Frantically trying to get his offense in the end zone last week, quarterback Joe Flacco looked down the field and saw Torrey Smith and three relatively unfamiliar faces.
Four weeks earlier, Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark were just two guys that Flacco knew from seeing them across the field or watching them on television. Marlon Brown was just one of several undrafted free agents working with the second or third-team offense during training camp.
All of a sudden, the three new Ravens were keys to the team getting back in last week's game against the Denver Broncos, and Flacco needed to get comfortable with their tendencies on the fly.
"What are you going to do? It's the way it is," Flacco said Wednesday. "You just have to embrace it and take it on as a challenge and try to make it work the best you can."
For all the talk about the Ravens' overhauled defense, their offense is also in transition, and much of the burden has fallen on Flacco's shoulders to help accelerate the learning process for the team's new pass catchers. Judging by the results — Flacco threw two interceptions and 28 incompletions in the 49-27 loss to the Broncos — the situation remains a work-in progress.
"You feel like Joe will bring those guys along and train those guys and those kinds of things, but that's our challenge right now," head coach John Harbaugh said. "That's what we're faced with."
When the starting offense takes the field Sunday afternoon in the Ravens' home opener against the Cleveland Browns, three of the top five receivers from last year's team won't be there. Anquan Boldin is now with the San Francisco 49ers and his 13-catch, 208-yard and one-touchdown performance against the Green Bay Packers, which earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, was a sharp reminder of his worth to an offense.
Tight end Dennis Pitta will miss most — if not all —of the season with a dislocated hip and deep threat Jacoby Jones, who was hurt against the Broncos, is expected to be sidelined for several weeks with a sprained knee.
Rookie Aaron Mellette was placed on injured reserve Wednesday, leaving the Ravens with only four healthy wide receivers: Smith, Stokley, Brown and Tandon Doss, who was released before the start of the season and re-signed Monday.
Flacco, the sixth-year quarterback, earned a six-year, $120.6 million contract extension largely on the strength of his postseason performance in leading the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XLVII. But all told, 41 of his 73 postseason completions, 683 of his 1,140 passing yards and nine of his 11 touchdowns were to guys who are either now on other teams or are out injured.
"That's the name of the game when you're a quarterback in the league," Flacco said. "You have to prove that you can adapt to whatever is necessary to win football games, and that's what we're trying to do. … When you bring in guys, you're so focused on the big things of making sure everybody knows what route to run, making sure everyone is lining up quickly, and just getting the calls and everything, that the little things just take a little bit of time. I think it's something that we're going to be constantly working toward, and we've just got to make sure we're the best we can be."
It's a two-sided process that is constantly evolving. The newer wide receivers and tight ends are still learning the Ravens' playbook and offensive philosophies along with Flacco's tendencies. Flacco, meanwhile, is figuring out how his new targets run routes, how quickly they get out of breaks and where they operate best.
It requires almost constant conversation on the practice field, in the locker room and in the meeting room, according to backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
"All of it plays a part in it, getting a couple of reps with a guy after practice, talking through film, telling him where you expect him to be on this particular play," Taylor said. "Everything — on the field, in the classroom and even just general conversation — can help. It's our job to get us all on the same page. That's what we're working hard to do every day."
It's not that Flacco hasn't dealt with change in his pass-catching corps before. Before the 2010 season, the Ravens added veterans Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth to go along with Pitta and Ed Dickson, the pair of tight ends drafted to eventually replace Todd Heap. In 2011, the Ravens signed veteran Lee Evans and drafted Torrey Smith and Doss, and last offseason, they made Jones their veteran wide receiver addition.
But this year's changes feel far more significant. Perhaps, it is because Stokley and Clark were added halfway through training camp or Brown was considered a significant long shot to make the team. Or maybe it's because of how much trust Flacco placed in Boldin and Pitta, throwing to them — even if they were covered — in the red zone, over the middle of the field and on third downs.
Flacco, whose tight relationship with Pitta on and off the field is well-documented, targeted Dickson five times against the Broncos — several of the throws in traffic — and only one was completed for 13 yards. Clark also had two drops, one on what would have been a walk-in touchdown. After one of Dickson's drops, Flacco wore a look of obvious frustration on his face.
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"I need to make those plays," Dickson said. "I'm harder on myself than anybody. I feel like I should make all those plays, doesn't matter if they are going to hit you or not. Make all those plays, help Joe out and all those things."
Dickson acknowledged that he's still developing chemistry with Flacco, saying, "I've going to be in Joe's back pocket. I'm going to be Pitta so to say."
During the preseason, one of Flacco's interceptions was the result of a miscommunication with Doss while another happened after he tried to force a ball over the middle to Clark. The two others were intended for a covered Jones, who figured to take a bigger role this year with the departure of Boldin. Of his two interceptions last week against the Broncos, Flacco appeared to lock onto his receivers — Stokley on the first one and running back Ray Rice on the second.
"It's obviously something to be concerned about," Harbaugh said. "I would say those are more technique issues. Again, fundamentals [like] the routes and Joe being on the same page in terms of the way the route is going to be run — angles of the route — things like that. [They're] things that we have to keep working on. We're not there yet 100 percent on those things."
Asked about his comfortable level with his new targets, Flacco smiled and said, "I'm as comfortable as I need to be. We all are. We're playing a game in four, five days — whatever it is — so we're ready to go."