Maligned in past seasons for being too predictable and conservative, the Ravens offense was neither in Sunday's 37-7 rout of the winless St. Louis Rams.
Facing the league's worst run defense, the Ravens instead took to the air, and the result was a career-best 389 passing yards for quarterback Joe Flacco, three first-quarter touchdowns for rookie receiver Torrey Smith and a franchise-record 553 total yards.
The performance left the usually low-key Flacco heaping praise on the aggressiveness of the game plan. It also provided more evidence of the urgency the Ravens feel in trying to establish a downfield-passing game to better match up against some of the league's elite teams, even if it means temporarily shelving the run-first mentality.
"You have aspirations to win a championship obviously — [and] that is the idea — you have to be able to attack people in every different way," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "But that's not to say that we're not going to run the ball, too. We pride ourselves on that also. You have to be able to do everything well."
The Ravens' game plan certainly figures to change significantly Sunday night when they host the New York Jets at M&T Bank Stadium. Rex Ryan's team allowed 234 yards on the ground (an average of 7.3 yards per carry) in a 34-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders Sunday. They also boast of one of the game's best cornerback tandems in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie (whose status is uncertain due to rib and lung bruises he suffered against the Raiders.)
The Rams had a banged-up secondary, and they showed early on that their focus was on trying to stop All-Pro running back Ray Rice. But even with those factors, it was surprising to see Flacco drop back to throw on 37 of the Ravens' 44 plays in the first half. Flacco targeted nine different receivers in Lee Evans' absence, and connected with seven of them, completing seven different passes for 18 yards or more.
"You want to be able to stretch the field vertically," Harbaugh said. "It's something that we've really wanted to be able to do coming into this year. To see that happen is a big plus for us because it opens up the check downs, it opens up the crossing routes, it opens up the run game. They were defending the run. There's no question that they expected us to come out running the ball, too. What we had to do was beat those guys out there one-on-one and the young receivers stepped up and did it. You have to prove that you can do that."
Flacco threw the ball a career-high 48 times against the Rams, and handed it off just 16 times to running backs. That number is telling when you consider the Ravens led by three touchdowns at the end of the first quarter, and for all intents and purposes, had put the game away at halftime with a 27-0 advantage.
Flacco's previous career high in attempts was 47, set in the Ravens' 27-21 loss to the New England Patriots on Oct. 4, 2009. Last season, Flacco didn't throw more than 39 passes in any game. He certainly wasn't complaining after the game about the extra responsibility put on his right arm.
"I always think to myself, 'Look at the top teams in this league, what are they?' They're passing teams. Can they run the ball? Yeah, but they really throw the ball very well and run the ball off that," Flacco said. "They're not just the top offenses, they're the top teams. Is the goal getting to the playoffs for us? No … we know we can do that. The goal is to win the Super Bowl. In order to do that, you have to [throw the ball well]. When you have a defense like ours … you shouldn't be grinding out games 14-7 every week. We need to come out here and be aggressive and put it on teams."
Sunday's contest aside, Flacco has had virtually the same workload through three games as he had during that same span last season. He was 59-for-108 and 664 yards last season, compared to 59-of-109 and 810 yards this year.
Flacco's 109 passing attempts are only 13th in a league leaning heavily toward the downfield passing game. Last year, he also finished 13th in the league, putting the ball up 489 times.
Harbaugh acknowledged that he and his quarterback spoke in the days leading up to the Rams game about being more aggressive in the passing game.
"I like that," Harbaugh said. "Joe is right about a lot of things. He's right about the fact that you have to go after people whatever way you go after them. You have to attack people down the field and outside. Would you want your quarterback not saying that? He probably wants to throw every single time. That's what you expect from your quarterback. He and I talked a lot about that last week. That was stuff that he expressed to me going into the game, too. We all agree with that. I agree with that. [Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] agrees with that."
As does Rice, who had just eight carries and 13 total touches against the Rams, yet still managed to gain 162 all-purpose yards. Rice, Flacco, Smith, Ricky Williams and Anthony Allen combined for168 rushing yards on 26 carries against St. Louis
"Coming in, a lot of teams are going to expect to stop the run," Rice said. "We'll run it when we need to. You set out a game plan and then you go out and execute it. That's the attack mode that Joe is talking about. I couldn't be more proud of the guys. Look at the score and look at the way we executed. It's great to see when young guys step up. If you're always the guy that they expect to make plays, and you see another guy step up, it feels good."