Ravens: Can’t Waller stretch the field?
Let’s cut to the chase. The Ravens are 0-3. It’s back to the drawing board as the season is quickly spiraling towards “over”, before it’s even really started. To put things another way, the Ravens have to go 11-2 for the remainder of the season to essentially guarantee a playoff spot. 11 wins is usually good enough. 10 wins and you might need the benefit of some tie breakers, or hope the division is really bad. The Bengals at 3-0, are playing like a team that will win at least 10 games. There is no backing into the playoffs by winning the division with seven or eight wins in this tough AFC North.
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The Ravens are dealing with a number of issues that need addressing in urgency. I’m going to focus on one. The inability to stretch the field with their receivers. Having a speedster, a threat to make big plays in your receiving group, does a few things.
The defense has to account for this speed demon. A cornerback has to cover them in a straight line, and most times, can’t keep up. So an opposing safety often has to help with this coverage. Taking two defenders down the field, opens up throwing lanes for the quarterback in the short passing game. It opens up a running lane for the underneath receiver once he catches. It’s also one less defender cramming the box to defend against the run. You can get the benefit of drawing a penalty in your favor when a defensive back has to get handsy to stop the big play from happening when you take the shot deep.
Torrey Smith was this guy for the Ravens, before the free agency market took him to San Francisco. To replace him and his skillset, Baltimore drafted Breshad Perriman with their first round pick. The blazing fast receiver out of Central Florida got about an hour of practice time before a day to day knee injury sidelined him for over eight weeks. He returned to practice this week, but reports are he pulled up lame working out pregame on Sunday. Your guess is as good as mine as to when he will be a contributor.
While Perriman is sidelined, Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, and Marlon Brown have been the primary targets. Smith playing 170 snaps, Aiken with 163, Brown with 161. These guys do not stretch the field. The Ravens relied heavily, at least in Sunday’s game, on Steve Smith breaking tackles to gain first downs and more. Defenders are all over these guys once the ball is out of Joe Flacco’s hands because they can cheat closer to the line of scrimmage. They don’t play deep very often, because the Ravens have nothing that scares them. Rookie wideout, Darren Waller, who I’ll get to shortly, has played two snaps in three games, both in Oakland.
Pro Football Focus uses yards gained per route run to measure a receiver’s efficiency. Anything over 3.0 is considered elite. Small sample size, but Antonio Brown is well over 4.0 YPRR. Julian Edelman, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and our own Steve Smith (3.26 YPRR) are all over the 3.0 mark. Even in the 2.0 to 3.0 range is considered very good. Odell Beckaham, Demaryius Thomas, and many others are in this range.
Kamar Aiken, 0.89 YPPR. Marlon Brown, 0.66 YPPR. On 24 passing snaps, Michael Campanaro, 0.79 YPPR. After Smith, the efficiency is not there. They just don’t get it done. They are not getting any separation from defenders, making it very hard for Flacco to even get them the ball. It’s why Steve Smith is getting targeted 20 times a game. It’s also why Flacco has only attempts a deep ball (travels over 20 yards in the air) on 9.5% of his attempts. The lowest of his career.
So why not Darren Waller? Sixth round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, where they know a few things about developing wideouts. Alma mater of Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas. Waller stands 6’6”, and has 4.4 40-yard dash speed.
Yes, he is a rookie. But believe it or not, the Yellow Jacket was drafted higher than Aiken and Brown who went undrafted, and Campanaro, a seventh rounder. If you believe that draft position is some indicator of talent level, how much better is Waller than the guys in that trio?
Georgia Tech runs the triple option, which hindered Waller’s draft stock a bit. So in a conventional college system, where could he have been drafted? But running the triple option meant that Waller had to be an exceptional blocker in the running game. The running game is another area of improvement for the Ravens, and Waller could help in that department as well.
I know how coach Harbaugh feels about his rookies. You have to earn a spot on his team, which is acceptable. Or you get to play out of necessity. Necessity usually means injury, like Carl Davis playing in place of Timmy Jernigan, or Za’Darius Smith in place of Terrell Suggs. But in Waller’s case, necessity mean the guys in front of him just plain cannot get the job done. Next man up, right?
To sum it all up, you need someone to stretch the field. As a gunner on special teams, speedy Darren Waller is often the first person to get down field and engage a kick returner. He’s been solid in special teams which as a rookie, should earn him more looks in the offense from the coach. Aiken and Brown aren’t getting it done, and Campanaro is strictly a possession receiver who hasn’t made the most of his time either. Waller is tall, with 4.4 speed. Even if he’s not polished as a wide receiver yet when it comes to crisp route running, you need him to just run fast in a straight line, and high point the football, like this catch from Demaryius Thomas on Sunday night.
Thomas is 6’3”. Lions cornerback, Darius Slay, is 6’0”. You see the mismatch. Slay doesn’t stick the landing coming down. Thomas comes down on his feet and walks into the endzone. Imagine the mismatches Waller can exploit at 6’6”. This week, the tallest DB the Steelers have is 6’1”.
It’s crunch time. The trio of Aiken, Brown and Campanaro are not getting it done. Get Waller in there and hope to catch lightning in a bottle, before it’s too late. He just needs one chance to make a play, and if he does, defenses will have to account for him, and it should open up the other options. Then Aiken, Campanaro, Brown, can become useful with room to work underneath.
Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370, and FOX45. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he can be reached at [email protected]