Why the Baltimore Ravens Struggled in 2016

The Ravens finished the 2016 regular season with the best run defense in football. How did they manage just eight wins?

The AFC North is usually one of the most competitive divisions in football.

Since 2011, the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cincinnati Bengals have all won the division twice.

Aside from the perennially pitiful Cleveland Browns, the division crown is almost always a preseason toss-up.

So with the Bengals winning just six games and the Steelers enduring a mid-season, four-game losing streak, how is it that the Ravens managed just eight wins in 2016?

Don't Blame the Defense

The Ravens' defense was so stingy this season you'd think the team would be guaranteed more than eight wins. According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, Baltimore ranked 1st in Defensive Adjusted Rushing NEP per play (-0.11) and 12th in Defensive Adjusted Passing NEP per play (0.09). They held opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing and forced 2 or more turnovers in 63 percent of their games.

From Week 14 on, however, the Ravens struggled mightily, surrendering an average of 136 yards rushing and 28.5 points per game. It's likely no coincidence that during this four-game stretch the team went 1-3.

Despite some lapses in performances during the course of the season, when we look at how underwhelming the Ravens' offense was, we can be sure that Baltimore's defense is the main reason why the season stayed afloat.

Blame the Offense?

Back in October, I discussed Joe Flacco's early-season struggles. But when we look at his season-long statistics compared to his career averages, we see that Flacco actually completed a higher percentage of his throws for more yardage compared to his nine-year career averages.

Year Completion Percentage Passing YardsPassing TD INT
2016 64.9 4317 20 15
Career Avg. 61.5 3627 20.2 13

We know that simple counting stats are not sufficient enough to judge a player’s performance. And Flacco tossed more interceptions than his career averages would project, an obvious negative.

Looking at Flacco’s season through the lens of efficiency shows us that, although 2016 was an average year statistically, Flacco was worse than his career average and much worse than the average 300-plus-attempt quarterback this season.

Player Passing NEP Passing NEP/PSuccess Rate
2016 Joe Flacco 29.55 0.04 44.25%
Joe Flacco Career Avg. 31.40 0.06 44.69%
2016 QB Avg. 77.45 0.14 47.51%

The Ravens led the league in pass attempts, playing into Flacco's inefficient finish. And while he was just slightly off his own career averages, Flacco was far from being an average starting quarterback this season in terms of efficiency.

The Ravens’ running game ranked 20th in efficiency according to our metrics, matching their offensive line rank per Football Outsiders. Terrance West saw 53 percent of the team’s rushing attempts but was far less efficient with his carries compared to rookie Kenneth Dixon.

Player Rushes Rushing
Kenneth Dixon 88 13.00 0.15 47.73% 0.10
Terrance West 193 -8.67 -0.04 36.79% 0.30

Dixon battled injuries for the early part of the season while Justin Forsett got cut, ultimately leading to West’s big break. West's superior pass-catching efficiency certainly makes a difference, but from a rushing standpoint, Baltimore would be wise to give more opportunity to Dixon moving forward.

Looking Ahead

We already discussed Dixon's strong rookie season while Breshad Perriman, on the other hand, ranked 32nd in Reception NEP per target among 53 wide receivers with 50 to 100 targets this season. Steve Smith's retirement and Kamar Aiken's impending free agency opens up a significant target share for 2017.

The Ravens -- and dynasty owners -- are hoping Perriman steps up and helps a passing game that was a major reason why Baltimore's 2016 season failed to meet expectations.

The development of a few of Baltimore's young offensive players -- Dixon and Perriman especially -- will likely determine if the Ravens' offense can rise to a more productive level next season alongside another strong defense unit.