Ravens play-action attack flourishing despite recent rushing struggles

With the play this season of running back Justin Forsett, right, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has had great success with play-action passes, especially lately.
With the play this season of running back Justin Forsett, right, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has had great success with play-action passes, especially lately. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

As the Ravens ground game slogs through its worst five-game stretch of the season, the play-action game that sprouts from it has been at its best.

Quarterback Joe Flacco's play-action bootleg touchdown pass to rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore in Saturday's wild-card playoff game was the latest in a series of effective play fakes that have helped the Ravens into the AFC's Final Four.


"I think it's a big part of our game," Flacco said. "Every time you get into a situation where you're completing short passes, running for a couple yards here and putting yourself in a lot of third-down situations, it makes it very tough to stay on the field consistently, because if you're giving yourselves a handful of third downs every single drive, it makes it tough to go 80 yards.

"In order to keep yourself on the field and get points out of the majority of your drives, you have to hit chunks here and there and you have to at least give yourself the opportunity to hit those chunks," Flacco said.


The Ravens' 49 rushing yards Saturday against the Pittsburgh Steelers were the team's second fewest of the season, behind only a 33-yard afternoon in a Week 16 loss to the Houston Texans. According to Football Outsiders, Saturday's rushing output was the third lowest for a playoff winner in NFL history.

Three of the Ravens' five worst rushing games this season have come over their past five games, and their combined 476 yards since Week 14 are the fewest in any five-game stretch this season.

But when faking the run against defenses prepared to stop it, the Ravens have taken their shots in the intermediate and deep passing game more effectively than at any other point this season.

Over the Ravens' first dozen games, Flacco was 48 of 78 (61.5 percent) for 522 yards (6.7 yards per attempt), four touchdowns and two interceptions, for a quarterback rating of 87.7 on play-action passes, according to Pro Football Focus.

In the final four games of the regular season, plus Saturday's win over the Steelers, Flacco was 22 of 32 (68.8 percent) for 341 yards (10.7 yards per attempt), three touchdowns and one interception, for a 122 rating.

Gillmore's touchdown was one of four play-action completions Saturday, and bookended a day in which a play-action pass to fellow tight end Owen Daniels picked up 18 yards and gave the Ravens their first nonpenalty-related first down of the game.

"We've gotten the ball down the field various ways," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "We were able to boot a little bit last week, so you never know. But Joe [Flacco] is very comfortable doing that."

A week earlier against the Cleveland Browns, wide receiver Torrey Smith's 53-yard reception that woke up the Ravens offense came on a play-action pass. That play opened up the running game, and the Ravens added 77 yards on the ground in the ensuing seven-plus minutes.

The play-action game suffered along with the rest of the offense during the unpleasant Week 16 visit to Houston, but in the third quarter of Week 15 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens ran three straight play-action passes during the game's lone touchdown drive. Flacco had a 22-yard connection with wide receiver Marlon Brown, then followed with completions of 29 yards and 4 yards to tight end Owen Daniels to get the Ravens into the end zone. That was the Ravens' longest drive of the game against the Jaguars, who keyed on stopping the running game.

But it was the Week 14 game against the Miami Dolphins that was one of the team's most prolific play-action days of the season. According to PFF, Flacco was eight of nine for 97 passing yards and a touchdown on play-action, with completions of 20 or more yards to running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Phillip Supernaw.

Saturday's opponent, the New England Patriots, ranks eighth in the NFL with an 83.6 passer rating on play-action passes this year. Opposing quarterbacks are 56 of 92 (60.9 percent) for 754 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions on play-action passes this year.

The Patriots know those numbers will be tested Saturday.


"At the core, they still are a very good running team, a very good play-action team," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They hit a lot of big plays, and they're a very good vertical passing team. … It's not just long passes, and a lot of their passes that are big plays come off play-action, which of course draws the defense's attention to the running game, and then that opens up other areas. They're well balanced. It's a well-balanced offense that attacks the edges of the defense."

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