There was plenty made last season of the relative disappearance of the deep ball from the Ravens’ offense.
What had been one of quarterback Joe Flacco’s biggest strengths – his ability to find his receivers down the field with strong and accurate throws – became a source of great frustration. A year after throwing 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions on passes that traveled 20 yards or more, Flacco threw one touchdown and nine interceptions on such passes last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
His completion percentage dropped on such passes by nearly 15 percent as the numbers made him statistically, one of the least effective deep passers in the NFL last season.
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So how did the Ravens address the issue in the offseason?
Not by adding deep threats on the outside, but by getting more guys to make plays underneath, work the middle of the field and potentially drawn some defensive attention away fromspeedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
Wide receiver Steve Smith averaged 11.6 yards per reception last season – his lowest yards per catch since 2007 and the third lowest of his career – and he’s the first to admit that he’s not as fast as he once was. But he has good hands, is a precise route runner and he isn’t afraid to work the middle of the field.
Tight end Owen Daniels missed 11 games last season with a significant leg injury and he’ll turn 32 during the season. However, he had 50 catches or more in four of the previous six seasons and he knows Gary Kubiak’s offense as well as anyone.
Rookie seventh-round pick Michael Campanaro (River Hill) will have to make the adjustment to the NFL, but he projects to be the type of shifty and savvy slot receiver that the Ravens have lacked.
Then, there’s Kubiak, the new offensive coordinator who is known for advocating a more efficient offense which utilizes play-action and often revolves around getting the ball out quickly.
Kubiak was criticized at times in Houston for not taking enough deep shots down the field, but Jones, who played under Kubiak with the Texans, indicated that it’s not necessarily a fair criticism.
“Don’t sleep on that, but the way he is, he’s going to take what you give us,” Jones said last week. “If you you’re going to sit there and play [underneath] all game – you’re going to give it to us – why not? Just chip away and throw it down the field. It’s football. It’s a chess match.”
There were obviously a handful of reasons why Flacco often struggled to connect with Smith, Jones and others on the deep pass last season.
For one, Flacco never appeared to consistently be on the same page with his receivers. The quarterback had far too many ill-advised decisions or imprecise throws and his receivers also dropped their fair share of balls.
Two, the offensive line’s struggles often made Flacco get rid of the ball quicker than he wanted, preventing deep routes from developing. And three, the departure of Anquan Boldin and the injury to Dennis Pitta took away the Ravens’ two primary underneath threats who work the middle of the field. With them not on the field, the defense could roll a safety and focus on not allowing Smith and Jones to get free deep.
But that third issue shouldn’t be a problem this year, not with the addition of Steve Smith, Daniels and Kubiak calling the plays.
“It is definitely [about how you] get the ball out of your hands, because there’s always a route somewhere that you can get the ball out to, and as a quarterback, you have to know when you have a problem and when you have to get it out,” Flacco said last week. “I think that’s the biggest thing with going through your progressions and having a set progression for this, for that. There’s no real guess work, there’s no real gray area, and that allows you to get the ball out real quick.”
Whether it also leads to Flacco reviving his team’s deep passing game remains to be seen but the pieces certainly appear to be in place for the Ravens to improve in that area.