When Wild Card Weekend started, it looked like there were potentially four good and entertaining matchups. It didn’t exactly play out that way, but there are still some lessons and takeaways from the first round of the playoffs
Teams should throw the ball and throw it early
If the Seattle Seahawks thought running the ball got them to the playoffs, they’d be wrong. Yes, they were the only team to run the ball more than they threw in 2018, but if Russell Wilson didn’t play like Russell Freaking Wilson along the way, that run-first mentality wouldn’t have been as successful. The run-first strategy worked because Wilson was one of the best deep throwers in the league and was magic on third down when forced to convert. Seattle ignored all that against the Dallas Cowboys, even when the run wasn’t working at all. On 16 first downs over the first three quarters of Saturday’s Wild Card game, the Seahawks ran 10 times and passed six. Chris Carson had six carries for 10 yards. Mike Davis had one carry for three yards. Rashaad Penny had three carries for 24 yards but didn’t get his first attempt until the third quarter and one of them was for 27 yards. Meanwhile, when throwing on first downs, Russell Wilson was 5-of-6 for 71 yards (11.8 yards per attempt). By the time the Seahawks allowed Wilson to throw, it was too late. Seattle coaches — whether the blame is on Pete Carroll, Brian Schottenheimer, or both — cost the Seahawks the game.
Baltimore fell into a similar hole against the Chargers on Sunday, though at least the Ravens’ run game flows through the quarterback and has a better design than just running into a whole bunch of defenders right up the middle. Still, Baltimore was slow to pull away from the run, especially on first down. Over the first three quarters, the Ravens had 12 first down plays and nine of them were runs. Those totaled 22 yards. However, the Ravens were also 0-for-3 passing on those first downs — though Jackson improved late in the game.
The Chargers pass rush can be really good
Part of what gave the Ravens so many problems when they did try to throw the ball was the effectiveness of the Chargers’ pass rush. During the regular season, the Chargers only ranked 22nd in defensive pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions, but much of that was done without Joey Bosa in the lineup. On Sunday, the pass rush dominated Baltimore’s offensive line, which made it difficult for any positive plays through the air. Lamar Jackson was sacked seven times and didn’t have many opportunities to find players open down the field. Next Gen Stats tracks how close a defender is to the quarterback on each play and at least four Chargers finished way better than league average, which doesn’t even include Uchenna Nwosu, who had the fastest sack of the game at 2.4 seconds after the snap. It’s also a reason calls for Joe Flacco in the middle of the game were ill-advised. With a less mobile quarterback, the Ravens would have maybe only increased the likelihood of check downs while eliminating the possibility of a big play against that rush.
No linebackers allowed
One more note on the Chargers. They played the game without any inside linebackers — they have seven defensive backs on the field for all but one defensive snap on Sunday. The Chargers were the first team to play against Lamar Jackson twice this season and the way they adjusted was to get more speed on the field. Against a run heavy team, there have been many defenses who stay in base personnel in an attempt to stop the run. About 40 percent of Baltimore’s rushing attempts from Week 11 (Jackson’s first start) to the end of the season came against base personnel, per Sports Info Solutions, which was only the 14th-highest rate in the league, but because the Ravens ran so often, it was the highest total amount of runs (126). Almost half (47.8 percent) of Baltimore’s runs came against a nickel defense with five defensive backs, but even that still leaves two linebackers on the field. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley figured instead of bulking up to stop the run and possibly allowing the Ravens to run by them, getting more speed on the field would be the best way to slow the run game down — and it worked. The Ravens did not have a rushing attempt against a seven defensive back defense in the regular season. With linebackers already getting smaller and faster, a more permanent shift to six and seven defensive back alignments might be a part of the future.
The Colts can scheme with the best of them
Frank Reich might get some Coach of the Year votes, but he probably deserves more. Throughout the season, the Colts have figured out ways to scheme up plays to keep the offense moving. At the start of the season, it was letting Luck throw short passes to get back into the groove after his injury. As the season progressed, they started going back to the vertical passing game that brought Luck so much success under Bruce Arians. The run game was also opened up with some of the blocking schemes along a much improved offensive line. All of that came out in Houston on Saturday. The Colts picked apart a secondary that has struggled at times, kept Luck upright without a sack with only four quarterback hits, and the run game broke through against a defense that finished the regular season first in rush defense DVOA. They’ll now have to face the Kansas City Chiefs, who have a better secondary and pass rush than Houston, but much worse run defense. Still, it leaves the door open for Reich to draw up some potential big plays to hang with the Kansas City offense.
Weaknesses get exposed in the playoffs, especially at quarterback
Despite Matt Nagy being an offensive head coach, the Chicago Bears finished the regular season just 20th in offensive DVOA. Some of that comes from Chase Daniel playing games at quarterback, but the Chicago offense was consistently a step or two behind the defense throughout the regular season. That popped up against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, when the Bears could not consistently move the ball on offense. Mitchell Trubisky struggled for much of the game until finding some open throws late against an Eagles secondary that has played better of late but still features backups and players who should be able to be picked on down the field. That started to happen in the fourth quarter, but Trubiskly averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt on 33 throws through the first three quarters. That late-game put the Bears in a spot to need a long field goal to win the game, but a little better play at any point over the first three quarters would have made that final drive and kick unnecessary.
Offense > Defense
Let’s leave with this quick note:
Top 5 DVOA offenses: 5 teams remaining in playoffs— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) January 7, 2019
Top 5 DVOA defenses: 0 teams remaining in playoffs
There will be points scored next week.