John Harbaugh is getting heat from fans and players alike for his decision to shun a field goal and keep his offense on the field at a critical moment during the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 defeat to the Buffalo Bills in Week 4.
The decision backfired when Lamar Jackson’s goal-line pass was intercepted in the end zone by safety Jordan Poyer, leaving the score deadlocked at 20-20. Josh Allen promptly drove the Bills to the winning points, a 21-yard field goal by Tyler Bass. O’ the irony.
Harbaugh’s decision to be aggressive rather than play the percentages was a sign he doesn’t trust his defense, according to a two-time Super Bowl winner. This New England Patriots great trashed the Ravens’ defense, calling the unit “one of the worst” he’s seen from a franchise traditionally known for excellence on this side of the ball.
Ex-Patriots Great Has Harsh Words for Ravens’ Defense
Speaking on NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football (h/t Ravens Vault co-host Bobby Trosset), Rodney Harrison didn’t pull any punches when discussing Baltimore’s defense. The longtime former safety who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots offered this blunt assessment: “They don’t play Ravens defense. This is one of the worst defenses I’ve seen with the Baltimore Ravens.”
Harrison also explained Harbaugh’s controversial decision by stating, “He didn’t trust his defense. Bottom Line. He didn’t trust his defense.”
Those words echoed the sentiments of Harrison’s broadcast colleague, Tony Dungy. The defensive mastermind who helped develop the famed Tampa 2 in the 1990s and 2000s, before winning a Super Bowl as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, felt Harbaugh’s decision showed he “didn’t have confidence in his defense.”
That apparent lack of trust might have stung several Ravens defenders, including cornerback Marcus Peters. He engaged in a heated verbal spat with Harbaugh seconds before Bass’ winning kick.
It certainly sounded as if Harbaugh was at least concerned about if his defense could cope with Allen and Co., when the coach offered this explanation for the decision: “You’re putting your defense at a disadvantage because they’ve got four downs to convert all the way down the field and a chance to again score seven, and then you lose the game on a touchdown.”
Perhaps there was justification for such concern. Especially since Allen leads one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL, while the Ravens have been far from themselves defensively through four games.
Big Plays Going For and Against Ravens’ Defense
Baltimore’s D’ ranks 23rd in points allowed and 30th in yards surrendered. Despite a new coordinator, Mike Macdonald, and several new faces in the secondary, the Ravens have given up a league-high 1,261 yards through the air.
The additions of splash free-agent signing Marcus Williams and 14th-overall draft pick Kyle Hamilton have done nothing to bolster what was the worst pass defense in football a year ago.
There has been some improvement in the big-play department, where the Ravens have eight sacks and seven interceptions to their credit. One of those picks came against Allen, courtesy of cornerback Marlon Humphrey:
Williams also got in on the turnover binge by recovering a fumble forced by Odafe Oweh. The Ravens can make impact plays on defense, but the unit is failing to stop offenses compensating by gaining yardage in chunks, one reason why the Bills were able to rescue a 20-3 deficit.
Perhaps that’s why Harbaugh believed he needed the extra cushion of a seven- rather than a three-point lead. The 60-year-old also deferred to the analytics to justify his contentious call.
However, those same analytics don’t exactly offer a convincing endorsement of opting against kicking a field goal in the situation the Ravens faced in the final quarter.
Numbers, Context and History Don’t Support Harbaugh
The numbers aren’t firmly on Harbaugh’s side in this debate. Not according to Next Gen Stats, which revealed only the slightest possible advantage of going for a touchdown instead of having Justin Tucker kick:
Harbaugh can’t even lean on context to shed a favorable light on his thought process. Not when the Ravens had taken almost nine and a half minutes off the clock to drive to the Bills’ two-yard line. Nor when his own offense had endured “four consecutive drives without scoring points, preventing them from putting the game away,” per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic.
Zrebiec also pointed out how history was hardly on Harbaugh’s side, not based on how often the coach has gotten these calls wrong in recent years: “Twice last year, against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, Harbaugh went for the two-point conversion late in the game and the likely win. Both times the Ravens came up short.”
Ultimately, Harbaugh was always going to be skewered for his decision once the call backfired. Had Jackson’s pass found its intended target, Harbaugh would be lauded for his bold, risk-taking approach.
Yet, it’s equally true the Ravens’ head coach might be more risk averse if his defense was playing up to standard.