Once a staple in every Joe Flacco-led version of the Ravens' offense, the deep pass has become a secondary feature this season.
The high-risk passes have only occasionally worked, as they did several times in the back of the end zone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and as one memorable pass to Steve Smith did in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
But in an offense that values high-percentage passes and a good running game, the team is still trying to incorporate the risky deep passes that have worked so well in years past.
"It's the toughest play in football to make offensively, because the percentages are obviously lower the further you go downfield," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, the Ravens' primary deep threat. "But it's something that we've been good at in the past, and there's no reason why we shouldn't get back on track."
In Houston, where offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak ran his offense as head coach from 2006 to 2013, quarterbacks threw deep — longer than 20 yards downfield — just under 10 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus data. Over the past four years, Flacco has targeted receivers that far downfield on 337 of the 2,176 passes he's thrown (15.5 percent).
This season, however, he's thrown downfield 30 times in eight games, a pace that's nearly two deep tries per game fewer than in years past. Part of that can be attributed to the receivers who have emerged as reliable targets. Deep-threat Jacoby Jones is at the bottom of the depth chart, with four catches and five dropped passes. Torrey Smith had three touchdowns in the past four games, including a late bomb against the Atlanta Falcons, but was held without a catch against the Bengals last week.
Instead, wide receiver Steve Smith and Owen Daniels have emerged as more reliable options underneath, and when they get open quickly, Flacco hits them.
It's a trade-off that seems conscious, as for the first time in years the Ravens' short and intermediate passing game is yielding steady returns. Through eight games, Flacco is near his career highs in completion percentage (62 percent), and at 2,049 passing yards, is on pace for his first 4,000-yard season.
"In this league, it's very difficult to peck away, so to speak, and I think that's something we do well," Kubiak said.
Flacco agrees, and pointed to the fact that the Ravens are still scoring and moving the ball downfield on most of their drives. The offense rates in the top-five in points per drive and yards per drive.
"As the year goes on, we're going to find different ways every week to move the ball, and I'm sure that stuff will start to even itself out more so, but I don't really care," Flacco said. "It doesn't matter how we do it. I just want to do it in an efficient way."
In a system that relies on quarterback reads to get the ball out quickly, longer throws typically come when faking the run on play-action passes. During the preseason and throughout training camp, Kubiak frequently pointed to establishing the run to open up such passes.
Flacco has thrown just three of his 14 touchdowns on play-action passes, and while he's been more accurate downfield than ever before, the play-action passing game hasn't yielded the big plays Kubiak had hoped for. The deficiencies in that area of the field were glaring in last week's loss to the Bengals.
The Ravens took shots downfield with Torrey Smith, Jones, and Kamar Aiken on play-action passes. Smith, who has drawn an NFL-leading seven pass interference penalties downfield for 159 yards, this time drew an illegal contact penalty on the incompletion down the left sideline. Flacco overthrew both Jones and Aiken on passes where each had a step on his defender.
"We've had our opportunities," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "We need to make more of them. We missed some big plays in the game last week down the field — I'm thinking of one, Kamar, that really could have broken the game open. We've booted a little bit more here lately, got the ball down the field. You have to make those plays, too. It's one thing to call them, but you have to find a way to make them."
With the Ravens' running backs averaging 4.7 yards per carry, Flacco acknowledges a need to improve in the play-action passing game to take advantage of the respect defenses show the Ravens' ground game.
"I think we are going to get better and better at taking advantage of some of those play-actions," Flacco said. "The more that we continue to run the ball and continue to run the ball well, we're going to have to get some shots and we're going to have to get some yards out of those play-action passes. I think it's something that we're definitely going to be able to rely on and we're going to run effectively as the year goes on."
Sunday's match-up with the Steelers represents a good opportunity to get the deep-passing game on track. Pittsburgh has allowed four touchdown passes from outside the red zone in the last three games, and cornerback Cortez Allen was targeted for two long touchdowns last week against the Indianapolis Colts. Veteran cornerback Ike Taylor has already been ruled out with an arm injury.
"Sometimes, it comes in bunches," Torrey Smith said. "All it takes is one, and we're just waiting on that opportunity."