The NFL season is in a very weird place right now. The Omicron variant has landed stateside and we’re seeing cases spring up all over sports, and that is doing some real damage to rosters. Hopefully by the time you read this, there won’t have been any more bad news but as of writing, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark was added to the COVID list. While at the time of writing it is still technically possible for him to test out, he is very short on time to do so, so I will be proceeding as if he is out for the game.
Two Broken Peas in a Pod
The Packers and the Baltimore Ravens have both have had the unpleasant opportunity to go through the season as two of the most injured teams in the NFL. While it can be tough to balance quality of player missed with the sheer quantity of injuries endured by Baltimore, as you can see here, both teams have been ravaged in their own way:
While this situation has gotten a little better for Green Bay and may get quite a bit better as David Bakhtiari and Jaire Alexander look close to returning, for Baltimore, oh poor Baltimore...
Before even getting into the weekly injury report, it’s impossible to ignore the Ravens’ injured reserve list. The Ravens have SEVENTEEN players on injured reserve, including two starting cornerbacks, a starting offensive tackle, and an entire group of running backs. Safety Chuck Clark was placed on the COVID list yesterday which now leaves Baltimore with zero starters from week one in their secondary.
On the injury report itself, things aren’t looking great for Baltimore, as the following players were DNP for Thursday’s practice (not including veteran rest designations): TE Nick Boyle, DL Calais Campbell, QB Lamar Jackson, OG Tyre Phillips, OG Ben Powers, FB Patrick Ricard, OT Alejandro Villanueva, and WR Marquise Brown. The big one here is obviously Lamar Jackson, who suffered an ankle sprain that knocked him out of last week’s game. The Ravens were hoping to have him practice on Friday, but it appears he is a bit behind schedule.
This depends quite heavily on who is playing quarterback, but the Ravens best bet is to make this a low-possession slog. With Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens have routinely been one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. That hasn’t quite been the case in 2021, however. Jackson’s individual rushing efficiency is down across nearly all metrics and the Ravens sit tied for eighth in the NFL in per-play rushing efficiency with Green Bay (-.041 EPA per rush). Aside from all the injuries to the offensive line and quarterback rooms, the Ravens aren’t using any running backs that were supposed to be on their active roster at the start of the season. Their depth chart currently is Devonta Freeman, Latavius Murray, and Ty’Son Williams, none of whom were supposed to be in the rotation when training camp opened.
Despite these issues, this is Baltimore’s best bet because Kenny Clark is (probably) out. This is a massive week for rookie T.J. Slaton to show he can handle the workload of being NT1. If Baltimore is able to run their gap stuff and move Green Bay’s front around, this could be a death by the slowest thousand cuts you have ever seen when the defense is on the field.
The other advantage Baltimore may have is the trenches when Green Bay is on offense. If Calais Campbell is healthy, Baltimore has a front that can absolutely cause some issues with him, Brandon Williams, Justin Houston, and Tyus Bowser all being potential causes for concern. I would not expect Green Bay to make a lot of hay trying to pound the ball against a Baltimore front that ranks sixth in rushing EPA allowed per play and fourth in rushing DVOA allowed.
If Baltimore can combine a solid running game with high-leverage plays from tight end Mark Andrews, that might be enough to win. Andrews is second among tight ends in DYAR and ninth in DVOA. While linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has had a fantastic season, that has largely been as a sideline-to-sideline tackler. Green Bay hasn’t matched up with a lot of heavy personnel usage teams (like Baltimore) that use their tight ends a lot (49ers tight end George Kittle missed the Packers game), so this will be an interesting matchup to see.
The elephant in the room is of course the special teams. The Ravens sport the best special teams in the NFL led by the best kicker in NFL history Justin Tucker. Justin Tucker is probably better at his specific job than anyone else in professional sports anywhere. He breaks every single metric and every single chart. He’s a wonder. It isn’t just Tucker though, as Baltimore ranks tenth in DVOA returning kicks, ninth in DVOA when punting, and second in punt return DVOA. This is a well rounded unit that doesn’t struggle in any area. Compare that to uh, the Green Bay unit:
GB isn't just bad on special teams because of one unit either.— rcon14 (@rcon14) December 14, 2021
They rank 32nd on FG/XP DVOA
They rank 32nd in punt return DVOA
They rank 32nd in kick return DVOA
They rank 24th in kickoff DVOA (GB kicking off)
They rank 13th in punting DVOA (Bojo saves)
If Green Bay does lose this game, one of these units probably had a splash play that caused it. Some regression would be nice. Any day now.
How Green Bay Wins
However, even if Green Bay can’t or doesn’t try to run too much, they can get right into their lethal short game. While the deep ball has come and gone for Rodgers this year (and when not thrown to Adams, mostly gone), his precision in the short and intermediate areas has been outstanding. With Green Bay still banged up on the line, expect Green Bay to leverage that quick game even more this week against a beleaguered secondary. The Ravens will be playing a unit entirely made up of reserves this week against Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams.
Even when semi-healthy this year, the Ravens’ pass defense has not been particularly great, ranking 23rd in pass EPA allowed per play and 26th in passing DVOA allowed. Despite laying an absolute egg against New Orleans in week one and having one Jordan Love game, the Packers still rank second in the league in passing EPA per play and since week two are pacing the league by a large margin. In that time frame, the difference between Green Bay and #2 Arizona is approximately the same as Arizona and #6 Kansas City. Considering the Ravens have no one to shadow Davante Adams with, I expect him to have a very strong game and pity those of you who have to face him in fantasy league playoffs this week.
On the defensive side of the ball, Green Bay is pretty quietly a pretty good pass defense. The Packers definitely get a boost from a slate of pretty mediocre to bad quarterbacks playing mediocre to bad against them, but even opponent-adjusted metrics like DVOA have them as an above average unit. By EPA they’re the eighth best pass defense in football.
While Green Bay’s run defense is not pretty on a per-play basis, they are a much DIFFERENT type of run defense than they were under Mike Pettine. Part of this is heavier boxes. Green Bay plays far less dime than they did under Pettine. Another part of the puzzle is a lot of two-gapping up front. The latter strategy creates a situation where a team is probably going to get fewer stops in the backfield since there is less defensive line penetration, but also should allow fewer big plays since the holes aren’t open as early and the second and third level defenders can rally to make tackles. This is almost exactly what we see. Green Bay ranks 29th in the NFL in the rate of rushes that are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Green Bay doesn’t get splash plays in run defense. Green Bay also does not allow splash plays in run defense. They lead the league in what is called “Open Field Yards.”
Open Field Yards are the yards which an opposing running back earn that are at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. These are the chunk plays. Green Bay just doesn’t allow chunk plays on the ground. This is how modern defenses want to treat the run game. Muck it up on the front, allow your linebackers and alley defenders to rally to make the tackle two-to-five yards downfield and fight another down.
If Green Bay can continue this trend of not getting gashed for big plays in the running game, it’s going to be very hard for Baltimore to consistently move the ball, especially with how banged up they are.