Ravens could be on cusp of offensive era

A couple of weeks ago, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco overheard Ray Lewis telling reporters that defense still wins championships.

"Yeah, right," Flacco said while walking past one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history.

Flacco did it with a smile, but he wasn't entirely joking.

"Defenses will win you games, but I think to get over the hump, you need offense," Flacco said to reporters on Thursday. "They've won here in the past with a great defense. They won one Super Bowl, and we're trying to win multiple. And you need a good offense."

The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl with the NFL's top-ranked offense. And they did so by beating the Indianapolis Colts, who had the No. 9 offense.

The current favorites to win it this year are the Saints, Colts, Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys — all teams who are known more for their quarterback than their middle linebacker.

If touchdowns continue to result in titles, the Ravens have the look of a serious Super Bowl contender for years to come.

Flacco is projected to throw for over 4,000 yards. Running back Ray Rice is expected to rank among the NFL leaders in total yards from scrimmage. The offensive line is being rated among the top 5 in the league. And the wide receivers are perhaps the best in team history.

This could be the start of a new era, a time when the Ravens are defined more by their offense than their defense.

When a reporter referred to the Ravens as having one of the top offenses, wide receiver Derrick Mason interrupted, saying, "I think it will be the No. 1 offense."

Those are bold words for an offense that hasn't been ranked in the top 10 since 1997. Flacco was 12 at that time.

The Ravens' offense will find out how much it has improved on Monday, when it plays the New York Jets and the NFL's top-ranked defense from a year ago.

"I think they're a respected attack," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said, "and they have the capability to make a lot of noise."

Here are three reasons why the Ravens are expected to have one of the best offenses in the NFL:

** Cam Cameron's history. The Ravens' offensive coordinator has a proven track record when it comes to the third year of using his system.

From his second to third season with the Washington Redskins (1995 to 1996), the offense went from No. 18 in scoring to No. 8. The same happened from 2003 to 2004 with the San Diego Chargers, who improved from No. 16 in scoring to No. 3.

Last year, the Ravens had the ninth-highest scoring offense in the NFL, averaging 24.4 points per game.

"If we just continue on that road, I think we will become not just the best offense, but the winningest offense in the NFL — and that's all we what we want to do," Mason said. "You can get all the numbers and still not win. What we want to do is make sure that if we do get the numbers, that we're winning in the process."

As general manager Ozzie Newsome puts it, the third season is when most players make their biggest jump.

Rookies play on pure athleticism, and second-year players start to develop an understanding of the league.

The third year … "The light goes on," Newsome said. "They figure out they belong in the league. There's a maturity level that occurs in that third year for every player where they start to match their physical abilities with the intellectual aspect of playing the game."

How important is Flacco's progression? The Ravens are 15-1 when Flacco produces a passer rating of at least 95. In their last 18 regular-season wins, Flacco has thrown 25 touchdowns and three interceptions.

"Probably out of all the quarterbacks I've played with, he has the most the complete package out of them all," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "He's a smart guy, he has a gun, he can make any throw on the field, but his willingness to learn is what separates him from a lot of young guys."

No longer are defenses going to be able to stop the Ravens' passing attack by shutting down Mason.

Now, Flacco can throw over the middle to Boldin, who has the most receiving yards per game (79.2) in NFL history. Flacco can throw down the seam to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has the third-most receptions (373) among active players since 2006. And Flacco can still throw outside to Mason, who has 10 straight seasons of at least 60 catches (the longest active streak in the league).

Mason said there will be plenty of passes to go around for every receiver.

"It's not like this is the first time it's been done in history," Mason said. "You look at the Arizona Cardinals, the Indianapolis Colts, the St. Louis Rams —- teams have done it. Three receivers have been able to coexist. So to me, I think that's a good problem to have."



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