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BALTIMORE — The third quarter of Sunday’s 19-3 win over the New York Jets was following a predictable pattern for a Ravens offense that hasn’t put together a 60-minute performance all season.
After moving the ball with some success in the first half with three drives of 50 or more yards — all resulting in field goals — and 212 yards, the Ravens had gained just 15 yards on 11 plays after halftime as the third quarter was winding down. Faced with a first-and-5 from their own 34, quarterback Joe Flacco ran a play-action fake to running back Ray Rice before heaving a bomb to wide receiver Jacoby Jones with a stiff wind at the quarteback’s back.
Sprinting behind 35-year-old Jets free safety Ed Reed, Jones reined in the pass for a 66-yard touchdown that not only gave the Ravens a 16-point lead but also represented something they’d been missing this year. Flacco’s strike to Jones was the Ravens’ first touchdown all season on a pass thrown more than 20 yards in the air, a reality that would have seemed absurd a year ago when Baltimore’s vertical passing game was arguably the most dangerous in the NFL.
“It was probably the play of the game for us,” coach John Harbaugh said. “The ball got up there and got caught in the wind. If you saw it, it was being pushed that way. I thought once it got up in the air and the wind got it, I didn’t think Jacoby [Jones] was going to be able to get it. He shifted into another gear and he went and got that ball — just an amazing play. And then for him to reach out and catch it and keep his balance, just a tremendous, athletic play.”
Sunday’s offensive performance was far from exceptional as the Ravens failed to score more than 20 points in a game for the sixth straight time, and the offense provided what we’ve come to expect over the first 11 games of the 2013 season. The Ravens had little success on the ground in averaging just 2.2 yards per carry against the Jets’ top-ranked rush defense, but the 66-yard touchdown strike to Jones followed an earlier 60-yard bomb to Torrey Smith and offered a glimpse of how the Ravens must operate in order to stack enough wins down the stretch to qualify for the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Just as the defense forced three turnovers and Jones provided 146 return yards in the special-teams department, the Ravens need more big plays in all three phases of the game and finally received a couple from their passing attack in disposing of the Jets at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
Flacco dismissed the idea of feeling a sense of relief in connecting on a deep-ball score, but more offensive explosions will give the Ravens a better chance against quality opponents remaining on the schedule.
“I don’t think it was that kind of feeling,” Flacco said. “It was just like, ‘Yes, we got a touchdown. We have 19 points now.’ It wasn’t anything like, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for that,’ or ‘We haven’t done that in a while.’ That wasn’t why; that didn’t creep in at all. It was really just excitement because it was a tight game, we hadn’t put the ball in the end zone yet, and we were able to do it right there.”
The Ravens have played tight games all season, with all but two prior to Sunday’s win being decided by eight or fewer points. And the absence of big plays in the passing game is a factor in explaining why an offense that struggles to consistently sustain drives hasn’t been able to put the Ravens over the top this season.
Injuries to Jones and Deonte Thompson zapped the Ravens of speed to put on the opposite side of the formation to Smith early in the season, enabling defenses to bracket coverage and shade a deep safety to one side of the field. The absence of a consistent running game and receiving threats over the intermediate middle portion of the field — specifically due to the trade of slot receiver Anquan Boldin and the injury to tight end Dennis Pitta — have allowed safeties to remain deep in coverage. Other times, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and Flacco haven’t even appeared committed to trying to throw deep.
But the vertical passing game reemerged Sunday as the deep strikes to Smith and Jones led directly to 10 points and a win to move the Ravens closer to the .500 mark with Pittsburgh coming to town Thanksgiving night for a contest with major playoff implications. Another deep strike or two would go a long way in loosening up the league’s eighth-ranked passing game on Thursday night.
“That was huge for our offense,” said Smith, whose reception early in the second quarter set up the Ravens’ second field goal of the game and gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. “It’s not that we’re depending on it, but it always helps to get chunks of yardage like that. When we get those kinds of days going, it’s usually good for our offense.”
The Ravens were dependent on the deep ball last season as Flacco completed 28 of 82 passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air for nine touchdowns and no interceptions. The sixth-year quarterback entered Sunday having gone just 10-for-50 in that department for no touchdowns and five interceptions in the first 10 games of the season.
As Flacco has mentioned several times this season when asked what has happened to the vertical passing game, low-percentage throws aren’t easy to complete and perhaps the lack of success this season has been as much about a market correction from last year’s success than anything else. But the Ravens offense isn’t equipped to drive up and down the field with the better offenses in the league.
Sunday provided a reasonable blueprint for the Ravens in their bid to advance to the postseason in a muddled AFC wild-card race. A turnover-making defense, strong special teams, and an offense able to strike on a couple big plays led to an easy win over the Jets, the team that entered Week 12 as the No. 6 seed in the division.
The Ravens offense hasn’t lived up to its end of the bargain all year for a variety of reasons, but some home-run passes mixed in with their weekly struggles might provide enough to make the final five weeks of the season interesting.
“It’s the rhythm of the game, the timing,” said Jones in describing why the vertical passing game has been absent. “Sometimes, we’ll be in a certain part of the game where what they’re giving is what [we’ll] take. And we try to connect, and it will be off, and the rhythm and timing will be off. But today, we were on point.”
The 5-6 Ravens will have no choice but to be on point for the rest of the season.