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Deep-strike game has deep-sixed Flacco, Ravens

Shifting his eyes downfield as he dropped back to pass, Joe Flacco finally got the look he had been waiting for.

Flacco had spent much of the first half of Sunday's 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers settling for shorter throws in front of the safeties. But on the first drive of the third quarter, Flacco planted his feet and uncorked a throw from his 45-yard line into the end zone.

Jacoby Jones had turned Steelers cornerback William Gay around on a deep post route and used his long strides to create a cushion. Fellow wide receiver Torrey Smith was so sure it would be a touchdown, he raised his arms in celebration as he finished off his route.

But Flacco's pass was slightly underthrown, allowing Gay to smack it away, another missed opportunity crashing down to earth for the Ravens and their strong-armed quarterback.

"I didn't want to launch one out there and overthrow a guy who was wide open," Flacco said. "In hindsight, I could have thrown it out there a couple extra yards."

Besides his five-interception performance in a loss to the Buffalo Bills, Flacco has been steady but unspectacular after winning the Super Bowl and signing a nine-figure contract extension in the offseason. As the Ravens head into the bye week with a 3-4 record, perhaps the biggest thing that has been missing from their struggling offense is the deep passing game, something that was a strength of the team last season.

Coach John Harbaugh says the Ravens "definitely" need to improve in that area, and Flacco and his wide receivers are confident they are close to getting their timing down.

"Making plays down the field in the pass game is something that we did last year, especially when we got really rolling," Harbaugh said. "It opens everything up for you. We've got speed to do it. We've got a quarterback who can throw it. It's something that we feel confident that we can do and we need to do."

Last season, no one threw deep balls more frequently than Flacco, who attempted a pass 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage on 17.3 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He had a league-high 11 touchdowns on those throws with no interceptions and a passer rating of 117.9.

In the playoffs, he completed 15 of his 31 deep attempts for 522 yards and five touchdowns.

This season, Flacco has attempted deep throws on 13.8 percent of his dropbacks, which equates to one or two fewer per game. The results have been nowhere near as good, as he is 9-for-37 on deep attempts for 383 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and passer rating of 47.7.

There have been times, including twice in the Ravens' Week 2 win over the Cleveland Browns, where a wide receiver let a would-be touchdown clank off his hands. Other times, like on the incomplete deep ball to Jones at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, Flacco's throws have been off the mark.

"I'm not really too frustrated in really anything right now," Flacco said. "It's just some little things that we have to clean up here and there and we'll get everything going."

Despite missing Jones with that one deep ball, Sunday might have been Flacco's sharpest performance of the season. With the Ravens using three-receiver sets on most plays to spread the field, he completed more than 70 percent of his passes for 215 yards and a touchdown. And later in the third quarter he found Smith deep down the left sideline for a 41-yard gain.

Flacco has completed 59.5 percent of his passes this season for 1,917 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He is on pace to set a career high in passing yards and also interceptions. Predictably, Flacco said the only stat that matters to him is wins — and he doesn't have as many as he would like.

"I don't know. You guys can look at that," he said when asked to evaluate his performance this season. "The bottom line is you just want to look at wins. We haven't been good enough in that department and we haven't been good enough on offense. It starts with me."

The Ravens, who have yet to establish their running game and have left Flacco unprotected at times, rank 21st in total offense with 328.7 yards per game and are 21st in scoring at 21.4 points per game.

For the first five weeks of the season, before the return of injured receivers Jones and Deonte Thompson, there had also been a revolving door at wide receiver. The Ravens credited Flacco for being a stabilizing presence.

"He's been working through with some new guys, some new faces," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said Tuesday. "Every single day — even a day like today — we got better today. We're a little bit better, and a lot of that is because of him. He's done a really good job of developing a rapport, and you're just going to continue to see him grow and get better."

Caldwell said that the Ravens offense needs to play more to its strengths, and among the biggest are Flacco's powerful right arm and the formidable speed of Smith, Jones and Thompson. If the Ravens start utilizing them more to stretch the field vertically, it could free up more space for running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce and also the short passing game.

To do that, though, Flacco and his wide-outs need to make the most of deep opportunities when they get them.

"I think we've had some chances," Smith said. "Obviously, we've missed on a few. Even though we did have a few big gains in the past, we've definitely got to get that going again."

mvensel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattvensel

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