Commentary: Ravens opt to go deep

This was the year NFL offenses were revolutionized. When even casual fans began talking about the Read Option. When quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick showed off a dynamic new way to play the position.

But the Baltimore Ravens offense is revolutionary in its own way.

In an era when accuracy is valued above all else, when completion percentage is often looked at as the most important statistic, when quarterbacks have been turned into short, underneath passers, the Ravens and strong-armed Joe Flacco throw the ball downfield.

The Ravens have completed 11 passes of 20 yards or more during the postseason. The other three remaining teams have 11 among them. The Ravens have hit on five pass plays of at least 40 yards. The other 11 teams that made the playoffs have a grand total of eight.

This is passé, of course. So 1970s. Today, it's all about hitting on two out of every three pass attempts, finding speedy receivers or running backs in space, and letting them do the work.

But when you're in the final minute of a game, trailing by a touchdown, out of timeouts, seemingly doomed, it helps to be able to fling it like Flacco. The Sports Illustrated cover boy's 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones sent last Saturday's Ravens-Broncos game into overtime and, ultimately, got Baltimore into today's AFC Championship game at New England.

To wide receiver Torrey Smith, the reason the Ravens are having so much success on deep balls is simple.

"We have guys that can run and a quarterback that can throw the ball down the field," Smith said Wednesday at the team's Owings Mills complex.

Jones was asked the same day to describe Flacco's deep ball.

"It's like Starburst. It's juicy, like candy," Jones said. "Everybody likes candy."

And this "candy" doesn't appear to be harmful at all. According to ESPN, Flacco has thrown 93 passes of more than 20 yards down the field this season without an interception. He is eight for 12 in the playoffs on such throws, four of five on throws of 40 yards or more.

"I've never played with a guy with that much talent; I'm talking about physically," Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin told reporters this week. "I think Joe is able to make any throw on the field. Talk about making big-time throws, the deep ball, he does it all."

TV analyst Ron Jaworski, a former quarterback, said on ESPN this week that Flacco has the strongest arm in the NFL and that he is one of only two QBs who could've completed that desperation pass to Jones last week, with former league MVP Aaron Rodgers being the other.

Of course, Flacco has plenty of critics, too. His ability to move off of his first read, his decision-making, his consistency and his accuracy have been questioned.

Flacco will never compile a completion percentage as high as his well-paid peers. His 59.7 percent ranked 19th during the regular season. Of course, the six players who threw at least 400 passes and hit on 64 percent or better didn't approach Flacco's 12.04 yards per completion.

It's been more pronounced in the playoffs. Flacco is only completing 52.6 percent of his passes, eighth-best out of the 12 quarterbacks. Yet no one has thrown for more yards.

In fact, Flacco has needed only 30 completions to accumulate 613 passing yards. Matt Schaub completed more than twice as many (63) in Houston's two playoff games - for fewer yards (605).

Only four wide receivers are averaging at least 19.6 yards per catch this postseason. Three of them - Jones (28.3 yards per catch), Smith (25.8) and Boldin (19.6) - play for Baltimore.

Perhaps it's a coincidence, but the Ravens offense seems a whole lot more dangerous with Jim Caldwell calling the plays. Caldwell, of course, was elevated from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in December, replacing Cam Cameron.

While nothing seems drastically different, Flacco has flourished. Certainly, he seems to be playing with more confidence. And Caldwell is displaying plenty of confidence in his quarterback, too, unafraid to call for the type of downfield passes most other teams avoid.

Smith says it's fun to play in such an explosive offense. He said everyone, from the offensive linemen on down, get excited when a long pass play is called - and the linemen have responded by giving Flacco plenty of time to throw and the receivers plenty of time to get open.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick recognizes just how lethal Baltimore's passing game can be.

"It's a very explosive team with a lot of big plays," he said during a Wednesday news conference. "They can get a lot of yards in a hurry. They do a real good job on the deep balls, really good."

The Broncos would concur. And if these Ravens are to finally get back to the Super Bowl with a win today, those deep balls will likely be a big reason why.

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