The Ravens passed their way through three opponents in the first four weeks of the season, in the process soaring up the charts in many offensive categories. But in their past three games, the offense has not been as effective, particularly when it comes to those big chunk passing plays that make touchdown drives easier.
In the first month of the season, the Ravens led the NFL in passing plays that gained 20 or more yards. But they only produced six such plays in the past three weeks, and four came in the Week 6 win over the Dallas Cowboys at M&T Bank Stadium. In the 30-point road loss to the Houston Texans in Week 7, quarterback Joe Flacco didn't complete a single pass that traveled 10 or more yards down the field, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
Their last three opponents -- the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cowboys and the Texans -- disrupted the Ravens' passing attack with press coverage and quick pressure on Flacco. Teams have also rolled their coverage toward speedy second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith, who was targeted 21 times in those games but caught just eight passes for 103 yards and one touchdown. He only had one reception of 20-plus yards over that span.
But this post is not about Smith's struggles or press coverage being the bane of the offense's existence, though they are a factor. The topic is Joe Flacco and the vertical passing game. Despite having one of the NFL's strongest arms, the fifth-year starter is one of the league's most inaccurate quarterbacks when attempting throws of 20 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
No quarterback has attempted more throws at or beyond 20 yards than Flacco and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who have each thrown 41 deep passes. Flacco has completed just 15 of them for 459 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. His accuracy percentage of 36.6, which accounts for dropped passes, ranks 20th in the NFL among qualified QBs, behind quarterbacks such as Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets, Matt Cassel of the Kansas City Chiefs and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks.
Sure, this is one isolated aspect of a quarterback's overall game, but it's pretty significant for Flacco, who has thrown passes of 20 or more yards on 16.6 percent of his throws, according to Pro Football Focus. That frequency is second to only Wilson, who in the midst of an up-and-down rookie season for the 4-3 Seahawks.
And despite commentators drilling our ears on telecasts about how Flacco throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL, this is not a new trend. In 2011, Flacco was accurate on 34.2 percent of his deep throws (which also accounts for five Ravens drops). His accuracy percentage was a career-best 43.6 in 2010, 39.7 in 2009 and 31.4 in 2008. For comparison sake, that 2010 was the only season he ranked among the top 10 quarterbacks in that category.
But that's not to say the Ravens should stop throwing deep.
Completing those high-risk, high-reward throws obviously make scoring points easier -- especially for an offense that has struggled on third down -- and they provide a boost to the offense. They also stretch the top of the defense, opening up things for running back Ray Rice and short and intermediate throws by Flacco. Plus, with five touchdowns and no interceptions, Flacco has a passer rating of 118.8 on deep attempts.
Yes, incompletions will sometimes put them behind schedule when it comes to down and distance. But as long as Flacco is being smart with the football and not chucking it up for grabs, the high reward will often outweigh the risk of throwing it deep -- even if it hasn't the past few weeks.