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Ravens offense gets the green light to try unusual plays in the red zone

Ravens offense gets the green light to try unusual plays in the red zone
Joe Flacco said of the unusual scheme in the red-zone during the Ravens' win over the Colts last weekend, "We worked on that play all week, and for that situation, we had what we wanted. We just didn’t execute it." (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A new wrinkle in the Ravens’ red-zone offense did not prevent the team from outlasting the Indianapolis Colts in a 23-16 win Saturday. But offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s curious decision to scheme an alignment in which a pair of offensive linemen lined up standing to the right of quarterback Joe Flacco in the third quarter drew some heat from media and fans.

On Thursday, Mornhinweg owned up to the play — which resulted in Flacco throwing the ball to tight end Nick Boyle for a 3-yard loss on third down-and-1 at the Colts’ 15-yard line and settling for a 36-yard field goal from kicker Justin Tucker — but added a caveat.

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“That was a bad call,” Mornhinweg said. “Bad call. Done. But they still have to prepare for some of that stuff.”

The attempt at creativity illustrates the lengths to which the Ravens will go to score touchdowns when they march inside opponents’ 20-yard line. While a power run up the middle might have seemed the best option in that scenario against Indianapolis, several players said they appreciated Mornhinweg’s effort to be imaginative.

“I don’t think we need to be more conservative and run it or this and that,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “I think they just stopped that play. I like that our coaches are trying different things and being aggressive. At first, people were saying we were too vanilla. So people are going to have something to say regardless. We just play. Our coaches call the play and trust us to execute it. So I don’t have a problem with the call.”

Said Flacco: “We worked on that play all week, and for that situation, we had what we wanted. We just didn’t execute it. So I don’t know if I’m really the guy to talk to about that anyway, but I liked it. We just had to execute it and make it happen.”

For the season, the team is tied with the New York Jets for 10th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 56.3 percent of its trips (27-of-48). But the unit misfired on 4-of-7 red-zone visits in its last two games, and recent struggles caught coach John Harbaugh’s attention.

“Overall for the season, we’ve had a good year in the red zone. I mean, we’re highly ranked in the red zone,” he said. “But the last couple games, we didn’t finish those drives off with touchdowns. That’s the difference in separating. It’s one thing to move the ball, and it’s important to get three [points], but seven’s better. So we just need to finish, and that’s something that has been a point of emphasis for the last few weeks.”

Red-zone success is one of several barometers of an effective offense. Six of the Top 10 teams in the red zone also rank in the Top 10 in scoring – including the Ravens.

But since 1999, the Ravens have never finished a campaign in the Top 10 in red-zone offense. Their best finish was 11th in 2009 and 2012.

The offense has converted at least one red-zone trip into a touchdown in every game but one so far despite lacking what some may perceive to be a go-to player in the clutch. No player has more than five rushing or four receiving scores this season.

The unit’s tallest wide receiver is 6-foot-3 rookie Quincy Adeboyejo, who was on the practice squad until Tuesday. The next tallest wideout is Breshad Perriman, who is 6-2.

Boyle and fellow tight end Maxx Williams are both 6-4, but have combined for 41 catches for 265 yards and one touchdown. And neither is considered a jump-ball threat.

The Ravens’ best hope may reside in attacking gaps in opposing defenses, but tight end Benjamin Watson pointed out that defenses do not have as much room to cover when they are backed inside their own 20.

“In the red zone, obviously everything happens more quickly,” he said. “The throwing lanes are condensed, the running lanes are condensed. You’ve got those 11 guys on defense and instead of them being spread out over 20 yards or 25 yards, they’re now confined to 10 yards or five yards or 15 yards depending on where you are in the red zone. So everything’s happening a lot quicker.”

In Saturday’s win, the unit was denied on 2-of-4 red-zone trips and was forced to rely on Tucker for field goals in the first and third quarters. Those are obviously better than coming away empty-handed, but Mornhinweg acknowledged that he may have been too cute with some of his play calling.

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“I probably added a couple too many things in,” he said. “We were unable to execute on occasion, so we left some points out [there]. … I will say the guys scored on the first three possessions, but two of them were field goals. We have to finish.”

On Sunday, the offense will face a Cincinnati Bengals defense that ranks fourth in the league when backed into the red zone, surrendering a touchdown on only 44.2 percent of opponents’ chances.

But Watson noted that one successful game can change perspectives. And running back Alex Collins said the fix is simple.

“I would say just sticking to what we’ve been doing,” he said. “Just sticking with the scheme and just trusting that we’re going to get better the longer we work on it. Just making sure that everybody knows their responsibilities. That’s the best way to be successful. We just work on it and just try to perfect it as best we can.”

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