OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Seeing the Ravens among the top offensive teams in the NFL is enough to make you blink twice after years of riding the coattail of the defense, but it represents a changing of the guard in Baltimore.
Through the first four games of the season, the Ravens rank second in total offense and fifth in points per game while their defense has slipped to 23rd overall in yards allowed this season. Much of the offensive improvement falls on the shoulders of fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco, who is on pace for his first 5,000-yard season when he has yet to even throw for 4,000 in a season.
However, Flacco would be the first to tell you his expanded set of weapons in the passing game has helped him immensely as the addition of the speedy Jacoby Jones and the improvement of 2011 second-round pick Torrey Smith have led to a more dynamic passing game, which ranks fourth in the league in yardage. Baltimore leads the league with 26 plays of 20-or-more yards this season, with 24 coming through the air.
“[Defenses] definitely have to decide how to play us,” Flacco said. “They’ve tried to take those guys away, and sometimes they’ve left them one-on-one out there. In either situation, I think we’ve done a good job of running routes underneath and winning underneath.”
The one week in which the Baltimore receivers seemed to be outmatched came against the Philadelphia Eagles as cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played press coverage with a single deep safety for much of the afternoon. Ravens wideouts were held to just six catches for 85 yards, with Jones catching a 21-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Flacco attempted 42 passes against the Eagles but only targeted wide receivers 12 times as he instead looked at tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and running back Ray Rice. He averaged only 5.5 yards per attempt in the Ravens’ 24-23 loss.
Possessing the league’s 13th-ranked pass defense, the Kansas City Chiefs will employ a similar defensive style with their 3-4 alignment as opposed to the Eagles’ 4-3 scheme.
“They are playing bump-and-run Cover 1, a lot of single-high coverage,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “They feel good about their inside linebackers’ ability to cover. They like their ability to get edge pressure to help their secondary. So, I like the way they’re aggressive. Most teams that can play bump-and-run man-to-man play Cover 1, they can give you some problems.”
Comparatively speaking, cornerback Brandon Flowers brings a physical presence similar to Rodgers-Cromartie while Stanford Routt is more of a speed coverage back like Asomugha. Neither is as talented as the tandem in Philadelphia, but the Chiefs also have one of the best young safeties in the league in Eric Berry to offer assistance in coverage.
Going back through the last few seasons, receivers have struggled to beat press coverage and gain separation against more physical defensive backs and it’s a strategy the Ravens will once again encounter in Kansas City. If Flacco cannot find open targets, he will face heat from outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston coming around the edges.
The Kansas City defense showed its potential last season in handing the 13-0 Packers their only loss of the regular season as they sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers four times and held him to only 235 yards passing on 35 attempts while holding their talented wide receivers in check.
“You better be able to run through those seven yards, get yourself free, get yourself clean, get some separation so Joe can get the ball out,” Cameron said. “These guys do an outstanding job rushing the passer. You saw last year when Green Bay went in there undefeated and they got a ton of pressure on Rodgers. The combination of their coverage and their pressure is the toughest part.”
Pollard not feeling sentimental
Strong safety Bernard Pollard began his NFL career in Kansas City where he was a second-round selection in the 2006 draft.
Playing for then-coach Herman Edwards, Pollard spent three seasons with the Chiefs and amassed 189 tackles, three interceptions, and one sack in his time there. However, the seventh-year safety says he doesn’t view the game with any special significance.
“It’s not about me. A lot of guys on this team have been on other teams,” Pollard said. “It’s not about that individual. It’s about us as a team going into a hostile environment and getting a win.”
However, Pollard went on to discuss how many of his former teammates remain in Kansas City, including running back Jamaal Charles as the two spent the 2008 season together before Pollard wound up in Houston a year later. That year, Charles was a rookie from the University of Texas.
The Baltimore defensive player credited his former teammates for hanging tough in Kansas City after a rough start to the 2011 season that included season-ending injuries to Charles and Berry and the dismissal of head coach Todd Haley. Pollard is anxious to face the talented Charles, who ranks second in the NFL with 415 rushing yards.
“It’s going to be fun being able to see him,” Pollard said. “Just to see him become the player that he is. When they drafted him in the third round, just to see him now, the guy is a very talented player. That’s what Herm wanted. You look at a lot of players that they have, Herm drafted a lot of those men that are key athletes on their team.”