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

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - Mike Pre­ston By Childs Walker

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.

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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.

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