After uneven start, offense a work in progress
The old Flacco is back, along with the old skills and old flaws Ravens struggling to find end zone, complete big plays
The trial period was supposed to come in the first four weeks of the season, and a verdict has been reached: the new Joe Flacco is the same as the old one.
After recovering from major knee surgery during the offseason, there are no more questions about Flacco’s health. He is still inconsistent and lacks pocket awareness. His fundamentals are sound, but he’ll never be classified as a true technician.
He is tough and still one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the NFL. And most importantly, after nine years in the league, Flacco is still a winner. Ravens coach John Harbaugh declined to give a four-game evaluation of Flacco after the Ravens’ 28-27 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, but he didn’t have to. Joe is still Joe. He can make fans happy or force them to tears with his inconsistency. But there is a window in every game where he is going to get hot.
On the field so far, Flacco has been only slightly above Mike Wallace catches a pass for a 2-point conversion in front of the Raiders’ Gabe Jackson on Sunday. Wallace has averaged 10.8 yards a catch since his 52-yard touchdown in Week1.
After four games, Ravens coach John Harbaugh has yet to see the offense he pictured in his mind’s eye as he thought ahead to the 2016 season.
Big plays have clicked too infrequently and miscues have stalled the Ravens at inopportune times.
But as Harbaugh explained his thinking Monday in the wake of the Ravens’ first loss of the season, he expressed no loss of faith in the team’s offensive talent or in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s scheme.
“We know what we want it to feel like and look like,” he said. “And from a production standpoint, we’re not there. We have to dive down inside and find a way to get it there. I’ve got my ideas. Marc’s got his ideas. One thing you don’t do is you don’t overreact. That’s the starting point. That’s when things get rough. We have a good plan.”
A quarter of the way into their 2016 season, the Ravens are 3-1, tied for first place in the AFC North and allowing Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: Chs. 45, 5 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Ravens by 4
average, completing 108 of 170 passes for 1,072 yards. He has as many touchdown passes (four) as interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 79.3 — which would be the second-lowest rating of any season in his career.
But here is the bottom line: The Ravens are 3-1.
“We still got a lot of work to do, figuring guys’ spots, what routes guys like to run, and getting familiarity with Joe on who does what and who does what well,” receiver Kamar Aiken said.
The key point is that the Ravens still don’t have an offensive identity. The West Coast offense is a dink-and-dunk operation which requires a highly accurate quarterback. That’s not Flacco’s forte.
The offense worked under former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak because the Ravens had a strong running game and Kubiak was a stickler for quarterback fundamentals, such as making sure Flacco planted his back foot before every pass.
That doesn’t happen anymore. Flacco is back to old habits, such as not stepping into passes or stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure. He is erratic in the short passing game and more efficient on midto long-range throws.
The past two weeks, following games in which the offense stalled during first halves against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Raiders, Flacco has advocated going more vertical. He is on to something.
“We are not really seeing a lot of man coverage, and it is hard to run deep routes against zone coverage because that plays into their hands,” wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said.
But the Ravens also can’t allow opposing defensive coordinators to dictate their game plan.
If opponents are taking away the long ball, use more crossing routes. A running game would help Flacco, who can’t carry an offense alone.
Like Aiken, Flacco believes the Ravens will improve over time, and that’s true. But it’s hard to figure out how much the improvement will be from this point.
There were some good signs Sunday. Smith showed acceleration and burst for the first time this season with his 52-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. Veteran receiver Mike Wallace has been consistent all year and the Ravens finally got fullback-tight end Kyle Juszczyk involved in the offense. In his first start with the Ravens, running back Terrance West ran for 113 yards — the first time a Raven has hit 100 rushing yards in a game this season.
But young wide receivers Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore dropped passes and Flacco was sacked twice and hit four other times. The offensive line will improve with the return of injured rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis on the left side, but a lot of rookies get tired near the end of their first season.
The Ravens still haven’t solved their identity crisis. Are they a running team or a passing team? Will they remain a West Coast offense or go vertical more?
In the midst of all this, they still have Flacco. He is a constant and quiet leader. After missing the final six games in 2015, he is back to his old self.
And the Ravens are still winning.
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who hit .137 in his final 51 regular-season at-bats, has a combined .151 batting average and four RBIs in 13 postseason games.
Joe Flacco, right, next to tight end Dennis Pitta, shows his frustration after the Ravens turned the ball over on downs in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Raiders.