Ravens offense in familiar position trying to find itself

October 11, 2011 | Luke Jones

It’s that time of year again.

Just as the foliage changes colors, the Ravens once again find themselves searching for their true identity on the offensive side of the football.

At 3-1 and sitting in first place in the AFC North after the Week 5 bye, it’s not as if the Ravens haven’t had their share of offensive success through the first quarter of the season. A balanced attack via the air and ground in a 35-7 stomping of Pittsburgh and a franchise-record 553-yard assault in St. Louis certainly support that notion.

Maintaining that success from week to week and, at times, quarter to quarter has been the problem. It’s a dilemma coach John Harbaugh, offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, and the Ravens are trying to solve as they currently rank 9th in rushing and 18th in passing in the NFL.

“We talked about it with our team [Monday], you know, what’s our identity?” Harbaugh said. “Well, our identity is a lot of things, but I think first and foremost, we’re going to attack people. And what does that mean? It means you attack people running the ball, you attack people throwing short, intermediate and deep. You attack people in pass protection, you attack people by putting everybody out.

“You’ve got to be able to do everything in the National Football League, so that you don’t become one-dimensional and they can’t take away something and leave you with nothing. And that’s what we’re searching for.”

Critics look to the up-and-down performance of quarterback Joe Flacco as a major factor in the offense’s inconsistency. After playing arguably the best game of his career in the season opener against the Steelers, Flacco followed it with a two-interception clunker in Tennessee. He then turned in a 389-yard passing day at St. Louis before completing just 10 of 31 passes — including two whole quarters without a completion — against the New York Jets.

With veteran Lee Evans missing two games with an ankle injury and three rookies trying to fill the void in complementing Anquan Boldin, Flacco has completed just 49.3 percent of his passes while tossing seven touchdown and three interceptions. The fourth-year quarterback has also struggled to adjust to life without veteran safety nets Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, who were released prior to training camp.

To make matters worse, Flacco’s rapport with Boldin has yet to blossom as many expected it would without the high-maintenance Mason in the picture. Boldin has just 15 catches and 222 yards with one touchdown in the first four games.

Despite the growing pains, Flacco has shown a better presence in the pocket and a more aggressive nature in the passing attack, according to Harbaugh.

“He’s doing a great job handling the protections, he’s making plays on the run, he’s making big plays at a record clip – especially for us, since we’ve been here [and] probably historically if you look at the Ravens, I would guess. That’s real. The big-play part of it is big for us.

“I think he’s playing well enough to be 3-1, and I think our offense is more explosive than it has been in the past thanks to Joe and the other guys. I think we can attack you in more ways than we have been able to recently. But, we’ve got to keep building on that; we’ve got to become more consistent. Obviously, the completion percentage, that’s going to have to come up; we’ve got to all work on that together. Those are all the things that we’re looking at, just like you guys are looking at.”

Cameron has once again come under fire for a questionable in-game feel for making adjustments, specifically when the Ravens failed to quicken their offensive tempo when trailing late in the second half against the Titans in Week 2 and when he continued to call passing plays against the New York Jets when Flacco was clearly out of sync in Week 4.

The seat will only get hotter for the offensive coordinator if the Ravens cannot quickly find a more consistent footing offensively.

In fact, the only consistent element of a hot-and-cold Baltimore offense has been Ray Rice, averaging 134.8 yards on 20.5 touches per game. The fourth-year back has been terrific on the ground and catching passes out of the backfield, leading the Ravens in receptions and receiving yards.

Whether you believe the Ravens should be the ground-and-pound, ball-control offense of their past in support of their dominating defense or an air-it-out, aggressive attack, Rice needs to touch the ball as much as possible every single week, regardless of the opponent.

Beyond that, we’re left asking ourselves what this team’s offensive identity really is — and should be.

It’s a familiar question, one even the Ravens are asking themselves at the quarter pole of the season.

“Who are the Ravens?” Harbaugh said. “What are we going to be about? What do we stand for? How are we going to play? What can the people and the fans in Baltimore and across the country expect from us and be proud of? That’s important. It’s a good time to kind of talk about that.”

All good questions. Ones that need to be answered quickly in a season with limitless possibilities.

What should the Ravens’ offensive identity be? What in-season changes would you make, if any? What factors have plagued the offense from taking the next step in its development? Leave your comments in the space below.