Going for it: Examining the Ravens’ aggressiveness on fourth down

Given the types of games the Ravens seem to play every week, the situation is bound to play out Sunday at MetLife Stadium. The Ravens and New York Jets will be locked in a close game and Ravens coach John Harbaugh will have a decision to make.

Maybe it will be fourth-and-1 around midfield or perhaps it will be fourth-and-goal inside the 1 in the same area where the Ravens were stopped by the New York Giants last week. The one near certainty is Harbaugh will keep his offense on the field.


"I'm going to coach this team to score from the half-yard line," Harbaugh said this past week. "That is the way we are going to do it."

He doesn't have the catchy nickname like "Riverboat" Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers. He has never gone for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 while leading by six late in the fourth quarter like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick did against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009. But no team in the NFL has gone for it on fourth down more this season than Harbaugh's Ravens. Dating to 2014, the Ravens have attempted a fourth-down conversion seven more times than any other team in the NFL.


Harbaugh's fourth-down calls are applauded by his offensive players, who take the coach's aggressiveness as a show of confidence; and backed by the analytics community, which values possession and believes most NFL coaches are far too conservative.

However, his recent decision-making has also made the ninth-year head coach the subject of scrutiny from the media and criticism from the fans, who are tired of watching Harbaugh keep Justin Tucker, one of the game's best kickers, on the sideline in favor of a struggling offense.

"We don't want to put ourselves — we don't want to put John — in the situation where we have to make that call on fourth down," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We want to score on one of the first three and make it easy for ourselves. Having said that, we know that his mindset is that we're going to go for it — not only down there, but in the middle of the field. We're going to go for it on fourth downs, and we are going to try to get as many points as we can."

Hit or miss


In a six-point loss to the Washington Redskins on Oct. 9, Harbaugh eschewed a short Tucker field goal in the second quarter and instead called for a fake where the kicker threw an incomplete pass. In last week's 27-23 loss to the Giants, Harbaugh kept his offense on the field on fourth-and-goal from New York's 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter. Running back Terrance West was stopped for a loss.

Harbaugh was correct in saying that a lot more attention was spent dissecting that decision, rather than the Ravens' going for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 34 later in the fourth quarter against the Giants. Flacco completed a 22-yard pass to Kamar Aiken and the Ravens scored the go-ahead touchdown on that drive.

The Ravens are 4-for-10 on fourth-down conversions this year. League-wide, teams are converting on fourth down at a 50.6 percent clip (86-for-170) entering Sunday. Since 2014, the Ravens are 25-for-52 on fourth-down conversions, the 48.1 percent success rate ranking 17th in the NFL during that span, according to ESPN.

"You have to look at everything as objectively as possible in the space of an NFL game," Tucker said. "I think the analytics would tell you every time, you've got to go for it the times that we've gone for it. I'm right there with the rest of our players and all of our coaches. When we choose to be aggressive, we've got to get it. But I think making the decisions is important to establish the type of team that we want to be."

Harbaugh has gotten some heat during the team's three-game losing streak, but his decisions are generally praised by the NFL's growing analytics community.

"He's one of the better decision-makers in that regard," said Brian Burke, who works in the sports analytics department at ESPN and created Advanced Football Analytics. "He can afford to be even bolder, really. The current convention, the current playbook is well behind the times league-wide."

The right risk

Burke, a former Navy pilot, developed a model for evaluating fourth-down decisions based on the score and time of the game, the field position and distance needed for a first down. He finds that coaches are much too reluctant to take risks.

"Back in the 1970s when a lot of these coaches or these coaches' mentors learned their football, it was a really different sport," Burke said. "Offenses really have the upper hand now so it's easier to convert. The other thing is the ease with which an offense can move the ball changes the game in a couple of respects: no longer is field position that important, and it makes possession that much more important. What matters is keeping the ball."

Football Outsiders, an advanced statistical analysis website, has an "aggressiveness index," which measures how certain coaches approach fourth-and-short situations. Through much of his head-coaching career, Harbaugh was considered average in terms of aggressiveness. That has changed over the past two seasons, when he ranked fourth among all coaches in 2014 and fifth last season.

While Harbaugh has gotten more aggressive, other coaches haven't, according to Aaron Schatz, the creator of Football Outsiders and most of its statistical methods.

"In general, coaches are not listening to us. It surprises me, because they've got to know how good offenses are these, and they have to see the success that coaches have had who are more aggressive," Schatz said. "Look at what happened to Ron Rivera's reputation and Ron Rivera isn't even that aggressive these days. What we need is an owner who will come out and say in the press, 'This is what I want my head coach to do, and if it doesn't work, I will not blame him because this is what I want. We want our head coach to be aggressive and it will not cost him his job.'"

