John Harbaugh almost shocked the world.

Facing a fourth-and-7 from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 38-yard line, the Ravens head coach kept his offense on the field. Quarterback Lamar Jackson stood in the shotgun, awaiting a snap that never came.

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The play clock expired. The Ravens took a delay-of-game penalty, then punted.

Moments such as the one Sunday night, when Harbaugh took the conservative route despite NextGen’s recommendation to go for it, have become surprisingly common this season. As NFL teams embrace aggressive, analytics-backed fourth-down mentalities, the Ravens have bucked the trend, going for it on just 11 fourth downs through 14 games, the second-lowest total in the league.

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The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin runs a program that ranks teams based on how often they go for it on fourth down “when they should.” Through the NFL’s Week 15 slate, Baldwin’s metric had the Ravens tied for 29th in the league, ahead of only the Patriots and in line with the Rams and Jets. When facing fourth-and-2 or less from inside the opponent’s territory, Baltimore has gone for it just 40% (6 of 15) of the time, a rate that ranks last in the NFL, according to TruMedia. All this despite boasting the league’s most dynamic quarterback and a rejuvenated offense under coordinator Todd Monken.

These are a few decisions that would likely make Baldwin’s skin crawl.

The Ravens won all of those games, and they still hold an 11-3 record while clinging to the No. 1 seed in the conference. But, in a handful of instances, Harbaugh’s hesitancy to rely on an offense that ranks fourth in points per game has cost his team crucial scoring opportunities.

In a Week 5 game against the Steelers, the Ravens faced seven fourth downs. Six were fourth-and-9 or shorter, and five were inside Pittsburgh territory. Baltimore punted four times, attempted one field goal (which was good), and went for it twice (though one of those was a desperate call with 26 seconds remaining). The Ravens scored just 10 points and dropped a winnable game.

But Harbaugh’s in-game choices haven’t always been this conservative.

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In 2019, Jackson’s first full year as Baltimore’s starting quarterback, the Ravens ranked third in the NFL in Baldwin’s metric, taking advantage of the Most Valuable Player’s otherworldly scrambling ability and improvisational skills. They ranked fourth in 2020, dipped to 14th in 2021, then jumped back up to eighth the following season, just behind the NFC-champion Eagles.

How did Harbaugh suddenly go from one of the NFL’s most aggressive coaches to one of its most risk-averse?

Perhaps his cautiousness is due to team’s low conversion rate – 2022 was the first season since 2016 in which the Ravens did not convert at least 50% of their fourth-down attempts. Baltimore moved the sticks on just eight of 20 tries (40%). In 2023, the Ravens are 5-of-11 on fourth down (45%).

“You just take every situation as it goes in the game,” Harbaugh said recently. “How you feel about adding points and the risk in terms of making the field goal, where you’re at as far as punting, a lot goes into it. I don’t think there’s any grand assessment compared to other years, really, just trying to do the best we can. We definitely have confidence in our ability to get it, so we’ll see what happens going forward.”

During that remarkable 2019 season, Ravens football analyst Daniel Stern received attention for his role in shaping Harbaugh’s decisions. Stern, then a 25-year-old Yale grad, sat next to offensive coordinator Greg Roman in the booth and advised Harbaugh on when to go for it, relying on a set of rules he and the head coach had devised during the week.

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“We’re chasing everything that’s gonna give us an edge,” Harbaugh told The Athletic at the time.

Stern is now in his eighth season with the organization, though his title has changed to defensive quality control coach. The team’s website says he is still responsible for “advising head coach John Harbaugh on in-game clock/game management and coaches’ challenges.”

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson's scrambling ability and improv skills can give his team an advantage on fourth down. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

When asked Thursday about the team’s decision-making process during games, Monken said it’s been a collaborative effort.

“Every team in the NFL’s elite,” Monken said. “But, as it becomes more competitive [and] as it gets close, and there’s more on the line, you’re going to have to be able to go for it on fourth down to keep the football. You’re going to have to feel confident in your game planning, whether it’s fourth-and-inches, whether it’s fourth-and-2-feet, a yard, 2 yards [or] 3 yards, to be able to keep the football and score points and keep it away from your opponent.”

When the Ravens’ offense is struggling, as it did in Baltimore’s three losses, sometimes a converted fourth down can serve as a shot in the arm. In a few instances, Harbaugh has been rewarded for rolling the dice to keep drives alive.

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Each scenario is unique, and Harbaugh’s unwavering faith in his elite defense – Baltimore ranks second in yards per game allowed and first in points per game allowed – and his future Hall-of-Fame kicker is understandable.

If Harbaugh needs justification for his newfound conservative style, he need only look ahead to his next opponent.

The 49ers, who sit one spot ahead of the Ravens in scoring offense at third in the league, are the only team that has yet to crack double-digit fourth-down attempts. San Francisco has gone for it just 42.9% (3-of-7) of the time when facing fourth-and-2 or less from the opponent’s territory.

Monday night’s matchup in San Francisco might be between the league’s two most conservative squads. Who wins could come down to who plays like they have nothing to lose.

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