Of all the numbers that create a promising profile of the Ravens after four games this season, there is one that stands out like a cautionary beacon.

Quarterback Joe Flacco, a 62 percent passer over three NFL seasons, is completing a scant 49.3 percent of his 140 throws this year.

That, stat fans, ranks 30th in the NFL.

It was a discordant note Flacco struck Sunday night when he completed just 10 of 31 passes against the hard-charging New York Jets. His 32.3 completion percentage was a career low for the regular season. At one point, he missed 12 straight passes.

It was only the sixth time in 52 regular-season games that Flacco was held under 50 percent — but it was the second time already this year.

Nevertheless, the problem appears to be more anomaly than trend. The Ravens cut Flacco's two favorite targets — Todd Heap and Derrick Mason — this summer, but they replaced them with second-year tight ends and rookie receivers. That effectively took Flacco out of his comfort zone.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh on Monday attributed the rash of incompletions to the team's young receivers, the Jets defense and the Ravens' desire to throw deep more this season.

Harbaugh suggested the timing between Flacco and his new receivers is still off, even on routes like slants and hitches that routinely result in catches.

"We've got to work into that," Harbaugh said. "We've also thrown the ball downfield a lot. We threw the ball downfield a lot in this game. … A lot of those incompletions were shot plays where they're high-risk, high-reward type of plays as far as low probability of completion. But when you get it, it's a touchdown.

"I don't think we're too worried about it. We want the percentage to be higher, but you can be 70 percent and averaging four yards [per] completion or something like that. We're not really interested in that. We want to attack people as well."

Flacco threw deep six times in the first quarter, three times to rookie Torrey Smith. He missed the first five, then hit the sixth one, a 28-yard gain to Anquan Boldin that set up the only offensive touchdown of the game.

Including an improvisational 52-yard catch-and-run play by Ray Rice, Flacco threw for 142 yards and a 17-7 lead in the first quarter.

Then he didn't complete another pass until three minutes into the fourth quarter.

Even in the first quarter, though, the Jets forced him into several throw-aways when routes or protection broke down. When the Jets increased their defensive pressure in the second quarter, the problems in the passing game worsened.

"For the most part we did a good job staying on the same page," Flacco said of his receivers. "But we were a little out of order there in the second and third quarter when it came to getting lined up and making sure everybody knows what they're doing 100 percent.

"When that happens, when you get out of rhythm like that, you're scrambling around a little bit trying to rush to the line, get the ball off and things like that. It makes it tough to operate when you're playing a good defense."

Flacco's ability to scramble bailed him out on more than one occasion. On the play before he hit Boldin deep, he scrambled in every direction before finding Rice for a critical third-down completion.

Rice went to the ground on an option route on that play, but with other receivers covered, the savvy running back worked back into Flacco's sight line to make the catch.

That's one of the things the Ravens have preached to receivers this year — keep the play alive.

"We have been emphasizing when I do move around … 'Hey, come back to Joe. No matter where you are on the field, don't give up,'" Flacco said. "I think we've gotten better at doing that with our guys downfield. I think they've gotten better at coming back to me and really working to get open when I'm running around like that."

Flacco's ability to keep plays alive by eluding the pass rush — ala Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger — is another asset the Ravens want to take advantage of.

"To me, that's Joe's ability," Harbaugh said. "It's unique to Joe. It's something he does really well. He's got his own style of doing it. He's very athletic. People want to stereotype him — I think some people did in the draft — as being not so athletic because he's so tall. [But] he's broken that stereotype time and time again. … He can move, he can change direction and then he can throw on the run. He made some real strong plays on the run."

Harbaugh said the receivers and tight ends need to "catch up with Joe" on the scramble to make his running "even more of a viable weapon for us."

Even at 3-1, Flacco knows the passing game is still a work in progress, especially with so many new receivers.

"We're still coming together and improving as a team," he said. "We've had a couple good performances on defense, a couple good performances on offense where we've put it together. But when we really do put it together and really hit our stride, I think it really will show what we can do as a team."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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