Lined up in the shotgun, Flacco took the snap from center Matt Birk and immediately looked to his right. Rice was running a wheel route, and Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson looked a step slow as he scrambled to get wide to cover him. Browns safety Usama Young was momentarily frozen by wide receiver Lee Evans' post route in the middle of the field, and Flacco didn't hesitate. He took three quick steps and the ball was out, a perfectly thrown spiral that hit Rice in stride for a 42-yard touchdown.
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It was such a gorgeous play, it managed to momentarily mask some serious issues the Ravens have with their passing attack as they fight for a division title and prepare for the playoffs.
Flacco finished the game just 11-of-24 for 132 yards, the fourth time this season he has completed fewer than 50 percent of his throws, and only two of those completions were to a wide receiver. Rookie Torrey Smith — whom Flacco targeted seven times — caught both of them and was the team's second leading receiver (behind Rice) with just 38 yards.
Flacco certainly missed Anquan Boldin against the Browns, but the Ravens' veteran receiver wasn't exactly racking up big numbers even before he went down with a minor meniscus tear last week in practice. In his past six games, Boldin has caught just 16 passes for 260 yards and one touchdown. The Ravens tried to get Evans involved in Boldin's absence Saturday, but the results were a massive dud. Flacco target Evans four times, and Evans didn't have a catch. One of the throws to Evans resulted in an interception in the end zone.
"Obviously, today, we had some chances, but we didn't make the best of them, for whatever reason," Evans said. "I'm going to put it on my shoulders and say that it's me. And until I can correct that, there's not much else I can say."
It would be unfair to put all the Ravens' passing woes on Flacco's shoulders, however. This has been the worst season of his four-year career as far as accuracy, but there have been contributing factors. Boldin and Smith are among the league leaders in dropped passes this year, and tight end Ed Dickson is quickly climbing the charts. Dickson made a nice back-shoulder touchdown catch in the first quarter Saturday, but he had two big drops in the second half, plays that could have sustained drives and probably put the game out of reach.
"The first [drop], I should have just fell with it," Dickson said. "It was back-shoulder and wobbling a little bit, but I tried to make a play with it. I should have just fell. The second one, if I could have any play back, it would be that one because I had room to run. It kind of tripped me up a little bit, and I dropped my hands. Those are the kind of plays you think about all week. It takes away from my touchdown and the type of player I want to be. ... I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen again. I told myself this week, that's the last drop I'm going to have."
Flacco is pretty forgiving when it comes to dropped passes, at least compared with some of his peers. He doesn't scream, throw tantrums or get in the face of his wide receivers the way Philip Rivers or Tom Brady do. He doesn't see the point in making a scene.
"You say something to them, but everything is done. What are you going to do?" Flacco said. "I mean, the play's already over. They already dropped the pass. There's no real point in dwelling on it and getting upset about it. You've got to move on. There's going to be plays to be made down in the future, the rest of the game. You have to have those guys make them."
Said Smith: "We just need to execute better. If we couldn't catch the ball, we wouldn't be here. So we just need to make catches."
Oddly enough, the passing attack has, at least statistically, been a little worse when the Ravens are playing with a lead than when they've fallen behind, which might help explain why Baltimore hasn't blown many teams out in 2011.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when the Ravens have had a lead, Flacco has completed 112 of 212 passes (52.8 percent) for 1,426 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. When the Ravens have trailed, he has completed 120 of-198 passes (60.6 percent) for 1,241 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. With the game tied, a scenario that occurs most often in the first quarter, he has completed 65 of 113 passes (57.5 percent) for 813 yards, five touchdowns and only one interception.
"There are going to be tough throws and tough catches, but we've got to make those plays," Smith said. "There are really no excuses. We just didn't play well."
With the playoffs looming, one area where the Ravens definitely need to improve is their execution in the red zone. Flacco is completing just 39.6 percent of his passes (21 of 53 for 154 yards) inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He has, however, protected the ball well, throwing for 10 touchdowns without a single interception.
"There's certain things that we can work on just as a unit," Flacco said. "Obviously, missing Anquan's a big thing. He's a good receiver for us, but I like to think we can have confidence in everybody who is out there and really improve. All those guys are capable, and all those guys are really good players. We just need to go into the game and give them confidence, and that starts with me, just feeding those guys confidence and putting the ball on them, making it easier for them so they can get themselves going and they can start making those plays."
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.