As the Ravens offense mends its broken wings after a four-turnover debacle in Sunday’s 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the irrational cries for backup quarterback Marc Bulger and panic throughout the city is hardly surprising despite being wrapped in complete absurdity.
Little good can be taken from the defeat — against a team that swept the Ravens last season en route to the AFC North crown — other than another impressive defensive effort further enhanced by the return of cornerback Lardarius Webb, adding another key piece to a secondary puzzle suddenly looking far less problematic that originally feared.
However, the 1-1 Ravens find themselves in an all-too-familiar position with problems on the offensive side of the football despite the additions of former Pro Bowl receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the anticipated progress of third-year quarterback Joe Flacco.
Previously approaching deity status in the realm of local sports after leading Baltimore to the postseason in each of his first two seasons, Flacco suddenly finds himself under the most intense scrutiny he’s faced as a professional. Deficiencies previously assumed to be overcome in his third full season — with an increased number of offensive weapons — are now being labeled as roadblocks that might hinder the Ravens’ path to a deep postseason run in January 2011.
No sugarcoating can defend the awful play of the former Delaware quarterback on Sunday. He looked uncomfortable — with or without pressure in his face — and displayed terrible technique in throwing off his back foot repeatedly. Flacco forced throws into tight coverage and failed to see a wide-open Boldin streaking down the right sideline late in the first quarter for a potential touchdown that would have changed the tempo of the game. It was the type of performance expected from a rookie, not a third-year quarterback picked to win the league MVP award by a few national pundits.
Whether you are a believer in Flacco as the savior or have repeatedly pointed out his inability to read the middle of the field and go through his progressions quickly enough, no one can disagree his degree of incompetence on Sunday was extreme. It was, as many have pointed out in the hours following the loss, “Boller”-esque.
Why did it happen?
Of course, a variety of factors were at work, one being the Bengals having a pretty good defense that matches up well with the quarterback’s main weaknesses.
And this is where a large portion of blame lies with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Even before Sunday’s game, the book was out regarding Flacco’s struggles against the Cover 2 defense, with two losses to the Bengals and the playoff loss to Indianapolis a season ago as strong evidence.
Why then did the Ravens have just 23 runs against 39 pass attempts in a game in which Flacco was clearly struggling to find any semblance of competence let alone a rhythm. Unlike the second loss to the Bengals in 2009 and the playoff defeat to the Colts in which the Ravens fell behind early, at no point did the Ravens need to abandon the run until falling behind 15-10 with 2:48 remaining in the contest.
Instead, Rice was used sporadically (16 rushes) despite picking up 5.4 yards per carry and Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain might as well have stayed in Baltimore (four combined carries).
Even worse, Cameron insisted on calling passes from the shotgun formation repeatedly, even in situations where the Bengals would have been guessing run or pass with Flacco under center.
In all, Flacco made 26 of his 39 attempts in the shotgun, completing only 10 for 78 yards. His 31-yard touchdown strike to Derrick Mason did come out of the formation, but so did the three second-half picks that helped seal the Ravens’ fate.
As simple as it sounds, the Cincinnati defense knew Flacco was throwing when working from the shotgun, making a passer who already struggles against the Cover 2 more predictable on top of that. While the Ravens occasionally call Ray Rice’s number from the formation, casual fans know the shotgun is used for obvious passing plays in most instances. Unless you’re Tom Brady and the 2007 Patriots, using the shotgun repeatedly will not lead to success. It tips your hand, which isn’t a problem on 3rd and long but isn’t what you want on 1st and 10.
Why make it so easy for the Bengals to figure out when a pass is coming in early-down situations?
While the shotgun does provide Flacco with a better look at the defense, it also makes the Baltimore offense more one-dimensional, taking a large number of running plays away from the equation as well as the play-action and roll-outs in which Flacco often finds success. In short, even if the Ravens insisted on passing instead of running, they needed to be far less predictable in their looks.
Instead, the Cincinnati corners locked onto receivers and the safeties settled into their deep halves, with little thought of the running game being a threat from the gun.
The shotgun can — and has been — a successful formation given Flacco’s comfort level in using it, but the look can be abused, as it was on Sunday.
Admittedly, Flacco struggled with pass plays under center (as he typically does in comparison to the shotgun) in the first half, failing to see an uncovered Boldin all alone down the sideline late in the first quarter and following that with an interception on the team’s next drive. As a result, Cameron completely abandoned the under-center passing game for the rest of the half with Flacco making his last 10 throws from the shotgun, finishing the first half 5 of 17 for 23 yards.
When the Ravens returned to the field after halftime and completed their most impressive drive of the game, Flacco was back under center to use play-action and rolling out on consecutive throws to Ed Dickson and Todd Heap for 36 yards, helping set up the scoring strike to Mason that came from the gun a few plays later.
Flacco generally looked better under center in the second half, going 5 of 9 for 70 yards compared to 7 of 13 for 61 yards and three picks from the shotgun. Cameron showed better balance in the looks he gave the Bengals in the second half, but his continued hesitancy in using the run doomed the offense with Flacco struggling.
After a 30-yard run by Rice and Flacco’s 12-yard completion to Boldin, the Ravens had a first down at the Bengals’ 24, trailing 9-7 halfway through the fourth quarter. Rice, the Ravens’ biggest offensive weapon, never touched the ball again on the drive, as Cameron instead chose to have Flacco throw two passes to the end zone and a short completion to Heap on second down.
Yes, Cameron put it on the arm of his quarterback whose performance was sickly the entire afternoon instead of giving another touch or two to the running back who amassed over 2,000 yards of offense a year ago. The Ravens, of course, settled for a field goal. And the rest was history after a long kickoff return and Flacco’s third interception set up two Cincinnati field goals, giving the Bengals the 15-10 victory.
Sunday was not the first time Cameron and the Ravens offense have fallen into this trap, as we saw a few times last season, even when Flacco was red-hot in the first six weeks of 2009. Whether it’s the bravado and obsession many coordinators have with throwing the football or simply a desire to get his young quarterback on track, Cameron’s game plan was one of the major factors working against the Ravens in their first loss of the season.
The running game was needlessly avoided, and the looks the Ravens gave broadcasted their intentions to throw far too often.
On a day in which Flacco was irreparably off his game, it was a recipe for disaster.
And that’s exactly what we witnessed.