By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
8:17 PM EDT, September 26, 2013
During the Ravens' victorious Super Bowl run last season, their offense emerged as a formidable weapon capable of rapidly piling up points and yards.
It's a different story altogether this season as an offense in transition has degenerated into a plodding unit that has fallen to 30th in the NFL in total offense.
A once intimidating running game has slowed to a standstill. A formerly prolific passing game has plummeted, impacted since trading wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers and losing tight end Dennis Pitta to a fractured, dislocated hip. Deep throws have frequently misfired with quarterback Joe Flacco ranked 26th in yards per passing attempt with an average of 6.25 yards per throw.
Although it's a bit much to characterize the lack of success as a crisis since the Ravens (2-1) are still winning games largely because of a stout defense, the state of the offense isn't an encouraging trend.
"I think we're evolving, I think we know who we are and what we want to do," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "The fact is that we have to do it more consistently."
During the playoffs, Caldwell fell into a strong rhythm as a playcaller with enviable options. He could pound the football behind running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Or Flacco could launch spirals all over the field to Boldin, Pitta and wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, who's currently out with a sprained right knee.
The Ravens offense averaged 410.3 yards and scored 31 points per game during the playoffs. This season, they've generated just 308.3 yards and 23.7 points per contest with two of their eight touchdowns produced by the defense and special teams.
Now, the offense is dealing with the fallout of losing Boldin and Pitta and six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk to retirement.
"When you're dealing with an offense that has changed a lot, you go through growing pains, you go through building points," tight end Ed Dickson said. "We've got to find our identity as an offense. Are we going to be a two-minute offense sprinting fast or a team that slows it down? As the season goes on and progresses, we'll eventually get an identity on offense and start to run people over and start looking like the offense we know we're capable of. There's no panic."
Caldwell has been forced to resort to a relatively vanilla offense, limited by his personnel with Flacco adjusting to new targets like undrafted rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown and veteran tight end Dallas Clark. Smith has been a focal point with Boldin gone, and become Flacco's most trusted target with 16 receptions for 269 yards with no touchdowns.
However, the Ravens are frequently in run-heavy, I-formation looks with Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach playing nearly half the snaps in the past few games.
The choices have been limited for Caldwell as the former Indianapolis Colts coach tries to build a baseline of fundamentals before trying to significantly expand his playcalling repertoire.
"It's tough for Jim because he's dealing with different personnel groupings because of the injuries," said Dickson, who has struggled with drops and has just one catch after tearing his hamstring in August. "You pick your poison. You want to make Joe as comfortable as you can, but you don't want to take the keys out of his hands and say, 'Run this play or run that play.' He lets Joe figure out what he wants to do."
It's hard to understate the impact of subtracting Boldin and Pitta from the offense. They combined for 126 receptions, 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and both caught touchdowns in a Super Bowl XLVII victory over the 49ers as Boldin caught six passes for 104 yards in his final game with the Ravens.
With the pass not nearly the threat it was last season, defenses have crowded the line of scrimmage to load up against the run. In general, the chemistry appears to be out of sync.
"You have to have a well-rounded offense and do a lot of things well to fool NFL level athletes and defenses," said former Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, a FOX Sports 1 analyst. "If you can't do a lot of things, you will suffer. Their identity would have been the same if they still had Anquan Boldin. Joe is missing the best offensive player he's ever played with. They lose the Super Bowl without Boldin.
"Pitta became a star last year. What we're seeing is how much Joe Flacco leans on three weapons in the offense: Ray Rice, Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin. I've never seen Joe take this much abuse in the pocket. The decision-making is affected based by routes run one foot to the right or left from where they should be. The timing is off."
Flacco has been sacked eight times. During a 30-9 win over the Houston Texans, star defensive end J.J. Watt had nine tackles, three for losses and a sack.
Left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was flagged twice for facemask penalties and didn't play with great hand placement or foot movement. Inserting McKinnie into the lineup for the playoffs last season provided a boost to the pass-blocking, but his run blocking hasn't been sterling and he's had a few pass-blocking lapses this season.
"There isn't anybody on our team that get better, myself included," Caldwell said. "There's always a work in progress in that area, and I think he's working at it, trying to get better at what he does. He's a professional and he's trying to improve every single day."
Added Pryce: "At 360 pounds or whatever he weighs, Bryant is a gigantic mountain of a man. They don't win a Super Bowl without him coming in at that key time. At his age, football is a very difficult game. Bryant is a guy who comes in to save the day, that's what they're paying him the money they pay him to put him on the left side of Joe Flacco. As he gets into better shape, his play should pick up."
The Ravens replaced Birk with Gino Gradowkski, another adjustment for an offense that had grown accustomed to the veteran savvy and continuity it had with Birk.
"Of course, they miss Birk," Pryce said. "I'm seeing some push inside against the line that I've never seen before with them."
Against the Texans, Flacco threw 16 of his 24 passes to Smith and Clark as they combined for nine receptions for 138 yards. Flacco, who has passed for 744 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions for an 80.0 quarterback rating, did connect on a season-long 48-yard pass to Smith. The Ravens hope it's a sign of progress for the NFL's 20th-ranked passing offense.
"We can't force anything," Flacco said. "We still have to take chances. It's not like they're high-percentage all the time. That's the risk that you take. Overall, we just have to click a little bit more on everything we're doing."
Meanwhile, the running game has taken a major step backward this season, averaging 77.3 yards per game to rank 25th overall in rushing offense and 2.6 yards per carry after gaining 118.8 per game and 4.3 yards per carry last season.
The Ravens finished last season with 1,901 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. They're now on pace to finish with 1,236 yards.
"It's going to take a little bit of time for it to gel, for there to be trust and for it to kind of mesh," offensive guard Kelechi Osemele said. "We have to establish the run game and make it easier for Jim to call whatever he wants to call and open things up for Joe. We've got to be patient. It's early, not even midseason yet. It's going to take a while."
The Ravens are banking on Rice, a multi-dimensional runner and receiver, returning for Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills after being out last week with a strained left hip flexor. With Rice expected back, barring a setback, the offense should have more versatility.
Even when Rice was playing in the first two games, though, the offense didn't hit stride as he rushed for 72 yards on 25 carries with 11 receptions for 44 yards.
"He's a game-breaker," Caldwell said. "He's like lightning in a bottle. Having him certainly opens things up. You have to be concerned about him. He feels good right now, so things are going well."
The Ravens have gotten off to slow starts each of the past weeks, scoring no points in the first quarter. For the season, they've scored just seven points in the first quarter.
Overall, they've scored 34 points in the first half and 37 points in the second half.
"We need to get off to a better start," Caldwell said. "We need to certainly put it together and be able to
perform like we've been performing in the second half."
Despite the struggles, Caldwell expects the offense to eventually break through after producing just 236 total yards and 16 first downs against the Texans that was sparked by middle linebacker Daryl Smith returning an interception for a touchdown and wide receiver Tandon Doss scoring on a punt return.
For now, patience remains the Ravens' mantra.
"We have to just continue to improve, and I think you'll see our production go up a little bit more," Caldwell said. "I think you're going to see guys get a little bit more comfortable with one another in terms of what we're doing. We have got to get better. We have to be better than we were last week, that's for sure."
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