A great game by Luck might be negated, grading points wise, by a few terrible drops by a receiver. The grade does not always reflect actual game outcome either, rather it provides an at-a-glance number that illustrates how good a team was collectively. The score for each player's on the team impacts the aggregate equally but that doesn't necessarily mean their impact on the field was also equal. I know, it's confusing.
For example: Reggie Wayne has a positive grade on the season (+24.9, which is the highest in the league at WR), as does Luck (+4.8, the Detroit game hurt him), so you’d think the Colts’ offensive grade would be quite high right? Well not necessarily. Because other players on the team have hugely negative grades (like McGlynn and Satele) the Colts will grade out relatively low overall. McGlynn and Satele have played as bad as Wayne has played good (by grade), but that doesn't mean their bad play has caused the Colts to lose on the field as much as Wayne's good play has helped them win (in other words, their tangible impact on the game is not equal even though their grades offset each other in the rankings). Make sense? Good.
What this means is that a lot of the Colts dead weight is being heavily counted against them by PFF (this is of course also true for other teams but the Colts happen to have a disproportionate amount of dead weight this season compared to the rest of the league). Players that no longer start, or are even on the team, still count towards the Colts overall score. While this provides a better assessment of how a team has played throughout the season, it doesn’t do us much good when trying to compare the composition of two teams right now.
Consider that the Colts have played 31 different players on offense this season. Yes, you read that right, 31. That includes 11 on the offensive line, 5 TEs, and 7 different WRs. Of those 31, 14 have a red PFF grade (red is bad), about half of which are no longer on the active roster. You can see where I’m going with this.
The Colts, as currently constituted, are not reflected accurately in some of these grades. They’ve suffered so many injuries this season and have shuffled through so many players that it’s expected they would have some truly awful performances from one-or-two-week fill in guys (and they certainly have). PFF does not account for this.
Do I think the Colts offense, overall, is better than the Ravens? Yes, yes I do. Can I understand why advanced stats might say otherwise? I definitely can.
What they get right: The Colts have not been a good defensive team this season. Both PFF and Football Outsiders agree on that score. PFF puts the Colts defense at a bad, but not historically bad, -36.5 overall (that’s 29th in the NFL). FO on the other hand, after adjusting for strength of schedule (Colts have the 2nd easiest defensive schedule), tells us that this Colts unit is in fact one of the worst of all time. While I tend to lean more toward PFF on this one (bad but not historically bad), there are definitely some serious deficiencies to discuss.
PFF does not like the Colts’ run defense, and for good reason. The Colts are allowing roughly 4.8 yards per attempt, that’s 30th in the NFL (Baltimore is 4.0, 9th best in the league). The main problem for the Colts’ defense is the absolute train wreck along the defensive line. 5 of the Colts 8 lowest rated defensive players are on the defensive line. Only 1 defensive lineman has received a positive grade from PFF and that’s Drake Nevis, who is of course out for the season.
If their inability to stop the run wasn’t bad enough, the D-line also fails to get almost any pressure on the quarterback. The Colts’ 7 lowest grades for pass rush are ALL defensive linemen, all of them. We know that the 3-4 defense is designed to bring pressure from linebackers and exotic blitz packages, but the inability of the defensive line to get any kind of push up the middle has been a serious problem this season.
Fortunately for the Colts and their ailing offensive line, the Ravens pass rush isn’t much better. Courtney Upshaw is the 3rd lowest rated 3-4 LB rushing the passer (-14.8) in the entire NFL, and while Haloti Ngata gives the Ravens a dominant force in the middle, they still struggle along the defensive line (Ma’ake Kemoeatu is rated even lower than Antonio Johnson, which I didn’t think was possible).
The Colts are ridiculously thin in the secondary as well (FO rates the Colts 32nd against both 3rd WRs and TEs). Hopefully the return of Vontae Davis will help, but this particular problem isn’t going to be fixed this season regardless, best they can do is patch it up. It’s interesting that PFF grades the Colts significantly higher in pass coverage than the Ravens, though part of that might be the fact that the Colts have faced some of the least prolific passing teams in the NFL (Jacksonville twice, Minnesota, NYJ, Cleveland, etc.).
It could also be that the Ravens’ corners are actually that bad. PFF rates Jimmy Smith the worst cornerback in the entire league; 112 out of 112. That’s really bad. His -12.7 rating is worse than Jerraud Powers, Cassius Vaughn, and Justin King… combined. Beyond Ed Reed the Baltimore secondary is perhaps even worse than ours, as shocking as that sounds.
Where they fall down: I don’t care what Football Outsiders says, I’ve watched every snap of this Indianapolis defense (most of them more than once) and there’s no way it’s historically bad. Sure they give up chunk plays now and again, and yes they have had stretches of games where they looked completely lost, but time and time again they have pulled through in crucial situations and kept the Colts in games they had no business winning. Even that 59 point New England game was a snow ball effect that included 3 return TDs.
Really, when you examine all the various stats, it’s hard to see where FO is getting their rating. The only explanation that makes sense to me is the record breaking futility in generating takeaways. With only 8 takeaways through 12 games the Colts could realistically break the NFL record of 11 (which was set in a strike shortened season no less). Not all of that is fair to put on the defense though. Sometimes you just have to get lucky. The Colts are recovering fumbles at a rate of 20%, it’s just one of those things.
