Blog & Tackle: Vanilla anyone?

August 12, 2010 | Chris Pika

All of us have walked into our favorite ice cream shop in the heat of summer and looked at the dozens of flavors — depending on your establishment — and stepped up to the counter to make a call. Chances are, if you are an NFL coach, your choice in August is very plain — vanilla.

Ice cream cone

The phrase is used over and over again by preseason TV analysts. Teams do use base coverages on defense and base sets on offense during the preseason. There is no intricate game plan, except for the third game when the starters play the most time. Defenses generally don’t blitz. It’s all about timing and facing an opponent, instead of teammates, across the line of scrimmage. And it’s always about evaluation, regardless of the score.

I took a look at Baltimore’s last two preseasons under head coach John Harbaugh and compared it to the corresponding regular seasons to see if any tendencies were shown in the preseason based on pure percentage of runs/passes to total plays and play direction.

Remember, this is completely unscientific with the variable time played by starters in the preseason, down & distance situations, offense/defense personnel packages, game score, etc. Stats courtesy of NFLGSIS.

First, a look at run plays to pass plays (sacks count as neither run or pass) with the percentage to the total.

2008 preseason:
229 offensive plays, 84 rush (36.7), 133 pass (58.1), 12 sacks.
2008 regular season:
1058 offensive plays, 592 rush (56.0), 443 pass (41.2), 33 sacks.

Biggest difference was in run/pass ratio. Baltimore threw almost 17 percent less in the regular season.

2009 preseason:
265 offensive plays, 107 rush (40.4), 148 pass (55.8), 10 sacks.
2009 regular season:
1014 offensive plays, 468 rush (46.2), 510 pass (50.3), 36 sacks.

Again, less passing in the regular season, but by only 5.5 percent. Not really a huge difference.

Next, a look at what direction plays were run (working from left to right from the offense’s point of view). Passes under 15 yards are considered short. Note that the placement of rushing plays is entirely up to the official scorers in the press box, but they are pretty close most of the time.

2008 preseason rush (78 plays): 14 left end (17.9), 3 left tackle (3.8), 10 left guard (12.8), 25 middle (32.0), 10 right guard (12.8), 9 right tackle (11.5), 7 right end (9.0).

2008 regular season rush (566 plays): 53 LE (9.3), 105 LT (18.6), 104 LG (18.4), 114 MID (20.1), 83 RG (14.7), 69 RT (12.2), 38 RE (6.7).

The Ravens went more to the left end in preseason, but not so much to the left side of the interior line. That changed drastically in the regular season. Baltimore ran to the right side at very close to equal percentages.

2008 preseason pass (128 plays): 33 short left (25.8), 24 short middle (18.8), 48 short right (37.5), 8 deep left (6.3), 4 deep middle (3.1), 11 deep right (0.1).

2008 regular season pass (436 plays): 119 SL (27.3), 62 SM (14.2), 172 SR (39.4), 28 DL (6.4), 28 DM (6.4), 27 DR (6.2).

The Ravens distributed short passes at about the same percentage. The biggest change was more shots deep down the right side of the field in the regular season.

2009 preseason rush (103 plays): 7 LE (6.8), 15 LT (14.6), 11 LG (10.7), 33 MID (32.0), 7 RG (6.8), 13 RT (12.6), 17 RE (16.5).

2009 regular season rush (456 plays): 55 LE (12.1), 55 LT (12.1), 76 LG (16.7), 108 MID (23.7), 63 RG (13.8), 49 RT (10.7), 50 RE (11.0).

Baltimore ran more toward left end, left guard and right guard in the regular season than they had in the preseason.

2009 preseason pass (140 plays): 36 SL (25.7), 21 SM (15.0), 48 SR (34.3), 9 DL (6.4), 5 DM (3.6), 21 DR (15.0).

2009 regular season pass (505 plays): 132 SL (26.1), 79 SM (15.6), 191 SR (37.8), 42 DL (8.3), 22 DM (4.4), 39 DR (7.7).

The Ravens were very close in distribution percentage overall, but the offense took much less shots down the deep right side in the regular season.

With the additions on offense that Baltimore made in the offseason with WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte’ Stallworth, it will be interesting to see how much QB Joe Flacco airs it out to those receivers during the 2010 preseason. Or how much will offensive coordinator Cam Cameron put the clamps on the live passing game until the real season starts in September?

Fans are looking for exotic flavors from their teams in preseason, especially when the offenses have been much improved on paper. Meanwhile, coaches go back to the most popular flavor in the ice cream bins, saving the real treats for the regular season.

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