Ravens played it safe, leaving their best playmakers idle, frustrated
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.
Wide receivers Mike Wallace, above, and Steve Smith Sr. were targeted just four times each in Sunday’s game.