From an analytical perspective, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh made a mistake by going for two at the end of his team’s Week 15 game against the Packers, according to Football Outsiders editor in chief Aaron Schatz, but both Schatz and former NFL head coach Chuck Pagano caution that there are a lot of factors that went into Harbaugh’s decision.
Harbaugh faced a decision about whether to play for a regulation win or overtime after Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley scrambled for a touchdown with 42 seconds remaining to cut the Ravens’ deficit to 31-30. Harbaugh opted for a two-point attempt, which failed.
Was it the right decision? Schatz isn’t so sure.
“The problem is if you go up by one, you give Aaron Rodgers the ball back with 40 seconds left and a reason to play aggressively, whereas if you tie the game, you give Aaron Rodgers the ball back with 40 seconds left but a reason to play conservatively,” Schatz said on Glenn Clark Radio Dec. 20.
It wasn’t the first time Harbaugh played for the win with a two-point conversion at the end of regulation. He did the same thing in Pittsburgh in Week 13, with quarterback Lamar Jackson’s pass just evading tight end Mark Andrews for what would have almost certainly been a touchdown. The Ravens lost, 20-19. After the game, Harbaugh explained that his team was running low on healthy corners and that he felt better about winning the game with a two-pointer than in overtime.
The Ravens’ defensive backfield was again a concern against the Packers. Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey recently suffered a season-ending pec injury. Cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Chuck Clark missed the Packers game due to COVID-19 protocols. Slot corner Tavon Young left the game due to a head injury.
That meant Anthony Averett, Robert Jackson and Kevon Seymour were the team’s top corners at the end of the game. Brandon Stephens and Geno Stone were the team’s safeties. Defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine Sr. rotated in.
How the defense would have held up in overtime against reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers had to have been a consideration for Harbaugh, according to Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator (2011) and Colts head coach (2012-2017).
“You’re scared to death, the way he’s playing not only in that game but throughout the season. It’s Aaron Rodgers,” Pagano said on GCR Dec. 20. “You look at John’s team and what they’ve overcome, even to have eight wins with all the injuries and losses that they had at the beginning of the season and continue to have during the season, you look at all those things and those all factor into your decisions.”
However, 42 seconds and one timeout might have been plenty of time for Rodgers regardless of whether the Ravens converted the two-point attempt or kicked the extra point. He was faced with a similar situation in Week 3 against the 49ers in San Francisco. A late score put the 49ers up, 28-27, with 37 seconds remaining.
The Packers’ ensuing drive began at the 49ers’ 25-yard line. It didn’t even matter that they didn’t have any timeouts. A completion to star receiver Davante Adams brought the Packers to midfield. Rodgers then killed the clock, and two plays later he found Adams again to get the Packers in field goal range. Kicker Mason Crosby drilled the 51-yarder for the win.
In Week 13, the Steelers would have only had 12 seconds with which to work had the Ravens kicked the extra point or converted the two-pointer, so that situation was a little bit different than the one the Ravens faced in Week 15. However, in both instances the two-point attempts were gut decisions by Harbaugh about his defense’s chances of holding up in overtime, according to Schatz.
But if Harbaugh wanted to maximize his chances of winning in regulation, Schatz says he should have gone for two earlier in the game. With the Ravens down, 31-17, Huntley scampered in for a touchdown with 4:47 left in regulation to get the Ravens within eight. That would have been the ideal time to go for two, according to Schatz.
“The reason why you go for two earlier is so if you get the first [two-point conversation], then all you need is an extra point and you’ve won the game on the second touchdown,” Schatz said. “But if you failed your earlier two, then you still have a chance to tie it with another two. That is the real analytics choice, and that is the surprise. Harbaugh understands how that works.”
And then there is the two-point play itself once the decision was made to go for two down 31-30. Huntley rolled out to his right and targeted Andrews, who had caught 10 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns on the day. Darnell Savage sprinted from his safety position to break up the play. Ravens receiver Marquise Brown was open, but Huntley said after the game that he didn’t see him. The Packers recovered the ensuing onside kick to salt the game away.
Was it wise to roll out Huntley and limit him to one side of the field? What did Pagano see?
“Huntley had all the reps this week. He’s a dynamic young quarterback and a really good player,” Pagano said. “I know they practiced that play over and over and over again and it makes sense to get it to your No. 1 guy and try to get one-on-one coverage with the DB there on Mark, and the throw was just a little bit off. If he throws to that front pylon and it’s not behind Mark, we’re probably not having this discussion.”
For more from Schatz, listen to the full interview here:
For more from Pagano, listen to the full interview here:
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