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Ravens speed up the game, go to no-huddle offense more frequently

For one of the few times all season, quarterback Joe Flacco appeared completely comfortable. Operating the no-huddle offense in the game-opening drive last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Flacco led the Ravens on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman.

Such drives, though, have been hard for the Ravens to replicate. Season-long problems moving the ball and scoring points have prompted the Ravens to stray from their typical identity and go to a no-huddle offense more and more in recent weeks.

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When they face the surging Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium in a matchup of two AFC playoff hopefuls, the question isn't whether the Ravens will use the no huddle. It's more how much they'll have to rely on it.

"We just have to find our way that way," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "That's something that, to me, is good for us. We're not going to be exclusively a no-huddle team. That would take us down a road that I think would create problems for us that we do not want, but we need to mix it up."

For much of their existence, the Ravens' offensive identity has been based on a physical, downhill running game and a methodical passing attack. This year's team has had to abandon that preferred formula, thanks to a run game that ranks 28th in the NFL and a quarterback who's in the midst of arguably the worst season of his career. Flacco has thrown only one more touchdown pass than interception through 11 games.

Trailing the lowly Cleveland Browns 7-6 at halftime on Nov.10 and with their offense being booed by the home fans, the Ravens started the third quarter in a hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Their next four drives featured three Flacco touchdown passes and an end zone interception.

Unsurprisingly, the no-huddle approach has been used to varying degrees in two games since. It has seemingly allowed Flacco to get in a rhythm that has eluded him throughout the season.

"I think it plays well to what we do," Flacco said. "We have a lot of speed. We get guys in little cracks with simple things, don't overcomplicate it for everybody, just kind of let the speed of it take over. I think getting up to the ball plays into that. I don't think you want to do it 100 percent of the time. No huddle is good, but going two-minute drill like that 100 percent of the time doesn't allow you to get to your whole offense."

Playing with pace

According to the statistical website Football Outsiders, the Ravens run a play every 26.9 seconds. That's the eighth fastest rate in the NFL. Chip Kelly's San Francisco 49ers play at the fastest pace (24.4 seconds) and the run-oriented Dallas Cowboys (29.6 seconds) are the slowest.

The Ravens actually operated out of the no huddle quite a bit earlier this season with Marc Trestman at offensive coordinator. After Mornhinweg took over for the fired Trestman following a Week Five loss to the Washington Redskins, the Ravens slowed things down. Recently, the pace has risen in an effort to jump-start a struggling unit. The Ravens have scored one or no offensive touchdowns in six of 11 games.

"We go in and out of it," Mornhinweg said of the no-huddle offense. "You can do it all the time, but we have chosen not to. There are some reasons for that."

When asked to elaborate on those reasons, Mornhinweg said, "I'd rather not."

Following the Bengals' victory, in which the Ravens scored three second-half points and won on the strength of Justin Tucker's four field goals, Flacco lamented the offense becoming too conservative and losing its tempo. When he spoke to reporters four days later, Flacco acknowledged that going no huddle too much would cost the Ravens the element of surprise that makes such an offense successful.

However, several other Ravens' players said they'd like to pick up the pace even more.

"Why don't we do it more often?" wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. "That's a good question. I don't know. It's a good change of tempo and we've been successful doing it, so I don't see why not."

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When offenses go no huddle, it can keep defenses on their heels, create confusion, change the tempo of the game and wear down opposing pass rushers and linebackers. But the drawbacks are that it eliminates certain formation and play-calling options, leads to communication challenges and often prevents teams from giving their own defenses an extended break.

"You're either going to score real fast or you're going to punt real fast," Aiken said. "It kind of limits you because you don't want to call out routes or say certain stuff. There are only so many code words you can have. It's just a lot more verbiage when we go no huddle. It's not easy at all and there's a conditioning factor. You have to think on the run and you still have to read the coverage, and everything is at a quicker tempo. There's a lot that goes into it."

Pros and cons

As a former Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Ravens and a current ESPN analyst, Trent Dilfer hears the question all the time: Why don't teams go to the no huddle all of the time?

That question has been asked by many Ravens fans in recent weeks.

"The easiest way to say it is when you're in a no-huddle offense, you're more predictable, especially with your run game and your protections," Dilfer said. "If they know you're going to be in a no huddle, they can limit you to a few different runs and to a few protections. When a defense knows your run game and knows your protections, you're screwed. … You're less multiple with your personnel groupings, less multiple with your formations, shifts, movements. It's very hard to have complex window dressing to create confusion for the defense in a full-time no-huddle offense."

Dilfer believes in using a no huddle as a "change-up" and stretched out the baseball analogy further.

"Just because a fastball is your lead pitch, it doesn't mean there's certain games where you don't pitch backward and use your off-speed stuff more. I think that's the no-huddle offense," he said. "Some weeks you sprinkle it in and some weeks there's a real advantage to it."

However, he acknowledges that it's not realistic to expect an offense to switch gears and change midseason into a no-huddle team unless that was the game plan throughout the summer.

Under first-year head coach Adam Gase, the Dolphins started the season leaning heavily on a no-huddle offense. But with young quarterback Ryan Tannehill off to a mistake-prone start, Miami started huddling more and rushing to the line of scrimmage less. Football Outsiders currently has them running plays every 29.29 seconds, the second slowest rate in the NFL.

"I think a little bit of it had to deal with the fact that we were never really together as a full group through spring and training camp. We've had guys in and out. It makes it tough when the quarterback's trying to get everyone lined up and some guys didn't know what to do," said Gase. "There was a lot put on his plate. We kind of had to reel it in a little bit."

Fitting Flacco

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Flacco, though, has always seemed most comfortable in a two-minute offense. While the perception is that it simplifies things for him and allows him to make quicker decisions and play more instinctively, he looks at it more as benefiting his teammates.

"Sometimes when you come out of the huddle and you are doing all this play-action and you are making a check here and you are doing this here, it can be a lot for guys to think about. It might be a half-second difference that guys are not exploding and just attacking," Flacco said. "With some of the youth that we have, with some of the inconsistencies that we have with our lineup, I think just going out and playing well and playing fast and playing straightforward allows guys to go out there and keep their speed and not have that half-second delay in everything."

Harbaugh said the Ravens have three different formats for a no-huddle offense that they use. They employed two of them against the Bengals, and offensive coaches spent some time after the game discussing ways to incorporate the third. However, when the Ravens turn to the no huddle will continue to be a game-by-game decision.

"I like no huddle. I like going fast," Harbaugh said. "I think it is challenging on the defense, but it presents some problems for the offense, too. You have to cover those as well."

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