New of­fen­sive pieces help­ing trans­form Ravens’ pass­ing at­tack

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS -

mea­sure for pass­ing of­fenses, up from 26th in 2017.

Af­ter years of fans lament­ing the ab­sence of a big-play threat, Brown ranks third in the NFL in yards per catch. Third-round pick Mark An­drews grades as the best rookie tight end in the league, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus. Six dif­fer­ent Ravens have caught touch­down passes. Flacco is on pace to throw for nearly 5,000 yards and has turned the ball over just three times.

On top of all the num­bers, the of­fense is sim­ply more fun to watch. Co­or­di­na­tor Marty Morn­hin­weg might call a play ac­tion on one se­ries, a de­signed roll­out on the next and then an ex­otic for­ma­tion with his tight end lined up be­side the cen­ter as an el­i­gi­ble re­ceiver (Maxx Williams gained 22 yards on that bit of trick­ery against the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers).

“We’re a bet­ter of­fense. We just are,” Flacco said, sum­ming it all up af­ter his team’s win in Pitts­burgh on Sun­day night.

The Ravens are mov­ing the ball so well that Flacco was ac­tu­ally frus­trated they fin­ished with just 26 points — scor­ing on six of 11 drives and mov­ing to the goal line on an­other — at Heinz Field.

The team’s re­ceivers seem to com­ple­ment one an­other un­usu­ally well, mean­ing that wher­ever Flacco wants to throw on a given play, he has an ap­peal­ing tar­get.

“All the time we put in, the con­nect­ing in off­sea­son and train­ing camp, it’s all com­ing to­gether now,” Snead said. “Across the board — run­ning backs, re­ceivers, tight ends — Joe has op­tions. That’s scary for a de­fense, I feel like. When we’re all click­ing, we have a pow­er­ful thing.”

Though none of the play­ers is lim­ited to one area, Brown has emerged as a clear No. 1 deep threat and Snead as a trusted tar­get in tight spa­ces when the Ravens need a first down. Crab­tree showed off his great­est skill in the sea­son opener when he out­fought his de­fender for a touch­down in the cor­ner of the end zone.

Flacco has also lib­er­ally tar­geted his tight ends — An­drews, Williams and Nick Boyle. All have at least nine catches, and that doesn’t ac­count for first-round pick Hay­den Hurst, who could make his de­but Sun­day against the Cleve­land Browns af­ter miss­ing the first four weeks with a frac­tured foot.

Eleven dif­fer­ent Ravens caught passes against the Steel­ers.

Flacco said the rea­sons for the trans­for­ma­tion are nei­ther en­tirely philo­soph­i­cal nor en­tirely be­cause of im­proved per­son­nel.

“I think phi­los­o­phy-wise, you tend to … coaches tend to cater to­ward what kinds of play­ers we have,” he said. “I think it’s a mix­ture of both of those things. See­ing what we’re ca­pa­ble of do­ing and ad­just­ing to that, me and Marty hav­ing an­other year un­der our [belt], an­other year with me and him feel­ing each other out and work­ing with each other — I think a lot of things go into it. We added some good pieces.”

He added that sta­bil­ity on the team’s of­fen­sive line — where guards Mar­shal Yanda and Alex Lewis are back af­ter in­juries wrecked their 2017 sea­sons — has fa­cil­i­tated his ef­fi­ciency. Aside from a bad game against the Cincin­nati Bengals, he’s rarely been touched in the team’s three vic­to­ries.

“I al­ways talk about it, and it sounds cliché, but hav­ing a fully in­tact of­fen­sive line — guys that are healthy and guys that are play­ing re­ally well — it just makes all the dif­fer­ence in the world in terms of how you op­er­ate as an of­fense,” Flacco said.

This was the pay­off gen­eral man­ager Ozzie New­some hoped to see when he made re­vamp­ing the pass­ing of­fense his top pri­or­ity in the off­sea­son.

New­some moved on from Ma­clin, Wood­head and Mike Wal­lace and used much of the team’s free-agent bud­get, along with two high draft picks, on pass catch­ers.

It’s not as if New­some was dead cer­tain he had the per­fect pieces as­sem­bled. If he had been, he would not have made an of­fer to for­mer Dal­las Cow­boys star Dez Bryant, who spurned the Ravens. If Bryant had signed, the Ravens might not have signed Snead to the two-year of­fer sheet that ul­ti­mately lured him from New Or­leans.

But good for­tune and de­sign came to­gether to form this newly pro­duc­tive of­fense.

“Ozzie did a great job with that,” coach John Har­baugh said when asked how the pieces blended. “You can’t al­ways con­trol that. What’s avail­able, and the cir­cum­stances of get­ting guys signed, and all those dif­fer­ent crazy things that hap­pened in the off­sea­son with con­tracts and things, are usu­ally out of your con­trol to a big de­gree, but I thought it fell to­gether re­ally well. Ozzie had … his process was re­ally good, and he just put it to­gether re­ally well. Those guys were fits from the be­gin­ning.”

Flacco is clearly en­joy­ing him­self in a way he did not for much of the last three sea­sons, when knee and back in­juries com­bined with of­fen­sive dys­func­tion took the lus­ter off his ca­reer.

“I know go­ing into ev­ery sit­u­a­tion that no mat­ter where the ball ends up, it’s go­ing to be a guy that I want to throw the ball to,” he said. “I think the guys are just do­ing a re­ally good job of cre­at­ing good throw­ing en­vi­ron­ments, and they’re just get­ting open quickly, do­ing such a good job up at the line of scrim­mage and get­ting re­leases and all the dif­fer­ent things you have to do to get open. That’s awe­some to see as a quar­ter­back.”

There’s an un­spo­ken con­text for the Ravens’ re­vived ae­rial at­tack: To be a se­ri­ous NFL con­tender in 2018, a team al­most has to have a highly ef­fi­cient pass­ing of­fense.

Flacco’s 96.9 passer rat­ing would be the best of his ca­reer and his 67.3 QBR would be sec­ond-best be­hind his 68.2 mark in 2014. But Flacco ranks just 14th in the league in passer rat­ing and 10th in QBR (as cal­cu­lated by Pro Foot­ball Ref­er­ence).

He’s play­ing ex­cep­tion­ally, but that’s al­most the norm for quar­ter­backs in a league that prizes of­fen­sive in­no­va­tion and rou­tinely pe­nal­izes hard con­tact against skill play­ers.

“You gain yards through the air in the Na­tional Foot­ball League nowa­days,” Har­baugh said. “It’s not 10 years ago, let alone 35 or 40 years ago.” Note: The Ravens waived cor­ner­back Dar­i­ous Williams to make room to add cor­ner­back Jimmy Smith to the 53-man ros­ter Sat­ur­day, the team an­nounced.

Williams, 25, is an un­drafted rookie out of Alabama-Birm­ing­ham who ap­peared in three games dur­ing his rookie sea­son and recorded no statis­tics.

Smith, 30, re­turns to the ros­ter af­ter sit­ting out the first four games of the sea­son for what the NFL deemed “threat­en­ing and emo­tion­ally abu­sive be­hav­iors” to­ward a for­mer girl­friend.

DON WRIGHT/AS­SO­CI­A­TRED PRESS

The Ravens pass­ing suc­cess has done so well this sea­son, quar­ter­back Joe Flacco said he was frus­trated that his team scored only 26 points against the Steel­ers on Sun­day night.

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