John Harbaugh’s Decision Accepted The Limitations Of “Next Man Up”
9:44 AM EST on December 6, 2021
Justin Tucker is the best placekicker in the NFL, in both accuracy and range. He would be the first choice for any field goal with your or your family's lives on the line, although whoever's setting up that scenario would be really sick in the head. When Lamar Jackson found Sammy Watkins for a touchdown with seconds left in Sunday's game, to bring the Baltimore Ravens to within one point of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the offense went for two not because head coach John Harbaugh had any doubt about Tucker's abilities, but because he thought his team would be toast in overtime.
Every football team deals with injuries, but this year the Ravens have had an astonishing run of bad luck. Their running back depth chart had to be rebuilt before Week 1 after J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards suffered season-ending injuries. Last Friday, the team injury report listed all five cornerbacks on the roster as questionable. Chris Westry, who missed time at the beginning of the season with a torn meniscus, ended up on the inactive list for the game against Pittsburgh, although Jimmy Smith returned from a neck injury that kept him out a couple of weeks. It might be tough to keep track of all these ailments, but the point is that the Ravens were already in bad shape at the position before Marlon Humphrey got hurt on Diontae Johnson's go-ahead touchdown catch.
Watch that clip closely, and you'll see Humphrey (No. 44) clutching his shoulder in pain after he fails to stop Johnson from getting into the end zone. After the game, Harbaugh said Humphrey would get an MRI and be out for "a while." During the game, that injury pushed the coach to keep Tucker on the sideline and try to end it in regulation, one way or another.
The two-point play worked. Well, it worked in that the Steelers did not cover it properly. As to whether it gave the Ravens two points and the lead, it did not. Jackson's pass was inaccurate because of linebacker T.J. Watt's pressure, and Mark Andrews couldn't haul it in. A couple more inches, and the Steelers don't win, 20-19. Apportion the blame as you see fit.
"[We were] trying to win the game right there," Harbaugh said about the play. "We were pretty much out of corners at that point in time. So, it was an opportunity to try to win the game right there."
Factoring in Humphrey's injury and the knowledge that the Steelers had scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, would overtime have necessarily meant a Ravens loss? The question becomes: Would you rather try to win the game from the two-yard line or let a coin flip determine whether your offense even sees the field?
Even if Harbaugh said his reasoning came from positional depth, it's also a question of analytics, which the Ravens have embraced. ESPN Stats & Info favored going for two (47.1 percent) over the kick (46.5), but not by much. After the win, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked if he was surprised by the call; he said he wasn't.
"They aggressively play analytics, and so from that standpoint, they're predictable," Tomlin said. That answer seemed to be interpreted by Ravens fans as a jab at a divisional rival, but within the context of the presser, it didn't feel like that. (The defensive coverage on the play suggested the Steelers didn't expect that play, anyway.) To me, Tomlin was saying he had prepared his team for the possibility of no overtime, that the defense might have to make one more stop in that situation. Any familiarity developed a while ago: Sunday was the 30th time the two coaches have played against each other, the third-ever instance where two opposing coaches have met that many times in the NFL. With this win, Tomlin built his all-time advantage over Harbaugh to 16-14.
Jackson supported his coach's decision, saying he didn't want to go to OT anyway. In the longer term, if Humphrey's out for the season, the team won't find a starting-caliber cornerback available on waivers. The Ravens are 8-4 and are still at the top of the AFC North, but they have no depth at multiple positions. After the game, nose tackle Brandon Williams mentioned a "'Next man up' mentality," but the wisdom of that cliché only extends so far. Eventually, you run out of next men. What cost the Ravens the option to play for overtime on Sunday will make their attempts to hold onto the division lead all the more difficult in the weeks to come.