FOXBORO -- After the Ravens lost to the Chiefs in Week 3, 33-28, there were questions. They went for it four times on fourth down. They went for two points after touchdowns on three separate occasions.
Why? As head coach John Harbaugh explained, the numbers had a lot to do with it.
"The point was to score as many points as we could," he said. "I don’t remember the situation, the X numbers for which one was what, but every one of those was clear analytical decisions to go for two . . .
"We had a mindset that we were going to come in and try and score as many points as we could. We’re going to keep playing that way just for the record. When you write your article, just understand that we’ll disagree with your criticism. We’re going after it."
Harbaugh went into greater detail as to how his team uses analytics the following day.
“There are a lot of factors that go into it that are mathematically calculated.” pic.twitter.com/oBw5mbizJT— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 23, 2019
While it's fascinating to hear a head coach -- someone who's more old-guard than new as the fourth-longest tenured boss in the league -- embrace the input he gets from his analytics department, it was counter to what Bill Belichick said just days later when asked about how analytics factors into his decision-making on game days.
"Less than zero," he said.
Belichick and his staff, of course, look at trends and tendencies and the numbers associated with them when preparing for his opponents on a week-to-week basis. He understands that data is critical. One of his most trusted minds on staff is football research director Ernie Adams, a former bond trader, who some believe has some analytics-related responsibilities. The team also employs Matt Lindsay, an MIT graduate with a degree in Mathematics and Physics, as their director of data science and software.
Yet Harbaugh, who acknowledged he studies what the Patriots do even when they're not slated to compete -- "If you’re a head coach, or you’re any kind of a coach in this league, and you’re not watching what Bill Belichick is doing with his football team every single week, even throughout the offseason, then I think you’re making a big mistake," he said -- said he believes Belichick when Belichick says analytics aren't a factor in his game-day decisions.
"I believe it," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "It depends on what we’re talking about. You know, I think that Coach Belichick, in his program that he’s built, has been very out in front in terms of strategic decision-making and using different forms of information. I’m sure he’s got a two-point chart and all that kind of stuff, but I think when you’re a coach and when you’re in the heat of battle, you’re not basing your decision based on what some number tells you.
"It’s just a piece of information that goes into your game-planning, into how you’re approaching your opponent, into what kind of strategic tenner that you’re going to take into the game, and then you make a decision based on what you think is best for the team.
"I mean, the game you’re talking about, the Kansas City game, we felt like we needed to score as many points as we could and maximize the drives and minimize possessions. So, that’s just the way we played it that game, and it wasn’t anything that we needed specific stats, necessarily. We saw it on the tape. I mean, we knew what we were doing. But, I think you take all of the information that you can get and you just kind of roll it up into a decision that you make in the heat of battle, based on your planning going in. I think Coach Belichick has done that better than anybody in the National Football League."
Harbaugh will have a difficult decision to make this weekend in whether or not he decides to treat the Patriots as he treated the Chiefs. The Patriots offense is squarely in the middle of the pack when it comes to yards per game (16th, 369.9), but as a team, New England is first in the league in points per game (31.3).
So, will the Ravens be going for it on fourth down? Will they be going for two if they can get into the end zone against a defense that's allowed as many touchdowns as it has scored this season?
"Maybe. Yeah, I think we have to maximize every opportunity," Harbaugh said. "I mean, how we’ll play each possession and things like that, that’s what we’re putting together right now and we’ll decide as we go forward, but you definitely can’t make a lot of mistakes against New England.
"I think they’re very efficient. They play winning football all the time. That’s their focus, it always has been. Extremely well-coached, very smart players, excellent players playing very well, and you’ve got to make the most of every opportunity in a game like this."
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