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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was dealt a lousy hand this season.
Of course, coming off a Super Bowl MVP performance and signing a record-setting $120.6 million contract in the offseason ease the pain of the plight he now faces, but anyone who’s watched the Ravens this season realizes the sixth-year quarterback has been fighting an uphill battle since the start of training camp.
No Anquan Boldin or Dennis Pitta.
A running game averaging 2.8 yards per carry and on pace to be the NFL’s worst since the 1953 New York Giants, according to ESPN.
A banged-up and inept offensive line on pace to surrender 50 sacks, which would easily surpass the highest total — 40 in 2010 — given up in Flacco’s career.
With all those factors working against him, Flacco has often been asked this season if he’s had to fight the urge of trying to do too much in the Ravens’ struggling offense that’s now failed to score at least 20 points in in its last three games for the first time since Nov. 2009.
“It’s tough in the NFL to go out there and try to be Superman,” Flacco said. “It’s just impossible to do that. I think that kind of keeps you in check and allows you to go out there and just play the game. It’s frustrating when you’re running off the field and you’re not getting first downs and you’re not scoring points.”
Of course, Flacco’s right in his assessment of no one player being able to do the job all by himself, but the Ravens may need a superhuman stretch — or at least one similar to what we saw in the 2012 postseason — from the quarterback to advance to the postseason for the sixth straight season in the John Harbaugh era. It’s a lot to ask given everything malfunctioning around him, but the Ravens expect a lot from him, evident by the nine-figure investment general manager Ozzie Newsome made last winter.
Flacco’s play has been better than his statistics indicate despite his 79.3 quarterback rating through eight games, which is on pace to be the worst of his career. But that doesn’t mean he’s immune from criticism as his five-interception effort in Buffalo was one of the worst games of his career and his poor first half in Cleveland on Sunday coming off the bye led to another slow start offensively and a third consecutive defeat.
The Ravens needed a pick-me-up from Flacco to build confidence early on against the Browns, but he missed several open receivers in the first half that kept the Cleveland defense in a single-high safety look with seven men in the box, giving an ineffective running game even less of a chance to succeed. With the rushing attack showing no signs of improving, it’s difficult for the Ravens offense to play with confidence if they can’t come out throwing to move the chains early.
This season, Flacco has completed only 53.6 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and four interceptions in the first half before rebounding in the second half with a 65 percent completion rate and a 91.1 passer rating with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
“We’ll earn our confidence by doing well,” Harbaugh said. “Fundamentally, we have a confident group. There’s no question all of us are confident. We know we can get it done. We know we can get there. But until you start doing it with some consistency, it’s hard to be confident in what you’re doing.”
The slow starts have become an epidemic as the Ravens have fallen behind early and a good — but not great — defense has had to work hard early in games to keep the score close, which might partially explain the unit’s inability to make stops late in the second half to put the offense back on the field for opportunities to complete comebacks.
The Ravens haven’t scored a first-quarter touchdown since the season opener on Sept. 5 and have been held scoreless in the first 15 minutes four times this year. It’s just not a formula conducive to winning more often than not at any level of competition.
In recent weeks, Baltimore has made more of an effort to throw early to help set up the run, but it hasn’t come any easier than it did trying to get Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on track behind fullback Vonta Leach and the offensive line to begin games. Opponents haven’t respected the run or the Ravens’ pedestrian group of wide receivers and tight ends beyond third-year wideout Torrey Smith.
“You have to be able to hit guys on the outside and win one-on-one routes,” Flacco said. “If you can do that, then you can get teams to play some different coverages where you don’t have one-on-one, and then you can open up the run looks a little bit.”
With the absence of Boldin and Pitta making plays in the intermediate middle portion of the field, the Ravens have seen too many defenders in the box to defend the run, but the disappearance of the vertical passing game has been just as problematic. The early-season struggles in that department were understandable with speedsters Jacoby Jones and Deonte Thompson sidelined due to injury, but their returns haven’t sparked what was a major part of last year’s passing attack.
In the 2012 regular season and playoffs, Flacco completed 50 of 123 passing attempts that traveled 20 or more yards through the air for 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. This season, Flacco is just 10 of 44 with no touchdowns and three interceptions on attempts of 20 or more yards.
Defenses don’t fear the Ravens’ options at tight end and in the slot, so they’ve been able to account more for vertical threats — particularly Smith — but Flacco’s accuracy in that department has been off on a number of occasions, whether receivers have been open downfield or not. Even if the passing game can’t find consistent production, a few more explosive plays might have been the difference in netting a couple wins in their last four losses decided by a total of 14 points.
With the running game nonexistent, it’s clear offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has elected to put more on Flacco’s plate lately, working extensively out of the shotgun and in three-wide, single-back sets with the intent of throwing the football. The new focus that’s included plenty of no-huddle — Flacco’s favorite way to operate — debuted in the Week 7 loss at Pittsburgh and appears to be the Ravens’ best attempt to establish an offensive identity.
Some would call it nothing but desperation at this point, but the Ravens need Flacco to be better — fair or unfair. Caldwell may continue to introduce new wrinkles such as last Sunday’s debut of the pistol formation, but the best chance of improvement and bouncing back from the franchise’s worst start since the 2005 season rests on Flacco’s right shoulder.
“With Joe controlling this thing, I’m looking forward to continuing to try and change it up,” Rice said. “Whether it’s the [shotgun], under center — it’s essentially just doing the [same] stuff. We’ve just got to execute at a high level. Joe drives this thing, and we’re all just following.”
It’s a lot to ask as Flacco has needed to adapt to changes in personnel — voluntary and due to injury — while dealing with the disappearance of the running game. An improved second half from him isn’t needed to validate his contract or his status as one of the better quarterbacks in the league, but it’s the Ravens’ best — and perhaps only — chance of salvaging what’s looking more like a lost season as the losses mount.
If it were a poker game, Flacco would be playing with rags in early position. He can either fold his hand or try to make some moves in hopes of catching the right card or two along the way. Frankly, even that may not be good enough by the time late December rolls around.
The running game isn’t going to be fixed — at least to the point where it becomes a strength — and Flacco can only make the best of what he has to throw to with the added possibility of Pitta returning in the next few weeks. There are no simple solutions for the Ravens offense other than hopping on Flacco’s back and hoping he finds the kind of groove he did last January and February.
“Even if you do rip up everything, it’s not like you can make it that much different,” Flacco said of the offensive approach. “We’ve just got to be better at what we do. We haven’t been good enough. That’s why we’re not winning football games. We’ve just got to get better and continue to have confidence and continue to believe that we’re going to push through it and be a good football team.”