Despite recent slump, Ravens offense much improved from last season

Under Gary Kubiak, right, the Ravens offense has improved this season.
Under Gary Kubiak, right, the Ravens offense has improved this season. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

By nearly every measure, the Ravens' offense has improved dramatically from last season.

Through 10 games, the Ravens are averaging more than five points, 56 total yards and 41 rushing yards more per game than they were at this point last year. They've gone from ranking 30th in the NFL in total offense to 12th.


Yet as the Ravens return to work this week to prepare for Monday night's game against the New Orleans Saints, there is mounting evidence that the offense is headed in the wrong direction at a time in the season when it needs to be at its best.

After throwing 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions over his first six games, quarterback Joe Flacco has tossed five touchdowns and five interceptions over his past four.


After totaling 77 points and accruing 846 yards of offense in blowouts of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons, the offense has sputtered in the Ravens' past three games, resulting in two losses.

And after mostly executing at a high level in the season's first seven weeks, turnovers have been up and third-down conversions are down in recent games.

The Ravens (6-4) know that these trends can't continue if they hope to match the high-powered offenses of the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers the next couple weeks and mount a playoff run.

"I think it's very important right now that we settle down and say, 'This is what we are,'" Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said last week. "Sometimes as a coach, when you're up there looking at film all night, sometimes you get a little ahead of yourself and ahead of your players, and I'm trying to make sure I don't do that right now.

"But I don't think we're even close to what we can get done this year, if that's what you're asking me. I know there's a lot of improvement for us and ways that we can help our team win, so that's what we're trying to stay focused on."

Kubiak vowed to spend the bye week searching for ways to jump-start an offense that is in a modest but still concerning slump. He even indicated last week that he has considered simplifying things in the hope of getting Flacco back to the form that he was showing earlier in the season.

"Joe went through a really hot stage for about three or four weeks. Then, we went through a stage here where we turned the ball over," Kubiak said. "We calmed that down [against the Tennessee Titans], which is a big reason why we were able to be successful.

"But I'm trying to go back and really look at the things that he's very comfortable with and doing very well, and maybe some of the things I've asked him to do here over the course of a few weeks that maybe got him out of that comfort zone. … We have to clean up some of our decision-making, and I think I can help him with that by how I call plays, too."

The arrival of Kubiak and his West Coast offense represented a jarring change for Flacco and the Ravens' offense. Team officials understood that the new offense would be a work-in-progress, and they anticipated some growing pains, but the group quieted some of that talk with a hot start and probably heightened the outside expectations.

For much of the first seven weeks, Flacco wasn't putting the ball in harm's way. The resurgent run game was picking up yards and setting up manageable third downs. Steve Smith filled a major void as a No.1 wide receiver and the offensive line was keeping Flacco unscathed and opening up running lanes.

But Flacco has been sluggish and mistake-prone in recent weeks, and blitz-happy defenses have given the Ravens fits. Smith has just 14 catches for 155 yards and no touchdowns over the past four games, compared to 25 catches for 429 yards and three scores over his first four.

In the process, some of the age-old questions about Flacco's consistency, the team's receiving corps and the offensive play-calling have resurfaced.


"We have to do the little things right," said running back Justin Forsett, who ranks seventh in the NFL with 721 rushing yards and has been arguably the team's most valuable player. "I think that when we're on our 'A' game and we're doing the little things right, no one can stop us. We just have to get better. We have to execute, and we have to do the little things better."

Even with the recent struggles, it would be hard for Ravens officials to be displeased with the results.

After all, the Ravens are tied for eighth in the league in points per game despite losing tight end Dennis Pitta to season-ending hip injury, not having former running back Ray Rice for a single snap and playing a couple games with undrafted rookie James Hurst and rookie fifth-round pick John Urschel starting on the left side of the offensive line. The minimal offensive contributions of running back Bernard Pierce and wide receivers Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown also have been a factor.

Still, the Ravens are on pace to finish the season inside the top 10 in the NFL in points per game for just the fourth time in 19 seasons. The offense's current No. 12 ranking would represent the team's best finish since the 1997 season, when the Ravens ranked ninth.

The retooled offensive line has allowed Flacco to get sacked just 14 times, down from 48 last year, and the Ravens are averaging 4.4 yards per carry a season after gaining a league-low 3.1.

"I think they'd have to feel pretty good about where they're at, given the transition to a totally new system," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, now an analyst for NFL Network. "Their formula is clear cut in terms of the balance that they are looking for. If they can maintain it, they'll have to be very pleased with where they are."

At his weekly news conference Monday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh highlighted several keys to improving as an offense, predictably starting with avoiding turnovers. In their four losses, the Ravens have turned the ball over nine times. In their six wins, they've had just five turnovers.

"We are going to be very tough to beat if we don't turn the ball over, and it's something we have to stop," Flacco said. "But, at the same time, we have to stay aggressive. We have to go after it; we have to try to put points on the board; we have to try to stretch the field — all that stuff."

Harbaugh also cited the need to be more efficient on third down and in the red zone. The Ravens are just 24-for-74 (32.4 percent) on third downs over the past six games. They also are scoring touchdowns on just 54.1 percent of their red zone trips.

The missed opportunities have prompted a familiar refrain in the team's meeting rooms in recent weeks.

"The term that we've been saying a lot is there's still some meat left on the bone," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "We feel like we still have a lot of room to improve because we feel like we've got a lot of potential here. We really feel like we can be a top five offense."


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