Breakdowns

Thursday Night Football Preview: Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins

Thursday Night Football Preview: Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins

Here’s a preview of Thursday night’s matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins, courtesy of STAT Stack:

BALTIMORE RAVENS (6-2) AT MIAMI DOLPHINS (2-7), 8:20ET

Line: Ravens -7.5, Total: 46.5

ONE THING THAT EVERY FAN NEEDS TO KNOW

Lamar Doesn’t Play Defense … Yet  

Lamar Jackson is having a tremendous season for the Baltimore Ravens and is putting up MVP-type numbers yet again. He’s the only player in the NFL averaging 350+ combined passing and rushing yards per game. He ranks 10th in the NFL in passing yards per game (276.1) and 7th in rushing yards/game (75.0).

With Baltimore seventh in the NFL in scoring (27.6 points per game), second in total yards (427.9 yards per game, Dallas has 434.3), and fourth in the league in converting red-zone trips into touchdowns (71.4%), it’s not the offense that fans should be concerned about. Their defense has not been as good this season as they have been in recent years. In 18 games last season (including playoffs), the Ravens allowed their opponent to score 30+ points just twice. This season, they’ve allowed half of their eight opponents to reach that mark. Of the four teams that failed, only the Colts (eighth) are in the Top 10 in scoring.

The good news for Baltimore is that it gets to face one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league in this midweek contest, Miami. The Dolphins average the fifth-fewest points per game (17.2), are tied with the Bears for fewest yards per play (4.7), and average 75.1 yards per game on the ground, the lowest mark in the NFL. Baltimore has been good against opposing rushing attacks this season, allowing fewer than 100 yards per game — fifth-fewest at 91.8 yards per game. But through the air is where the Ravens have been gashed, surrendering 282.5 yards per game, second-most in the league ahead of only Washington (286.8). Miami averages a league-low 6.0 yards per pass attempt, setting up a perfect matchup for the Ravens defense to get back on track following back-to-back games of allowing at least 31 points.

TRENDS THAT EVERY SPORTS BETTOR NEEDS TO KNOW

The Script is Flipped

Jackson formerly dominated opponents when he and the Ravens were installed as road favorites. In the first eight such games of his career, Jackson’s team was 6-0-2 against the spread. However, since Week 6 of last season, the Ravens are 2-4 ATS in those situations, including failing to cover each of the past two. Those two are the only games this season in which Baltimore was a road favorite, as it failed to cover in a Week 1 loss to Las Vegas and the aforementioned two-point victory over Detroit in Week 3 (Lions were 7.5-point underdogs). Jackson has started only one career NFL game on a Thursday night, beating the Jets 42-21 in Week 15 of the 2019 season (a game the Ravens obviously covered, as well).

Miami, on the other hand, has been one of the worst spread teams in the NFL this season and dating back to the end of last year. They covered last week in the win over Houston, which was its first win against the spread since a Week 3 cover in a 31-28 loss to the Raiders (they had failed to cover five straight in-between). In their last 11, the Dolphins are 3-8 ATS. They have been good as a home underdog, though, going 8-4 ATS in their last 12. But they’ve been a home dog twice this season and failed to cover either of those opportunities (against Buffalo in Week 2 and Atlanta in Week 7).

The Ravens are coming off an overtime affair, which does not bode well. According to Walter Football, “teams playing on Thursday are a mind-boggling 4-24 against the spread coming off overtime if their opponent is not.” Despite that, the public LOVES the Ravens with 79% of the tickets in this game on the road favorite, according to Action Network. However, only 53% of the money is on Baltimore, indicating that the higher-value bets are actually on the Dolphins.

ANALYTICAL ANALYSIS THAT EVERY SPORTS NERD NEEDS TO KNOW

Lamar Jackson Stretching the Field … with his Arm  

Jackson’s ability to get outside the pocket and run adds a dimension to his game that no other current NFL quarterback possesses. What people have questioned is his ability to move the ball down the field with his arm, which is something that he has started to do this season to a degree that we have not previously seen from him.

One of the most telling stats of this trend is a Next Gen Stat called “Air Yards to the Sticks.” Regular readers will be familiar with this term, but for those who are new, what it measures is how far in the air a pass travels relative to the first-down marker. This is different than simply “air yards” which only measure the distance the ball travels in the air from the line of scrimmage to the point of catch, or incompletion. For more detailed information on these stats, you can check out Next Gen’s stat glossary.

In the traditional intended air yards (IAY) statistic, Jackson leads the NFL at 10.4. In each of the past two seasons, Lamar was below nine yards in that statistic, electing to throw shorter passes more frequently. His 8.9 IAY last season ranked 22nd in the NFL, behind players like Ben Roethlisberger, Jared Goff, Drew Lock, Daniel Jones, and others. In 2019, he was nearly the same, posting an 8.8 IAY. So, Jackson is averaging 1.5 yards more air per throw than he has over his first two full seasons as a starting QB.

Now, air yards are one thing, but there is a big difference between a pass that travels 10 air yards on 3rd-and-20 and a pass that travels eight air yards on 3rd-and-5. Yes, the former traveled farther but was likely an easier completion due to the defense’s awareness of the line to gain. That’s where air yards to the sticks (AYTS) comes in. In that category, Jackson is far-and-away the NFL leader with a +1.3 AYTS; Jackson’s average pass travels in the air 1.3 yards past the first-down marker. He is the only quarterback in the league who averages at least 1.0 AYTS and Justin Fields is the next-closest at 0.7.

In fact, among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 200 passes this season, only four even have a positive number in this category: Dak Prescott (0.3), Joe Burrow (0.1), and Tom Brady (0.1). Matthew Stafford sits at exactly 0 and every other signal-caller is in the negative. Last season, Jackson was in the negative, posting a minus-0.2 AYTS, again adding 1.5 air yards to his mark from the prior year. Jackson’s average completion travels 7.9 yards in the air, which also leads the league. The next-closest passer with at least 200 attempts is Stafford, whose average completed air yards (CAY) is 6.7 — a full yard below Jackson.

Finally, we take a look at Jackson’s completion percentage (COMP%). Last season, Jackson completed 64.4% of his passes on an average of 8.9 air yards per throw. His expected completion percentage (xCOMP%) in 2020 was 64.9%, meaning he completed 0.5% fewer passes than he should have (which gives him an xCOMP +/- of -0.5). Through eight games in 2021, Jackson is completing a higher percentage of his throws (65.0%), despite deeper targets (10.4 IAY) and he is outperforming his xCOMP% (63.7%) with a +1.4 mark, which ranks 11th among QBs with 200+ attempts (Kyler Murray leads the NFL with an xCOMP% +/- of +6.9). Jackson has faced the Dolphins just once in his career, but it was a memorable night as he completed 17-of-20 passes for 324 yards and 5 TDs in a 59-10 rout in Miami. His gaudy 158.3 passer rating and 16.2 yards per pass attempt in that 2019 blowout were both career highs.

There’s no question that we’ve seen a different Jackson this season, one who is throwing with confidence down the field, and the stats back it up. Not only is he throwing the ball better than he ever has, but he’s also throwing arguably the best deep ball in the NFL right now. It’s been only eight games, but if this Jackson is the one who’s going to be taking the field every week, the rest of the NFL should be on notice.