Complementary parts transform Ravens passing offense

It was not as if any of the moves, taken individually, stopped the NFL’s offseason news cycle in its tracks.

In fact, if the national football media seemed focused on the Ravens’ offense at all, it was to ask when first-round pick Lamar Jackson might usurp Joe Flacco at quarterback.

To the outside world, newly signed receivers John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead were reclamation projects, much like Jeremy Maclin or Danny Woodhead before them. Flacco was an overpaid player in steep decline at age 33.

Within the smaller world of the team, however, optimism bloomed as soon as the components came together for offseason workouts.

Brown accelerated past any defender who marked him. Snead snared every pass thrown over the middle. Crabtree casually tossed off displays of exquisite skill. And Flacco was there with them every day, moving freely and throwing with the oomph of a younger man.

Even in June, you could see and hear their belief in what was coming together. But none of it would mean anything, they cautioned, if that synchronicity did not translate to regular-season games.

A quarter of the way into the 2018 season, we can say the progress is real. The Ravens rank eighth in the league in passing yards per game, up from 29th in 2017. If more advanced metrics are your bag, they rank ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA measure for passing offenses, up from 26th in 2017.

After years of fans lamenting the absence of a big-play threat, Brown ranks third in the NFL in yards per catch. Third-round pick Mark Andrews grades as the best rookie tight end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Six different Ravens have caught touchdown passes. Flacco is on pace to throw for nearly 5,000 yards and has turned the ball over just three times.

On top of all the numbers, the offense is simply more fun to watch. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg might call a play action on one series, a designed rollout on the next and then an exotic formation with his tight end lined up beside the center as an eligible receiver (Maxx Williams gained 22 yards on that bit of trickery against the Pittsburgh Steelers).

“We’re a better offense. We just are,” Flacco said, summing it all up after his team’s win in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

The Ravens are moving the ball so well that Flacco was actually frustrated they finished with just 26 points — scoring on six of 11 drives and moving to the goal line on another — at Heinz Field.

The team’s receivers seem to complement one another unusually well, meaning that wherever Flacco wants to throw on a given play, he has an appealing target.

“All the time we put in, the connecting in offseason and training camp, it’s all coming together now,” Snead said. “Across the board — running backs, receivers, tight ends — Joe has options. That’s scary for a defense, I feel like. When we’re all clicking, we have a powerful thing.”

Though none of the players is limited to one area, Brown has emerged as a clear No. 1 deep threat and Snead as a trusted target in tight spaces when the Ravens need a first down. Crabtree showed off his greatest skill in the season opener when he outfought his defender for a touchdown in the corner of the end zone.

Flacco has also liberally targeted his tight ends — Andrews, Williams and Nick Boyle. All have at least nine catches, and that doesn’t account for first-round pick Hayden Hurst, who could make his debut Sunday against the Cleveland Browns after missing the first four weeks with a fractured foot.

Eleven different Ravens caught passes against the Steelers.

Flacco said the reasons for the transformation are neither entirely philosophical nor entirely because of improved personnel.

“I think philosophy-wise, you tend to … coaches tend to cater toward what kinds of players we have,” he said. “I think it’s a mixture of both of those things. Seeing what we’re capable of doing and adjusting to that, me and Marty having another year under our [belt], another year with me and him feeling each other out and working with each other — I think a lot of things go into it. We added some good pieces.”

He added that stability on the team’s offensive line — where guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis are back after injuries wrecked their 2017 seasons — has facilitated his efficiency. Aside from a bad game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s rarely been touched in the team’s three victories.

“I always talk about it, and it sounds cliché, but having a fully intact offensive line — guys that are healthy and guys that are playing really well — it just makes all the difference in the world in terms of how you operate as an offense,” Flacco said.

This was the payoff general manager Ozzie Newsome hoped to see when he made revamping the passing offense his top priority in the offseason.

Newsome moved on from Maclin, Woodhead and Mike Wallace and used much of the team’s free-agent budget, along with two high draft picks, on pass catchers.

It’s not as if Newsome was dead certain he had the perfect pieces assembled. If he had been, he would not have made an offer to former Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant, who spurned the Ravens. If Bryant had signed, the Ravens might not have signed Snead to the two-year offer sheet that ultimately lured him from New Orleans.

But good fortune and design came together to form this newly productive offense.

“Ozzie did a great job with that,” coach John Harbaugh said when asked how the pieces blended. “You can’t always control that. What’s available, and the circumstances of getting guys signed, and all those different crazy things that happened in the offseason with contracts and things, are usually out of your control to a big degree, but I thought it fell together really well. Ozzie had … his process was really good, and he just put it together really well. Those guys were fits from the beginning.”

Flacco is clearly enjoying himself in a way he did not for much of the last three seasons, when knee and back injuries combined with offensive dysfunction took the luster off his career.

“I know going into every situation that no matter where the ball ends up, it’s going to be a guy that I want to throw the ball to,” he said. “I think the guys are just doing a really good job of creating good throwing environments, and they’re just getting open quickly, doing such a good job up at the line of scrimmage and getting releases and all the different things you have to do to get open. That’s awesome to see as a quarterback.”

There’s an unspoken context for the Ravens’ revived aerial attack: To be a serious NFL contender in 2018, a team almost has to have a highly efficient passing offense.

Flacco’s 96.9 passer rating would be the best of his career and his 67.3 QBR would be second-best behind his 68.2 mark in 2014. But Flacco ranks just 14th in the league in passer rating and 10th in QBR (as calculated by Pro Football Reference).

He’s playing exceptionally, but that’s almost the norm for quarterbacks in a league that prizes offensive innovation and routinely penalizes hard contact against skill players.

“You gain yards through the air in the National Football League nowadays,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not 10 years ago, let alone 35 or 40 years ago.”

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