I know I haven’t really mentioned special teams, and I realize it’s an important part of winning in the NFL, but really there’s not too much to say. The Ravens rank #1 in special teams by FO, in fact they are currently on pace to have the 3rd best special teams year in NFL history. This is a combination of a great return game (Jacoby Jones has 2 kick return TDs and a punt return TD and his 34.2 kick return average is 2nd only to Percy Harvin among players with 10+ returns), a great kicker (Justin Tucker is 22-23 including 8-9 from 40-49 and 4-4 from 50+; highest rated kicker by PFF), and a solid coverage team.
The Colts special teams are better than they’ve been in years past but are nothing particularly extraordinary. Pat McAfee has developed into a great punter and currently sits at 3rd in the PFF punter rankings. T. Y. Hilton has brought a spark to the punt return game (his 11.4 yard punt return average is top 10 among returners with 10+ returns, he’s currently 4th in the PFF punt return rankings, and is so much better than what we had last season).
Okay, we are almost to the end, I promise. If you stuck with me this long, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back, it’s been a grind. We’ve seen what the traditional stats tell us and we’ve seen what the advanced stats tell us, but how does it equate to the game itself? Glad you asked.
Colts’ strength vs. Ravens’ weakness: The strength of the Colts team is definitely their pass offense. PFF may rate us in the bottom 3rd of the league but that to me is bogus. Even FO’s ranking of 18th is too low in my opinion. The Colts have a top 10 passing attack (potentially top 5 by season’s end), and when they are on they are hard to stop. Andrew Luck just continues to get better and with the return of Fleener as well as the continued emergence of Hilton, Avery, and Allen as reliable targets, the sky really is the limit for this pass offense. Couple that with the serendipitous fact that the Ravens most glaring weaknesses are their pass rush and secondary and you have a recipe for an upset.
Ravens’ strength vs. Colts’ weakness: The strength of the Ravens right now, especially with the struggles of Joe Flacco, is undoubtedly their running game. While they don’t rank particularly high in yards per game, Ray Rice is still an elite running back and the continually mounting injuries along the Colts front line could make for a very long day in Maryland.
And finally – and real quickly – my position by position breakdown.
Quarterback: Joe Flacco is the veteran, but Andrew Luck is the future. There are certainly still a few quarterbacks left in these playoffs that I would pick over Andrew Luck at this stage of his career, but Joe Flacco isn't one of them.
Running backs: Ballard, Brown, and Carter have performed admirably this season and if you include the production you get out of Luck it’s not impossible the Colts could end up with more rushing yards than Baltimore. That being said, Ray Rice is clearly the best running back in this game and it would be foolish to say otherwise.
Wide receivers: As I mentioned earlier, the Ravens have a stable of very consistent and very reliable wide receivers, but none of them even approach what Reggie Wayne has done this year. With the improved chemistry developing between Luck and Hilton, Avery, Allen, and we hope Fleener, I would take the Colts’ upside over the Ravens’ reliability.
Offensive line: There’s isn’t much to say about this, the Colts lose basically by default. It doesn’t hurt that the Ravens actually have same really good offensive linemen (Marshal Yanda is the highest rated RG in the NFL and Matt Birk ain’t bad either). This position could prove to be the difference in the game.
Defensive line: While the Ravens’ D-line isn’t quite what it used to be, Haloti Ngata can still flat out play and even with the struggles of Ma’ake Kemoeatu is significantly better than the Colts’, which might honestly be the worst defensive line in football.
Linebackers: The Ravens have a couple good ones, but this is easily the Colts’ deepest position. Between Mathis and Freeney (who is coming on strong of late, +9.1 in his past two games alone) on the outside, and Conner, Fokou, Angerer, and Freeman (who is having an unbelievable season) rotating in the middle, this Colts’ linebacking corps might be one of the best in the league.
Secondary: Baltimore isn’t exactly deep in the secondary and the worst CB on the field is likely not in a Colts’ uniform, but what it comes down to for me is the Hall of Famer roaming the middle, and that’s Ed Reed. If Vontae Davis can stay healthy and continue to build on his success I think he may turn the tide here a bit (I’m a believer), but there are just too many injuries and too much inexperience for this secondary to be taken seriously. It’s Baltimore again.
Special teams: The Ravens are having a historic year on special teams, Adam Vinatieri has missed 7 FGs, not much more needs to be said. Hilton has been great in the punt game and McAfee is proving he’s legit, but this has to once again go to the Ravens.
Coaching: And here, as the bard would tell you, is the rub. John Harbaugh is a hell of a football coach, and this is to take nothing away from him, but what Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians have been able to do with this team has been nothing short of miraculous. I’m not much for superstition but there’s something going on with this team this year that cannot be explained away. Call it chemistry, call it destiny, call it whatever you want, it’s amazing and it’s happening. Nothing would surprise me at this point.
Final Thoughts: The stats say take the Ravens, especially playing at home, but I've seen too many crazy things from this Colts team this year for me to think they won't continue to do what they've done all season and prove the numbers wrong. I know I just spent 3,000 words examining a matchup and now I am going against my own information, but hey, that's what you do sometimes. I've provided the information, now you are educated enough to make up your own mind (I hope anyway, cause even for me that was a lot of words).
Final prediction: Colts 31 – Ravens 21
Give me your thoughts, predictions, rants, etc. in the comments, and as always, follow me on Twitter Follow @Colt_Following; I'm full of useful information.