Schatz said he believes the primary reason many coaches are still conservative on fourth downs is because of the backlash they face when the decision doesn't work. It's a point that Sports Illustrated's L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz made in their book, "Scorecasting: The hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won."

Wertheim said he found that coaches with the most job security and seniority are the ones "more likely to depart from conventional wisdom."

Fourth-down philosophy

There are people around the game that believe analytics leave out too many variables, like the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and how they are playing that day. Harbaugh regularly consults with the team's analytics staff, and reviews different decisions and trends. He pushes back on occasion, but he generally adheres to the same aggressive philosophy that he has preached since being in Baltimore.

When Harbaugh decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 against the Giants, the Ravens had three reserve offensive linemen on the field. They also had 19 of their past 21 games dating to last year decided by eight points or fewer. Points are always at a premium in Ravens games and Harbaugh passed up a routine field goal.

After they were stopped, the Ravens defense held the Giants, who took over right outside their end zone. The Ravens got the ball back with decent field position and got a field goal.


To people like Burke and Schatz, Harbaugh's decision was a no-brainer. Teams that went for the first down on fourth-and-1 last year converted 63 percent of the time on 169 total plays. This year, the conversion rate in such situations is 65 percent.


"I'm not a psychologist, but the numbers are so obvious," Schatz said. "No team in the NFL should ever punt the ball on fourth-and-1 on the opponent's side of the field unless it's the last minute of the game and you're defending a lead. Even if you have the worst running offense in the league and you're going against one of the best run defenses, the odds of converting a fourth-and-1 are so strong that you should never punt."

Harbaugh's actions over the years suggest that he agrees with that philosophy. That's just fine with Ravens players, who hope if the same situation arises Sunday, Harbaugh makes the same decision.

"Who wants a coach where it's fourth-and-1, and we're going to punt the ball or kick a field goal?" wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "I love it. I think he should keep doing it. It shows you that he believes in us, but we just have to back him up. It's not his fault. It's our fault. We just have to finish for him."


Taking their shots

The Ravens are 4-for-10 on fourth downs this season and the lack of success has led to some criticism of coach John Harbaugh's decision-making.

Game; Down-distance; Yard line; Score at time; Time remaining; Result;

vs. Bills; 4th-1; Bills 42; Ravens, 10-7; 0:46 left in 3rd; West 0-yard catch;

vs. Browns; 4th-2; Browns 28; Browns, 20-2; 15:00 left in 2nd; Forsett 1-yard run;

vs. Jaguars; 4th-2; Jags 49; Jags, 17-16; 2:14 left in 4th; S. Smith 5-yard catch;

vs. Raiders; 4th-1; Raiders 1; Raiders, 14-6; 2:46 left in 3rd; Flacco 1-yard TD run;

vs. Raiders; 4th-10; 50; Raiders, 28-27; 0:48 left in 4th; Flacco inc. to Aiken;

vs. Redskins; 4th-12; Redskins 17; Ravens, 10-6; 4:34 left in 2nd; Tucker inc. to Gillmore (fake FG);

vs. Redskins; 4th-2; Ravens 25; Redskins, 16-10; 2:02 left in 4th; Flacco 6-yard run;

vs. Redskins; 4th-8; Redskins 21; Redskins, 16-10; 0:20 left in 4th; Flacco inc. to Wallace;

vs. Giants; 4th-1; Giants 1; Giants, 17-13; 15:00 left in 4th; West minus-1-yard run;

vs. Giants; 4th-1; Ravens 34; Giants, 20-16; 4:24 left in 4th; Aiken 22-yard catch;

Harbaugh the Gambler?

Since 2014, no NFL has gone for it on fourth down more than John Harbaugh's Ravens. (Numbers through Monday's game)

Team; 4th-down attempts (since 2014); Success rate (pct.)

Ravens; 52; 25-for-52 (48.1%)

49ers; 45; 22-for-45 (48.9%)

Bears; 45; 20-for-45 (44.4%)

Browns; 45; 18-for-45 (40.0%)

Falcons; 44; 24-for-44 (54.5%)

Dolphins; 44; 15-for-44 (34.1%)

Texans; 42; 17-for-42 (40.5%)

Jaguars; 41; 20-for-41 (48.8%)

Lions; 39; 22-for-39 (56.4%)

Giants; 38; 17-for-38 (44.7%)

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