Ravens played it safe, leav­ing their best play­mak­ers idle, frus­trated

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - Mike Pre­ston

Soon af­ter the Ravens beat the Cincin­nati Ben­gals on Sun­day, coach John Har­baugh and quar­ter­back Joe Flacco were look­ing for an­swers to ex­plain why the of­fense stalled again.

One could be found in the game sum­mary: In 66 of­fen­sive plays for the Ravens, wide re­ceivers Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wal­lace touched the ball only eight times.

No won­der the Ravens had to rely on four field goals from Justin Tucker. And that ex­plains why Smith was out of the locker room af­ter the game as fast as he gets to and from the line of scrim­mage in a two-minute of­fense.

It’s hard to ex­plain how this hap­pened.

“It just felt like we got a lit­tle bit con­ser­va­tive,” Flacco said of the er­ratic of­fense. “We lost our tempo a lit­tle bit.”

They lost Wal­lace and Smith, too. They might not be as im­pact­ful as stud wide re­ceivers such as the Dal­las

Cow­boys’ Dez Bryant or the Ben­gals’ A.J. Green, but they are the top play­mak­ers on this team. The gen­eral rule, from re­cre­ation leagues to the NFL, is that your top scor­ing threats have to touch the ball.

Smith had four catches for 20 yards and Wal­lace had three for 57. Each was tar­geted just four times (Wal­lace also had a run for mi­nus-1 yard).

In com­par­i­son, tight end Dennis Pitta and full­back Kyle Juszczyk com­bined for six re­cep­tions on 10 tar­gets for 52 yards. It was ap­par­ently “check-down Sun­day” for Flacco, who threw to run­ning backs Ken­neth Dixon and Ter­rance West (Tow­son Uni­ver­sity, North­west­ern High) a com­bined eight times for 47 yards.

If the Ravens wanted to know why Wal­lace and Smith looked un­in­ter­ested Sun­day, it’s be­cause ei­ther Flacco or the coach­ing staff took them out of the of­fense. It didn’t make a lot of sense. It’s un­der­stand­able why the Ravens had a con­ser­va­tive game plan go­ing in, be­cause the Ben­gals were with­out their star wide re­ceiver (Green), top re­serve run­ning back Gio­vani Bernard and start­ing right of­fen­sive tackle.

In ad­di­tion, the Ben­gals and their two-deep cov­er­age have caused Flacco prob­lems the past cou­ple of years, so the coach­ing staff wanted to make him as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially since he’s been strug­gling this sea­son.

But the Ravens still could have done more to in­cor­po­rate Wal­lace and Smith. The Ravens could have played it safe and still used them on hitches, slants and quick screens. They could have used them in sim­ple run­ning plays, such as jet sweeps or end-arounds.

Smith can break long runs af­ter the catch, and Wal­lace is great to watch when he catches a short pass in stride and out­runs ev­ery­one around the cor­ner. But we saw lit­tle of that Sun­day. It was dumpoff, dumpoff and dump off some more.

In the NFL, few teams have the abil­ity to put to­gether sev­eral long drives per game, so big plays are a ne­ces­sity. Juszczyk and Pitta aren’t go­ing to make those types of plays, but Smith and Wal­lace can.

Wal­lace is av­er­ag­ing 15.5 yards a catch this sea­son; Pitta 8.4. Smith has 48 catches for 536 yards and three touch­downs; Juszczyk has 28 for 188 yards and no touch­downs. There is no el­e­ment of sur­prise be­cause Flacco usu­ally passes to Juszczyk when he en­ters a game.

Why weren’t the Ravens creative enough to get Wal­lace and Smith the ball?

Maybe Flacco is to blame. He doesn’t of­ten au­di­ble, and the game plan ap­pears to be less com­plex ev­ery week. De­spite am­ple time Sun­day on most pass­ing plays, Flacco threw to ei­ther his first read or his check-down re­ceiver.

Re­ceivers who are sec­ond and third op­tions will get tired of run­ning routes when Flacco fails to go through his pro­gres­sions and just eyes up two tar­gets. I bet that’s what irked Smith and Wal­lace on Sun­day.

Smith didn’t play well, and his penal­ties hurt the team. His ar­gu­ments with op­pos­ing play­ers seemed to take him out of his game.

But Smith is a hard-nosed com­peti­tor. He is a po­ten­tial Hall of Famer with a re­sume that has earned him the right to touch the ball. Wal­lace is one of the faster wide re­ceivers in the NFL and can turn a lit­tle into a lot.

OnSun­day, the Ravens for­got them. Maybe it was an aber­ra­tion.

This week against the Mi­ami Dol­phins, let’s see if they re­mem­ber.

ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES

Wide re­ceivers Mike Wal­lace, above, and Steve Smith Sr. were tar­geted just four times each in Sun­day’s game.

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