Living in Baltimore I hear a lot about the Ravens whether I want to or not. Last year I heard how great the Ravens were at the beginning of the season, I heard the frustration and anger at their mid-season slide, and ultimately I heard the cheers when they beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl. It certainly was a wild ride for the Ravens last year and it was capped off by a storybook ending for Ray Lewis and the boys.
The Ravens team that takes the field on September 5th will look completely different than the team that left the field February 3rd in New Orleans. The loses of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Cary Williams will leave a void on the defensive side of the ball for sure. But perhaps the most important losses, however, were Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. Boldin was traded in the offseason to the 49ers and Pitta was lost for the year with a hip injury early in training camp. Jake Myers laid out here how many targets will need to be filled with both Boldin and Pitta out and how this could benefit Torrey Smith and friends. However, one area that gets overlooked is how effective Pitta and Boldin were on 3rd down for the Ravens in 2012.
According to this Pro Football Focus article, Joe Flacco converted 61 third or fourth downs during the regular season. Good for a 34.46% conversion rate. He ranked 21st out of an eligible 29 passers. These are not good numbers, especially for an “elite” quarterback. I did some more research into these numbers and out of the 61 conversions, 54 were picked up via the pass on third downs. Flacco’s full third down stats are listed below.
It gets more interesting when you look at whom these throws went to. Pitta and Boldin caught a total of 40 passes on third down, or 48% of Flacco’s completions. They also made up 47% of the yards and 43% of the TDs. Most importantly, Pitta and Boldin accounted for 28 first downs, or 52%. Their full third down stat lines are below.
Conversion Rate (Rec/1st Downs)
These numbers speak to how import Pitta and Boldin were, not only to the Ravens offense last year, but also to the whole team. Being able to convert third downs is one of the most important aspects of football. Keeping a drive alive and giving your defense a chance to rest could be the difference between winning and losing.
I also looked at how the 28 drives that were extended by Pitta and Boldin ended. 14 of the 24 (there were 4 drives in which both Pitta and Boldin moved the chains) ended in touchdowns for the Ravens. Who benefited the most from these extended drives? Ray Rice. Half of Rice’s 10 touchdowns last year came on drives in which Pitta or Boldin extended. Just another reason why I’m down on Rice this season.
What happens this year when Pitta and Boldin aren’t there to move the chains? Someone will have to fill the third down targets vacated by them. Through two preseason games, Flacco has found some success targeting Rice and Smith on third downs, but it’s too early to tell if this will carry over to the regular season. Whether its Smith, Rice, Ed Dickson, or any other receiver, someone will have to step up and be Flacco’s guy. If they can’t convert at the same rate as Pitta and Boldin, the Ravens could struggle. I can reasonably see Rice’s touchdowns cut by 2 or 3 simply because Pitta and Boldin won’t be there to convert much needed third downs, and this doesn’t even touch the impact on the offense as a whole. And how will losing nearly half of his third down production affect Flacco? And what about the impact not converting as many third downs could have on the defense? Or the punt team? Losing Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin could prove to be a killer for the Ravens in more ways than one.